The case of the Facebook controversy in India
On 27th October 2020, Facebook India’s Ankhi Das stepped down from her position as the Public Policy Director. This came weeks after being questioned by the Parliament’s Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill, about whether Facebook showed favouritism in dealing with hate speech – a recent controversy that the social media giant was embroiled in (ENS Economic Bureau 2020). Ankhi Das acquired prominence over this issue because she, being a top executive at Facebook, refused to take action against a few politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including T. Raja Singh, despite all of them having been deemed by the company’s employees to be in gross violation of its policies on hate speech (Purnell and Horwitz 2020). Hate speech moreover aids political parties like the BJP in creating antagonisms or polarizing the population — a populist strategy used for garnering votes (Mirchandani 2018, 3). Given such allegations on the Public Policy Director and the adversarial effects of hate speech, it is vital to note and understand the role that private enterprises play in making public policy. In this vein, private governance may be defined as the decisions and decision-making processes of private entities that have an effect on the quality of life and behaviour of the public (Rudder 2008, 901). However, the understanding of private governance and public policy made by private enterprises suffers from ‘linguistic poverty’ (Rudder 2008, 906). In this essay, we wish to argue that this linguistic poverty facilitates polarization, as seen in the case of the recent Facebook hate speech controversy, through which politicians gain popular authority and legitimacy.
Private governance, as mentioned before, involves policy-making by private firms that affects the public at large. Traditionally understood, ‘public policy’ is often spoken of only in relation to the government. However, rules and policies made by private entities often have an effect on the day-to-day lives, decisions, and behaviour of the public. For example, dress codes mandated by private entities have an effect on the lives and behaviour of the public. It is also vital to note that private governance, as has been described here, is different from government acting through private enterprises – for example, outsourcing the construction of roads or bridges (Rudder 2008, 901). While this also occurs, private governance, in this case, refers to public policy-making by private firms; such policy-making may or may not be related to the government. Given that such policy-making affects the lives and behaviour of the public at large, it may be useful to account for it in the public policy discourse.
Private governance suffers from ‘linguistic poverty’ in that it lacks language with which it is to be understood (Rudder 2008, 907). Although private enterprises undertake a lot of government-like policy-making, it goes unconsidered in the discourse around and discipline of public policy. As a result, linguistic tools to describe and understand private governance are not developed. This makes it difficult to develop theoretical frameworks, procedures, and rules that govern, through the lens of public policy, the decision making of private firms. Therefore, concepts regarded traditionally under public policy, for example, the concept of ‘public interest’, are not regarded in the realm of private governance. Instead, private enterprises are free to purely concern themselves with profit maximization and flourishing of their business.
Actions undertaken by Facebook, in terms of policies that affect the public, fall in the category of private governance. Therefore, policies on hate speech and implementation of the same also lie in the category of private governance. This is because these policies have an effect on the conduct and behaviour of the public, albeit on an online platform. In this sense, Facebook’s hate speech policy is public policy. Moreover, understanding of policies by private companies like Facebook, as already mentioned, suffers from linguistic poverty; there is a lack of language with which one may develop an understanding. Language and understanding would be accompanied by the development of a broad theoretical framework that perhaps could be overarchingly applied to policy-making processes in all private firms. Given the absence of this language and framework, we can say that public policy-making processes in private firms do not operate in the same way as processes in the government do. With respect to hate speech policies, since Facebook does not have to align its policy-making and implementing process with a broader conceptual or theoretical framework, such policy-making and implementation is left entirely at the discretion of top executives like Ankhi Das. Since private firms function with the goal of profit maximization, their policy-making and implementation aligns instead with this goal.
Since ‘hate speech’ is being discussed, it may be important to understand what the term means. Loosely defined, hate speech can mean expressions or utterances that incite harm on people based on their social or demographic identity (Mirchandani 2018). Hate speech is a powerful tool under populism – a thin-centred ideology through which politicians create antagonisms between what are perceived as homogenous groups (Mudde 2004). Antagonism or polarization is enforced by populists in order to create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative, along with a sense of solidarity or support amongst the majority ‘us’. A populist party like the BJP can use hate speech to create antagonisms, for instance, between the Hindu majority ‘us’ and Muslim minority ‘them’. Through a populist polarizing measure like hate speech, parties like the BJP can gain popular authority (through votes) and legitimacy (Mehta 2012).
