20 years ago, “Web 2.0” ushered in social media. It was free, it was fast, it was fun. Anybody with a phone could take part, and almost everyone did. It instantly connected friends, families, communities.
Major political events like the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt briefly showed the potential of interactive, user-generated content to be a liberator of the oppressed. The voice of the voiceless.
But in the last decade, social media platforms like Facebook have increasingly become the very opposite of what they were expected to be, of what they set out to be.
Instead of expanding our worldview, their algorithms have made us inward looking. Instead of bringing people closer, they are dividing societies. Instead of informing us off the real, they have become the fountain of fake.
Hundreds have died across the world over what they saw or read on Facebook, and what they received or forwarded on WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook. And instead of helping democracies, the tech platforms have become a tool of authoritarians, from the United States to Brazil, from Sri Lanka to Myanmar.
India is no exception.
Facebook’s particularly shady role in Indian politics—hunting with the majoritarian hounds and fuelling the communal fires—had been blazingly apparent for years. But it took a devastating expose in The Wall Street Journal in August 2020 to reveal the extent.
Over the last 20 days, WSJ and Time magazine have done three stories (here, here) revealing the proactive and partisan role played by Facebook’s chief India lobbyist Ankhi Das in allowing hate speech on the platform to the advantage of the BJP.
The stories have also exposed how deeply and personally she was invested in the Narendra Modi election campaign, while disparaging the Opposition.
Yet, except two stories, one in The Economic Times and another in The Indian Express, almost no Indian media outlet has been over-eagee to dig into such a goldmine.
The Mumbai-based independent journalist Kunal Purohit has been examining the role of social media platforms in the rise of Hindu nationalism and Hindutva hate crimes for a while now.
He has written for The Wire on the issue, and Article 14. Last week, he deposed before the Delhi Assembly committee investigating Facebook’s role in fanning the flames during the February 2020 riots.
A recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism award, and The Statesman award for rural journalism, Purohit’s work now appears in publications ranging from the South China Morning Post to Foreign Policy.
In this episode of J-POD, Kunal Purohit discusses the whys and wherefores of the WSJ expose; the extent of Facebook’s involvement in the Modi government; mainstream media’s reluctance to probe further and what young journalists can do to keep the story alive.
Why Facebook is doing business with BJP: “Every media organisation of some repute in India has tilted to the right and towards the ruling dispensation. I don’t think they all believe in the ideology, it’s very convenient. Capitalism is making the best of such a moment, where affiliation and alignment to one ideology will benefit you commercially at this point profusely.
“It’s like The Times of India also having Mirror Now, a liberal avatar of Times Now. Or Anandabazar Patrika which has The Telegraph but also ABP News which does some of the brazen pro-ruling party stories.”
Why mainstream media has not probed WSJ revelations further: “The media, given the state it is in, has deliberately not wanted to prod into issues which might be an embarrassment to the BJP or its members. Facebook has created partnerships with various media organisations, funding them to train journalists. It has sponsored media events across newsrooms. It’s the classic advertiser-newsroom conundrum.”
Facebook networking hampering coverage: “Many big editors across India, especially in Delhi, many big journalists, are extremely close to public policy executives of tech platforms. One reason is the partnerships, the other is the cosy comfort. That is stopping us from investigating these links further. That’s where young journalists should scrutinise these developments.”
What young journalists can to keep the story alive: “Young journalists who want to understand tech and how social media platforms work, should try and follow pages which run party propaganda not just for BJP but also for Congress, to understand the thoughts and activities of those who are on these pages.”
Track Facebook pages for hatred, disinformation: “One very easy test a lot of journalists can administer to FB is to see the content on these pages and groups and report this content, and see what comes off it. If the content is xenophobic or stoking anger and hatred against minorities, spreading disinformation. It can be done at a very accessible level. The results may not be surprising but will offer a window on how FB thinks, works and acts.”
Dig into Facebook data: “Facebook is opaque, not at all transparent, prefers to speak to select journalists in Delhi. It is extremely difficult to get data around FB’s activities, and to have clinching evidence of complicity. Facebook doesn’t give out too much data on its own but because of the scrutiny over the years, some bits are trickling out.”
Look at ad spends, identify ownership: “Look at Facebook’s own data like, say, ad spends. Try to see who are the advertisers, the patterns of advertising, who are the big players, the surprising players. Try and identify ownership patterns within FB networks, like say the pages. Try and find out who is running these pages, who is maintaining the social media presence on behalf of whom.”
Watch Kunal Purohit‘s deposition before the Delhi Assembly panel: