August , 2020
Public reasoning, hate speeches, and Facebook
12:36 pm

Aritra Mitra

Facebook’s investment of $5.7 billion for Reliance Jio, which also ranks among the biggest investments by the former suggests a bright business prospect of the social media giant in India. 


India is the only country other than China with more than one billion population. Incidentally, Facebook is not allowed to operate in China. In India, there are more Facebook and WhatsApp users than any other country. Facebook has over 300 million users in India, while WhatsApp is the leader in messaging with over 400 million users. That is why Facebook has chosen the Indian market to introduce various initiatives. A recent report titled ‘Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics” by Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz, published in the Wall Street Journal states that this is one of the main reasons for Facebook’s inactivity in reacting to hate speeches put up by several political leaders in India.

The Wall Street Journal report claimed that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s top public-policy executive in India, had opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to a member of the ruling party. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, said the panel would like to hear from Facebook about the report. He recently posted, “The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology would certainly wish to hear from Facebook about these reports and what they propose to do about hate-speech in India.”

The policies of Facebook over content has emerged as a major issue in the US and the company has faced regular accusations of political bias. In fact, recently, some high-profile advertisers have boycotted the platform over its handling of hateful content. According to a report published in The Washington Post on July 4, 2020, several advertisers were unimpressed with promises to better police hate speech, including labelling some politicians’ posts when they break the company’s policies. More than 750 companies including Coca-Cola, Hershey and Unilever temporarily paused their advertising on Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram. They were joined by more companies that included Walgreens, Best Buy, Ford and Adidas.

The report stated, “Kerri Pollard, Senior Vice President of the membership platform Patreon — which is pulling all of its ads from Facebook and Instagram — said that the recent string of concessions still did little to address the company’s core concern: Zuckerberg’s characterisation of free speech. The Facebook CEO has said he believes that social platforms should not fact-check politicians.”

The Wall Street Journal report informs that Facebook has repeatedly adapted its policies in order to meet the political realities in key markets. For instance, it agreed to abide by stricter hate-speech rules in Germany than in the US or elsewhere. Again, in Singapore, it has decided to add a correction notice to the stories that are deemed false by the government. In Vietnam also, it has agreed to restrict the access to rebellious political content.

In May, Alex Stamos, Director, Stanford University’s Internet Observatory tweeted, “A core problem at Facebook is that one policy organisation is responsible for both the rules of the platform and keeping governments happy.”

In India, Das lobbies with the Indian government on behalf of Facebook and as reported in the Wall Street Journal, she told her staff members that punishing violations of the ruling party would hamper the business prospects of the company in India.

India has a long tradition of exercising democracy as public reasoning. Amartya Sen in his book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ discusses the highest levels of political discussions that used to take place in the times of Emperor Ashoka and later during the rule of Emperor Akbar. Sen writes, “He (Ashoka) demanded, for example, ‘restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions.” Sen also alluded to Akbar’s overarching thesis that ‘the pursuit of reason’ rather than ‘reliance on tradition’ is the way to address difficult problems of social harmony including a robust celebration of reasoned dialogues.

At present, social media is the greatest platform for human expressions. If that is flooded with hate content that goes unchecked because of business prospects, then the very idea of public reasoning that Sen talks of will be threatened.

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