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Analysis

Updated on: Sunday, October 17, 2021, 11:55 PM IST

Why regulating Facebook must be done sooner, rather than later, writes Harini Calamur

If Facebook were a nation, its population would be greater than the joint population of China and India. With the intimate data of over 2.85 billion people, its capacity to do harm is immense. As has been seen repeatedly, it cannot be relied on to do the right thing. It's not in the business of doing the right thing but in the business of harvesting our data and selling it to the highest bidder
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Facebook-owned Instagram lures in teenagers, plays with their minds and leads them down the path of mental health conditions. Despite the company’s internal research showing that a large minority of teen girls have body issues, depression and suicidal thoughts triggered by what they consume on Instagram, little has been done about it. Also, the more time that a teen (or anyone else) is likely to spend on apps like this, the more likely they are to have mental health issues emanating from content consumption. However, rather than deal with the toxicity that their service triggers, Facebook executives turned the proverbial blind eye to the downside of Instagram and instead, kept looking at how they could increase the time a teenager spent on the site.

The latest revelation in the Facebook saga by the Wall Street Journal, has brought the dangers of unregulated data monopolies – home. Suddenly, we are not talking about abstractions anymore, but clear and present danger for vulnerable young minds. If the story in WSJ was not devastating enough, the testimony of their source, Frances Haugen – to the American Congress was even worse. She shed light on how Facebook algorithms “harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy”.

‘Blood on her hands’

Last year, we had the testimony of another Facebook whistle-blower, Sophie Zhang, who confessed that she felt like she had ‘blood on her hands’. In a damning internal memo that was leaked by the platform Buzzfeed, Zhang spoke about how the decisions made at Facebook, with data, allowed politicians to distort the truth to get outcomes in their favour.

Before that, was the scandal around Cambridge Analytica and the election of Trump in America, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. For a new company, it seems that the damage caused by Facebook is immense, with a real-world cost to be paid by those who live in the nations damaged by these actions.

Over the last decade, there have been multiple times when Facebook has crossed the line and caused both outrage and outcry. However, apart from Mark Zuckerberg looking chastened and contrite – which he does very well – and apologising each time, there have been no everlasting repercussions that would compel Facebook to behave.

Capacity for harm

If Facebook were a nation, its population would be greater than the joint population of China and India. With the intimate data of over 2.85 billion people, the capacity of Facebook to do harm is immense. As has been seen repeatedly, Facebook cannot be relied on to do the right thing. It is not in the business of doing the right thing. It is in the business of harvesting our data and selling it to the highest bidder. The consequences of this sale are not Facebook’s concern. They are merely responsible for collecting and harvesting the volumes of data at their disposal. And this is what needs to be regulated.

When we look at Facebook, there are multiple issues caused by the platform. And multiple areas in which it can be regulated. Right now, the focus seems to be on regulating the kind of content allowed and more importantly, the kind of content not allowed. However, this is like bolting the stable after the horses have run.

Monopoly and data

With Facebook, there is the issue of monopoly ownership. Between Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp – Zuckerberg controls the most eyeballs outside China. With 2.85 billion members, almost one-third of the world, Facebook just has too much control on us. The second is the issue of data – and does Facebook really have the right to do what all it does with our data.

One part is the selling of demographic data that helps marketers make better decisions. The other is to use the data to manipulate us – which is the accusation against Facebook. And lastly, there is the issue of the content generated by bots, fakes, and haters – and the censorship on it. The bulk of the conversation seems to be on the last point, when it needs to be on the first too.

If we look at the Facebook issue, it is simply a business that has grown too big. That it is accountable nowhere. And that has run roughshod over nations, democracies, and societies – with its ability to use fakes, bots, and algorithms geared to serve up engagement. It deliberately targets vulnerable youngsters and damages them beyond measure. If human beings did this, we would face the consequences of our actions. But Facebook walks away because its CEO can look like a contrite little boy who won’t do this again. But he does. Facebook needs to be broken up. Its control on our data and what it can do with it needs to be limited. And it needs to be done before more societies burn because of Facebook’s driving need to keep its shareholders happy.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker

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Published on: Monday, October 18, 2021, 02:30 AM IST
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