Recently, Ankhi Das of Facebook India resigned from the company after nine-long years of service. Earlier in August this year, The Wall Street Journal had reported her refusal to take down communally provocative statements against Muslims made by Bharatiya Janata Party’s T. Raja Singh from the social media platform. This was despite the fact that these statements had been flagged internally for running afoul of the platform’s rules on hateful speech. Reportedly, for her decision, Das had cited her interest in saving “the company’s business prospects in the country” by not “punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party”. Later in September, this had led several activist groups from across the world to demand Facebook to remove Das from her role in the company “should the audit or investigation reinforce the details of The Wall Street Journal”. While Das seemed to have succumbed to this demand without much resistance—apparently implying her admission of guilt for what she did, the grounds that compelled her exit from the company—i.e., her refusal to take down “hateful speech” as defined and mandated by Facebook in its Community Standards—do not remain that innocent either.
Let me explain.
Hate is one of the most primal human instincts. When expressed freely, it could be seditious—endorsing rebellion against the authority of the state, defamatory—tarnishing the reputation of an individual, group, or company, or socially disharmonizing—criticizing group identities and leading to mass violence in extreme cases. Hence, most jurisdictions have enacted legislations proscribing the various forms of hateful speech domestically. However, these proscriptions have not always been the most reasonable—making them vulnerable to abuse by malicious actors—allowing free speech and democracy to suffer. Proscriptions against seditious speech have ended up penalizing essential criticisms against bad government policies. Proscriptions against defamatory speech have enabled large corporations to clampdown on press reporting of their unfair business practices. Proscriptions against socially disharmonizing speech have bred the ground for perversion of identity politics—often using it as a justification for violence.
When hateful speech moved to the social media, the network effects amplified its harmful potential to an unprecedented order—as each one of us who was on it was freely lent a megaphone—without prejudice to our identities or motives. As fate would have it, many of us became the vicious carriers and hapless victims of hateful speech online. Traditional proscriptions against hateful speech offline began to seem inadequate to tackle hateful speech online. Panic followed—with proposals for stricter regulation of hateful speech online. But, only if it would have been that simple. Hateful speech is not a species of crime like murder, you see. It lacks a precise, practicable definition—which makes any attempt to proscribe it, online or offline, inevitably risk jeopardizing free speech and democracy. Hence, neither governments with their legislative ingenuity nor technology companies with their current technosolutionism can regulate it online—without unreasonably restricting free speech and undermining democracy.
Nevertheless, mandates to regulate hateful speech—if at all—should come from the legislatures—as they would at least carry the popular will. The push from various quarters for social media companies to instate and implement privately conceived rules and technical measures to tackle hateful speech on their platforms sadly discounts the immense significance of this popular will—making unelected officials within social media companies the arbiters of free speech who simply cannot be held to the same standards of democratic or constitutional accountability as governments. This could seriously risk subversion of free speech on social media platforms as and when companies running these platforms deem it expedient to save their bottom line—pushing democracy to unapologetically succumb to market forces.
This already became evident earlier this year when shortly after major American corporations joined the Stop Hate for Profit campaign declaring their decision to temporarily pull their advertising from Facebook, the CEO of the social media giant, Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s new policies to address corporate concerns over Facebook’s inability to tackle hateful speech and divisiveness in a politically polarized climate ahead of the United States presidential elections. Now, what if these new policies of Facebook, as imagined by its corporate bosses to effectively tackle hateful speech and divisiveness on its platform, actually end up subverting free speech and democracy? Who should be held accountable for that? Undoubtedly, it has to be us. We allowed Facebook to dictate our speech on its platform. We forgot that regardless of how pious Facebook’s intentions could be, they were always supposed to be primarily driven by profit-motives, not a constitutional commitment to upholding democratic values; we, the people, elect our parliaments to do that.
While Facebook India’s former Public Policy Director could have been rightly reprimanded both for her unscrupulous political partisanship and profit-motives, the demands from activist groups seeking her removal from the company—even though fair in principle—ironically, ended up penalizing her failure to meet an obligation that was set by Facebook’s corporate discretion—not Indian Parliamentary deliberation and vote.
Views expressed above belong to the author(s).