At a meeting in New Delhi recently between a Facebook-WhatsApp representative and India’s information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister asked for little from the social media/messaging giant and got even less. The government wanted Facebook-WhatsApp to appoint a grievance officer and find a technological solution to trace the origin of fake messages. The problem is a grave one, as it involves the murder of several people by gangs instigated by so-called “fake news” sent out by Facebook and especially by its messaging service WhatsApp.
It’s possible on this devilish app for one person to easily send a message by the press of a button to 200 people, each of whom can then easily send it to 200 more people, and so on. In this way it becomes possible for evil-minded troublemakers to infect hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to believe anything that can incite them. This method is used a lot by extreme right-wing groups which form armies of “trolls” that have a sinister purpose.
The ability to tell Facebook-WhatsApp not to interfere in India’s social processes is complicated by the intimate relationship it has with the government. Facebook was invited by Narendra Modi in 2014 to prepare a campaign for the parliamentary election, when it helped develop his online presence.
Mr Modi now has 43 million Facebook followers, more than twice that of US President Donald Trump and hugely more than any other world leader.
During the 2014 campaign, Mr Modi and the BJP relied heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit volunteers, who in turn spread his message on the social media. “Within weeks of Modi’s election,” writes Bloomberg, the American news service, “Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s founder and CEO) and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg both visited the nation as it was rolling out a critical free Internet service that the government later curbed. A top Facebook official and her team also travelled to India ‘offering a series of workshops and sessions that have trained more than 6,000 government officials’.”
Prime Minister Modi’s social media reach grew rapidly and his followers increasingly turned to Facebook and WhatsApp to target political rivals. India has become a hotbed for fake news through WhatsApp, even leading to mob beatings that have resulted in several deaths. The social media, specially Facebook and WhatsApp, have been used to instigate attacks on the Opposition parties and on reporters, and some individuals critical of the ruling party have even been killed.
Mark Zuckerberg has also increasingly involved Facebook in international affairs. The latest gambit in Facebook’s interference is the fact that it has taken it upon itself to follow American foreign policy by trying to penalise countries for “inauthentic behaviour”. It has removed 652 pages, groups and accounts that originated in Iran and targeted people with news and content in the United States, Britain, the Middle East and Latin America. It had earlier similarly targeted Russia for its supposed hold on the Donald Trump election campaign. Facebook said it had acted on tips from the American government and security firm FireEye. The manipulation efforts have been concentrated on anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian efforts. It also attacked support for specific US policies favourable to Iran, such as the US-Iran nuclear deal. Despite the fake news in the social media in India and the violence against minorities that it generates, Facebook has made no attempt to stop it.
India is the largest democracy in the world. For nearly 60 years, hundreds of millions of its people have chosen the men and women to rule it — from Parliament to the state Assemblies to municipal bodies to village panchayats.
Despite its many faults and the initial scepticism of the developed world, nobody has told us how democracy can and should work in this country.
Until now, that is. Now, in an impertinent move, Facebook, a young though powerful organisation, is doing just that. Going past the abilities of the most powerful country in the world, the United States, where it is based, it is seeking to influence how people vote in the 2019 parliamentary election in India. It will try to manipulate them by presenting them the news that will make people vote in a certain way. “Indian elections are our top priority”, says the director of Facebook’s global policy and government outreach programme team.
Despite the exposure of its data being used to manipulate the American election in 2016 through feeds to 87 million accounts, and investigations by the US Senate, Facebook is not perturbed because it has powerful friends in India. It helped Mr Modi and the BJP during the 2014 parliamentary elections. The company has consistently helped right-wing parties around the world to win elections. Bloomberg reported in December 2017: “In the US, the unit embedded employees in the Trump campaign. In the Philippines, it trained the campaign team of President Rodrigo Duterte, known for encouraging extra-judicial killings, in how to most Effectively use the platform. And in Germany, it helped the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party win its first election.”
In Argentina in 2015, presidential candidate Mauricio Macri had streamed campaign rallies live on Facebook. He won. The same year, Poland’s nationalist President Andrzej Duda live-streamed his inauguration on the social network, even as he has overseen a crackdown on press freedom in his country.
Facebook is hiring many people in India for the 2019 general election and will be taking on hundreds of new employees at its headquarters in California and around the world to support Mr Modi as he makes a bid for a second term. Facebook has 250 million users in the country, besides the 200 million who use WhatsApp. With such numbers and with the technical expertise of manipulating mass opinion through a clever understanding of mass psychology, it will, if successful, help to create a radical new order in its drive to conquer the world.