Connecting Regions of Asia.

Facebook faces metaverse of trouble in India



Facebook will announce its new name this week, in line with its re-alignment of company focus from social media to the next-gen technology of metaverse. But, this may not be enough to protect the internet giant from the reputational blackhole it finds itself sinking rapidly into in its largest market, India.

As if confrontations with political leaders and civil society activists alongside legal wranglings in Indian courts over the new IT intermediary rules were not enough, fresh details emerging from leaked internal documents this week have exposed even more damning revelations about its social media practices in the country. It showed how Facebook’s algorithms were tuned to propagate fake news, violent images and jingoistic posts, all likely causes for heightening civic tensions.

The internal reports, dubbed the “Facebook Papers”, were accessed by several news organisations. The New York Times alleged in a piece updated today that the papers, “provide stark evidence of one of the most serious criticisms levied by human rights activists and politicians against the world-spanning company: It moves into a country without fully understanding its potential impact on local culture and politics, and fails to deploy the resources to act on issues once they occur.”

The report cited an internal study, noting that Facebook was “struggling to efficiently remove hate speech against Muslims”. 

“Facebook’s problems on the subcontinent present an amplified version of the issues it has faced throughout the world, made worse by a lack of resources and a lack of expertise in India’s 22 officially recognized languages,” it added.

In recent years, Facebook and its messaging service WhatsApp have been accused of causing mob lynchings and other violent incidents in India.

Interestingly, Facebook did not deny the revelations. In an email sent to this correspondent Monday evening, the company instead listed the efforts it has been doing in the country to tackle hate speech and fake news—technology to trace hate speech in Hindi and Bengali, hate speech classifiers in Tamil and Urdu as well as human reviewers for 20 Indian languages ranging from Malayalam to Mizo.

“We’ve reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half this year. Today it’s down to 0.05 per cent.” said the statement. “Hate speech against marginalised groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online.”

The new damning revelations are just the latest in a string of bad news that has dogged Mark Zuckerberg’s brattish global giant that is in the crosshairs of many countries looking at ways to rein in big tech and their overarching influence on public opinion. Countries like Australia and France have brought in new laws forcing Facebook to share revenue with conventional media, while countries like South Korea and the UK recently placed hefty fines on it. On Capitol Hill, US lawmakers and the world were shocked last month over the revelations of Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, even if she more or less only revealed what many suspected till now—that the company consciously pushed a divisive narrative to get more profits, even if such content led to social strife and even violence.

The India-specific allegations do affect the company more than it cares to admit. Being shut out of mainland China, India is its biggest market, with 41 crore users for its marquee social networking service as of July-end. WhatsApp is even bigger, with users numbering 53 crore, or just a bit less than half of the nation’s population. The company’s revenue from India last year was over $1 billion.

Zuckerberg might hope to wipe the slate clean with a new name and advance into the metaverse, but it’s unlikely his woes, in India and the world, will leave the Menlo Park-based corporation in peace just yet. “While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conducting regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” admitted the Facebook India spokesperson in the statement.

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