Now, it has removed a ‘false information’ tag that it had attached to a post by Assam minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, in which Sarma claims that Opposition party members raised ‘Pakistan zindabad’ slogans.
Fake news, and its amplification by social media, is, without doubt, one of the biggest challenges society faces today. Not only does that put a lot of responsibility on social media firms to find ways to police this, but these firms also need to be especially watchful of what political leaders post given their sway over the masses. Twitter has shown a willingness to don this ‘monitor’ mantle; note how it has religiously flagged almost every ‘election fraud’ tweet of the incumbent US president Donald Trump, saying the information in these tweets could be false. But, Facebook has categorically stated that it will not fact-check content from politicians—even political ads—though there was pressure on it to do this in the run-up to the presidential elections in the US.
Now, it has removed a ‘false information’ tag that it had attached to a post by Assam minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, in which Sarma claims that Opposition party members raised ‘Pakistan zindabad’ slogans. The Opposition party had claimed that the slogans raised had nothing to with Pakistan; rather, the slogan was cheering a party-leader, Aziz Khan. Third-party fact-checkers, Boom Live and Alt News, have appraised the veracity of Sarma’s claim and have found in favour of the Opposition’s rebuttal. However, after initially tagging Sarma’s post as ‘false information’, Facebook has removed the tag saying, as per The Indian Express, that this was done erroneously and politicians are exempted from its third-party fact-checking programme. Coming just weeks after the Ankhi Das controversy—the Facebook executive, who has finally resigned, had ensured no action was taken against the hate speech of BJP leaders—this reflects poorly on Facebook; Facebook’s official position is that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all and that what they say should be scrutinised and debated in public.
Even though it is desirable that Facebook join the likes of Twitter in calling out fake news, there are tricky consequences of this. For one, if these firms use editorial discretion to edit news, they are no longer ‘platforms’ and, to that extent, they can be said to be legally responsible for what is posted on them.
Two, to the extent they use this discretion, questions will be asked as to how fairly this discretion is being exercised and whether there is bias in the process. The market is trying to impose some kind of discipline—witness the number of top brands who withdrew advertising from Facebook for not curbing hate-speech—but defining the roles and responsibility, including the legal one, of social media will take time; in the meanwhile, it isn’t too much to ask these firms to look at meaningful self-regulation, if only to protect themselves from tough government-imposed restraints.