The subtext of the statements can be debated but the sentiments, at least when expressed by the first category of critics, cannot be ignored.
Millions of messages are forwarded on WhatsApp or shared on Facebook and other social media platforms every day. Many of them are dangerous either because of their inherent naiveté or intentional malice. The first kind, for instance, asks you to try home remedies without realising the complications they could pose for a particular individual. The second type weaponises social media to trigger strife and incite outright violence.
It is in this backdrop that many have welcomed WhatsApp blocking more than two million accounts in India in May and June. Its ever-growing reach has transformed the messaging platform into a behemoth that earns a handsome profit and simultaneously increased its capacity to disrupt. We in India have had enough flare-ups, even conflagrations triggered by platforms such as these. Hence, governments and civil society should prod them into initiating efforts and earmarking resources to address the calamitous disruption that they are wreaking.
However, the criticism that the lawmakers are throwing at these firms appears to be diversionary grandstanding. Is it enough to badger these corporates to prevent such incidents? A firm like Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, can at best remove an agent of havoc, but nothing stops that person from opening a new account either on the same platform or another and continuing more of the same. So, is it possible for the platforms to address this? Whether it is incitement or the resultant mob violence and riots, the most effective deterrent is prosecution and conviction, regardless of religion, caste or political affiliation of the culprits. That job falls squarely on the government, not private firms. After all, we don’t expect the local mall’s security guard to maintain law and order in the neighbourhood.
As social media firms deal with regimes that are increasingly displaying authoritarian tendencies, unquestioned cooperation with the State might be a tricky terrain for such companies to navigate. The way out for them is to ensure that increased vigilance is part of their corporate ‘social’ responsibility. It might not be too much to ask them to earmark a portion of their profits towards such initiatives. These profits are primarily earned by operating in unstable environments where public opinion forms the content and engagement with it brings in the revenue.
In the interest of social harmony, such firms should remove objectionable content and ban users who repeatedly violate the norms – even if that means standing up to the powers-that-be. The government, on the other hand, should prosecute those whose rhetoric and actions are a clear and present danger to society. Identifying such individuals will not require the firms to stretch themselves, as instances of such hateful content go viral and are thus readily available. As members of an informed civil society, we must not allow the social media companies to shirk from this responsibility or the government to pass the buck.