15 - 12 - 2018

Is social media answerable?

Governments world over are increasingly asking internet giants to help control spread of hate and fake news.The information technology minister has asked WhatsAppto prevent hate-mongering and fake forwards. The company says it has neither control nor knowledge of the content shared on the platform because it is encrypted end to end.

How can it stop these toxic messages? Secure and encrypted communication is its core feature. Not even the police or hackers can eavesdrop. It says it is helpless. Is it really WhatsApp’s fault that the medium is being used to spread hate and bigotry?

Long ago, when there was no WhatsApp, news like “Ganapati is drinking milk” spread like wildfire across the country in a matter of hours. Even television channels covered it. So WhatsApp is not the only medium where rumours can be circulated. But it has amplified the reach and accelerated the speed of transmission. Also, it’s very easy to use WhatsApp with even grandparents comfortable sending messages. That’s the beauty of the technology. WhatsApp is used mostly on mobile phones and service providers cannot block data for only one app. So whenever there is a volatile situation, which may lead to violence, the first thing that the police do is shut down mobile internet. India has now the dubious distinction of being the world’s number one country for internet shutdowns. Such actions hurt legitimate businesses and processes, such as online banking and payments, e-commerce, ticket reservations, submission of documents online, etc. Digital India will remain a pipe dream if our only response to fears of violence is shutting down the internet.

Net access is also blocked for other reasons. Last month, Rajasthan was conducting entrance exam for police staffing, and the internet was stopped for the whole day to prevent candidates from copying through WhatsApp. How fair is that? Is it a reflection of our inability to control malpractice, or bigotry, by other means? Or is it just a lazy approach to law enforcement? Shutting the internet is the virtual equivalent of imposing section 144 (curfew) and prohibiting the assembly of more than five people in one place.

So is WhatsApp a villain or a victim? The same question applies to Twitter, where many users take advantage of anonymity and spew hate. An instant micro-blogging service, it’s very convenient to use and almost acts like a megaphone for wannabe public speakers. Twitter, like WhatsApp, is being asked to regulate content and remove irresponsible comments propagated through its platform. Twitter has its own code for users, but it is often reluctant to block users. It is an American company, believes in free speech and will not easily shut down a user. Twitter and WhatsApp servers are located outside India and are not available for scrutiny to law enforcement. Their local officers are not required to comply with a request to suspend or permanently deactivate an account.

Unlike conventional media (newspaper, radio, television), which is regulated and can be made culpable for the content it publishes or airs, social media is not covered by regulation. The absence of common rules has now become a global concern. Facebook had to face government questions about what it was doing to prevent spread of misinformation and hate. Facebook was grilled not just in the United States but also Singapore and in Europe. In the US, it was alleged that Facebook was misused to create fake accounts and giant “echo chambers” to amplify the political support for candidate Donald Trump. There is strong suspicion that the accounts were created by Russians who were successful in “hacking” US elections. A company called Cambridge Analytica “harvested” Facebook data to micro-target voters and it is under investigation.

This may be electoral malpractice, but how much of it is Facebook’s fault? If Facebook users leave a large digital trail, which is accessed or misused by analytics companies, is Facebook culpable? Google also is under lawmakers’ lens, since 85 per cent of global search queries go through Google. It has a near-monopoly in constructing profile of users based on what they are searching or browsing. These profiles are used for directing advertising, which is the main revenue source for Google and other firms. But the nearmonopoly status of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter in their respective spheres (search, communities, messaging and micro-blogging) still does not make them accountable for hate speech or fake news circulated on the platforms. Their sheer size and ability to track people and harvest digital data are making them vulnerable to increasing public scrutiny and regulation.

 

Ajit Ranade