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Opinion

Can Facebook conquer India without upsetting the rest of us?

Mark Zuckerberg appears unwilling to trade financial gains for political neutrality

| India
Zuckerberg continues to struggle with how to balance his company's role as an international tech giant with the complex realities of local politics.   © Reuters

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg doubled down on India earlier this year, plowing nearly $6 billion into a tie-up with billionaire Mukesh Ambani and underlining India's central role in the tech giant's future.

Yet recent weeks have confirmed how problematic Zuckerberg's plans to dominate social media across much of Asia look to be, following yet another row over the company's rules, this time concerning political bias in India. And for Facebook, in common with other U.S. social media giants, these problems are only likely to grow worse.

Zuckerberg's latest travails arrived courtesy of a series of exposes in The Wall Street Journal, the first examining posts by T. Raja Singh, a firebrand politician in Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Singh used Facebook to make inflammatory remarks against Muslims, including encouraging the destruction of mosques. Facebook's internal processes said these violated hate-speech rules. Despite this, the report alleged, Facebook did not remove the content, potentially for fear of offending Modi's party.

A predictable storm of controversy ensued. The opposition Congress party wrote to Zuckerberg suggesting his company is biased in favor of the BJP. Further allegations have since emerged, including a report in Time magazine on August 27, giving more examples of posts from BJP politicians that appear to violate Facebook's rules, but which were not taken down.

A burnt police bus and other private vehicles after violence erupted between police and protesters over a Facebook post considered offensive to Muslims in Bangalore, pictured on Aug. 12.   © Reuters

Much of this criticism makes little sense, not least the claim that Facebook and its employees are systematically biased in favor of Modi's Hindu nationalist policies. Many senior Facebook staff hold liberal and secular values, so the opposite is more likely. More difficult to brush off is the allegation that Facebook is failing badly to balance its twin role as a commercial behemoth and a supposedly neutral arbiter of public space for political discussion.

Over recent years Zuckerberg has introduced an array of seemingly impartial rules to govern problems like free speech. Its task here is tricky, both given the volume of material it must police and the complexity of judging which content is dangerous. "We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone's political position or party affiliation, " said a Facebook spokesperson.

Even so, its processes remain a piecemeal work in progress, which are at least open to perceptions of political favoritism. Facebook has also demonstrated a familiar pattern of reacting slowly and defensively to accusations that its platforms are used to incite violence against minorities, such as the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Zuckerberg continues to struggle with another problem too, namely how to balance his company's role as an international tech giant with the complex realities of local politics. In most cases, it tries to produce global rules governing issues like hate speech. This has the benefit of consistency and simplicity. But expectations of what these rules should be often differ dramatically between the U.S. and countries like India and Indonesia, where politicians are less likely to back free expression if it leads to social instability or community tensions.

Having struggled with these tensions for years, Facebook seems no nearer to resolving them. Indeed, in the future, they are likely to become acute for two reasons, the first being Facebook's role as an American company. In common with the U.S. itself, India and other large Asian nations have been tilting in a techno-nationalist direction, introducing policies in areas like data localization favoring local incumbents. This has not stopped the likes of Google, Twitter, and Facebook pouring in more money. But it does mean their operations are facing ever-greater scrutiny. So long as Facebook keeps encouraging local politicians to use its platform, it is likely to face growing accusations not simply of political interference, but of political interference by a foreign entity to boot.

The second problem is Facebook's ever-expanding business model. Although India is the company's largest market by users, its roughly 350 million customers earn it relatively little money. Average revenue per user in Asia is less than a tenth of the U.S. and Canada. Zuckerberg wants to change this. Part of the rationale for his recent tie-up with Ambani in India was to help ease into potentially profitable areas like payments. But the broader Facebook's commercial interests become, the more they need regulatory approvals, such as its aim to win a digital payments license in India for its WhatsApp messaging service.

Critics of the company say as a result Facebook is turning a blind eye to hateful speech by powerful politicians, for fear that it might find its commercial aspirations blocked, allegations which Facebook strongly denies. Such a crude quid pro quo is unlikely. But it is harder to escape the insinuation that Facebook's dual roles do contain conflicts of interest, in which it at least faces temptations to bend its own rules for wider commercial gain.

What Facebook can do about this is clear enough, namely to make decisions about policing and enforcing content substantially more independent of the company and its executives. Indeed, it has gone a little way down this route, unveiling an independent global "oversight board" in May 2020 with powers to review its content decisions.

Yet for both practical and commercial reasons true independence in countries like India appears to be a step Zuckerberg is unwilling to take. Until he does, the tension between Facebook's commercial operations and its role as a supposedly neutral public forum is only going to grow more acute.

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