When organisations like Facebook and officials like Ankhi Das condone hate speech, they allow for and facilitate polarisation. Given the linguistic poverty in understanding public policies of private firms, the making and implementation of hate speech policies by Facebook is not measured against a standard governing public policy-making in private firms – such a standard does not exist. Rather, such policies merely align with the hate speech laws and policies of the government. While in India there is no law that explicitly defines hate speech, there is ‘reasonable restriction’ on freedom of speech. Moreover, some judgements like Shreya Singhal v. Union of India – which declared Section 66(A) of the IT Act, which was instated to punish those who spread threatening or false information via communication devices, as unconstitutional on grounds that it impinged on freedom of speech – deal with hate speech (Mirchandani 2018). Largely, the government, with respect to policies like hate speech, leaves it up to the private firms to employ an abstract self-regulatory mechanism with which to govern their policy-making and implementing process. Neither are such self-regulatory mechanisms accompanied by any binding document, nor do they enforce accountability on private enterprises. When the party populating the government, like the BJP, actively utilizes and benefits from certain kinds of hate speech, a private company like Facebook will align itself with the interests of the BJP. Since there is an absence of a binding regulation, Facebook is free to support the party in power in an attempt to acquire political clout.
Given that under private governance Facebook and executives like Ankhi Das have a profit motive, aligning their interests and decisions with those who have political power in the country helps them maximize their profits. This is because the powerful, under a liberal democracy, have popular support. By supporting those with political power, Facebook will, in turn, have access to this support. Having the support of the masses will help in building profits. In fact, Ankhi Das once said that going against the BJP “would damage the company’s business prospects” (Rafae 2020). Since the BJP will benefit from polarizing hate speech because it can be employed as a populist strategy, condoning such hate speech would help Facebook maximize their profits.
While we have argued that condoning hate speech by Facebook facilitates polarization, it is important also to briefly state that linguistic poverty also facilitates this polarization. If there was no linguistic poverty in understanding private governance, Facebook’s policy-making and implementing mechanism for hate speech would have been measured against a standard, i.e., they would be following certain rules and procedures. This is because there would exist language with which a regulatory process could be instituted or a binding document could be drafted. Furthermore, public policy itself, being a new field in India, lacks understanding and clarity. This adds to the linguistic poverty, making the exercise of discretion highly important for private firms in making public policy decisions. Excessively exercising such discretion, while having an underlying motive of profit maximization, is what results in condoning and promoting polarizing hate speech. In this manner, polarization is facilitated or enabled by linguistic poverty.
As a remedy to such linguistic poverty, it is vital, firstly, for private governance to be included in the discourse around and the discipline of public policy (Rudder 2008). In doing this, an important dimension in policy-making – made by private enterprises – that affects public behaviour will be incorporated in the traditionally understood discipline of public policy. Additionally, this would allow for the development of a language to understand private governance and conceptual or theoretical framework under which policy-making in private enterprises can be assessed. For example, policies made by the government can be understood under the Lowi framework, or methods such as incrementalism or bounded rationality can be used to make and implement policies in the public sector. Since private governance affects public choices and behaviour, by including it in the mainstream public policy discourse, similar frameworks and methods may be devised through which private governance can take place. Private governance or policies, like on hate speech, made by companies like Facebook, and implementation of the same would be understood and assessed under these frameworks. Such frameworks may moreover be devised while keeping public interest – given that it is a concern of public policy – in mind, thereby developing frameworks with not only a motive for profit maximization.
This inclusion of private governance in the public policy discourse may be complemented by establishing a regulatory mechanism that guides policy-making in the private sector. Since there only exists a self-regulatory mechanism under which policy is made by private enterprises, it allows for large amounts of discretion, and decision making is driven purely by the profit motive. By establishing a regulatory body that enforces rules, that are not just market or business-related, policy-making and implementation for hate speech in the case of Facebook will be supervised and controlled to ensure that unfair practices do not occur. This will be done through the articulation of what ‘unfair practices’ entail with language that helps us understand private governance; this language will be accessed by the regulatory body. In this manner, the promotion of hate speech by Facebook and similar companies for profit maximization may be prevented. It is vital to note here that the guidance of a regulatory body will not just be restricted to hate speech policies or social media giants. Instead, it will expand over all enterprises performing private governance.
In this article, we have argued that linguistic poverty facilitates, in the case of the Facebook controversy, polarization, through which political parties like BJP can gain popular authority and legitimacy. Hate speech becomes an important factor to consider under contemporary politics and policy-making as it encourages politics of a post-truth variety. In this variety, one can observe a clear departure from objectivity. Moreover, information – not backed by evidence – replaces knowledge (Visvanathan 2015). This results in an epistemic dissonance, wherein truth is lost and public opinion is shaped by appealing to sentiment. Through the development of language and an ability to understand private governance, the spread of post-truth politics will be curbed.
Srinidhi Balaji is a student at National Law School of India University. Her background is in Philosophy and she is mainly interested in gender. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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