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Facebook, Google and Twitter: How your Data is Used to Sell You Lies and Hate

A new report from the Washington Street Journal has surfaced with testimonies from current and former facebook employees stating that facebook deliberately left anti-muslim hate speech from BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups on their platform untouched.

The report also mentions that the senior-most policy official at Facebook had refused to take down BJP hate speech."The company's top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to [T Raja] Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence," it quotes an anonymous source.

Facebook has denied these allegations, as a spokesperson has said that the platform “prohibits hate speech and content that incites violence. “We enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position/party affiliation."

However, T Raja Singh’s hate speech on Facebook comes at no surprise, and has lasted for years, ranging from branding Muslims as traitors, to calls of violence against Rohingya Muslims. And while the report only makes reference to hate speech as far as March 2020, Citizens for Justice and Peace had previously flagged his hate speech broadcasts in 2018, and 2019. In June 2018, CJP’s Hate Watch also flagged senior BJP leader and former Kashmir minister Choudhary Lal Singh for threats that he declared against journalists. Even in 2020, Facebook did nothing as Updesh Rana, national Secretary of Vishwa Sanatan Sangh, a name that is often linked with the 2020 Delhi Riots, called for violence with Islamaphobic hate speech.

And Facebook is not the only social media platform that has shown a clear disregard for hate speech, Twitter has been accused of doing the same multiple times. When Kamlesh Tiwari slandered the Islamic religion and further called Hindus to action, twitter turned a blind eye to the hate speech on its platform. From Donald Trump’s comments calling Mexicans rapists, to Amit Shah calling Muslim immigrants vermin, Twitter has let all of this stand.

It is also important that we note how often hate speech can be traced back to misinformation and even political advertising - that may even translate that hate speech offline as it did when a news anchor from a popular Hindi tv news network went on to brand ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ as Talibani Jamaat, and fake videos alleging that muslims are deliberately spreading COVID-19 circulated on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

The Global Disinformation Order Report 2019 by the University of Oxford indicates that Indian state actors have used Facebook and Twitter to influence global audiences. In fact, Facebook and Twitter have also begun publishing limited information about influence operations on their platforms.The report also makes reference to the large number of bots used to make fake accounts in India to further facilitate this information express, that generally seems to aim at attacking and dividing communities.

In the era of digital media, most political parties now have specific wings to disseminate information and political advertisements on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, but out of all of them the BJP’s IT wing is infamous for its dissemination of political advertising. According to Facebook's AD Library Report, In the past 90 days alone, the BJP’s official facebook account has spent ₹989,272 in political advertising on Facebook (with most of it from May to July), while its arch opposition Congress and The Youth Wing of Congress combined have spent less than Rs 70,000 during the same period of time.

In 2019, Facebook conducted a purge of BJP and Congress accounts that it claimed were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior in India and Pakistan. The pages taken down included pro-BJP propaganda outlets including the verified accounts of T Raja Singh and My Nation, and several Congress supporting accounts. However, it’s is important to mention that none of this was released in Facebook’s statement, who only mentioned that they had removed accounts linked to Pakistan, and BJP accounts handled by Congress IT Cell. Facebook has had partnerships with fact checking websites in India, but still during the purge, neglected to take down repeated purveyors of fake news.

And this is not simply limited to social media sites, though they do play an extremely pivotal role. The Global Disinformation Index also mentions Google’s involvement in terms of allowing fake news sites to easily monetize on their websites. The GDI estimates nearly $225million has gone to English language coronavirus disinformation sites in the past 8 months, out of which google gave them USD$3 out of every USD $4 in advertising revenue. This further sustains disinformation sites and grants them greater access and opportunity to employ services on other platforms.

Overall market share of ad exchange, by sample domains and all domains (Source: GDI)

Now while Google, Twitter and Facebook have claimed that they are doing everything possible to stem the output of disinformation, especially during the pandemic, the best way to understand their involvement is to follow the money. The simple fact is that Youtube, Facebook and Twitter algorithms thrive on engagement, and nothing engages people more than drama in the form of inflammatory misinformed advertising, that more often than not panders to various sections of the populace. An example of this can be found in a claim that circulated in the West is that COVID-19 is spread by 5-G Network, which has prompted tech-skeptics in the UK to go so far as to cut down 5G network poles.

The cookies feature in Facebook, Google and Twitter enable sites to offer users personalised advertising. This is how, if you were to go onto a shopping website looking for an item, you are likely to find an advertisement related to that item in a completely different website later. But what this means in the case of disinformation sites is that it enables them to offer personalised advertising as well. At a congressional hearing, Mark Zuckerberg, when questioned by Sen Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, could not provide a satisfactory answer to whether Facebook fact-checks its political advertising. Considering how Google, the biggest advertiser on the web, has no misinformation policy, this method easily expands the audience range of these fake news websites. Only recently have facebook and twitter taken to fact checking advertisements, as is shown by how the Donald Trump Campaign accounts on both of these platforms were blocked when they released a video of Trump claiming ‘children are almost immune to the virus’. However, the videos still exist on Fox News’s platforms on these sites, and on Youtube.

Hence, the very nature of social media platforms amplifies misinformation and hatred that can manifest itself in the form of violence against a community. The echo chamber effect of sites like Twitter and Facebook is specifically tailored to offer users content that corresponds with their current view. What this means is that, if someone is a perpetrator of hate towards a community, they will only see content and opinions that follow along the same lines- forming an acidic concentration of hate and calls to action.. This is extremely volatile, and can manifest itself violently, as it did in the recent Bangalore riots, when a facebook post enraged a community to the extent that they marched down the streets of Bangalore during a pandemic.

It is easy to see what’s going on here. The fact remains that money matters more than anything and for these enterprises to exist, they must first be able to generate enough revenue, buzz and popularity. For this reason, fake news sites, hate speech and false political advertising will all stay, because there is more incentive to keep them than there is to remove them.

After all, social responsibility and public welfare do not pay the bills.

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