Time To Break Out Of The Big Tech’s Stranglehold On Social Media; An Indian Alternative Could Be The Answer To Its Assault On Free Speech

Time To Break Out Of The Big Tech’s Stranglehold On Social Media; An Indian Alternative Could Be The Answer To Its Assault On Free SpeechGoogle, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp cannot claim they are just tech platforms; they are enablers of content.
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  • Big Tech seems to have taken the role of an adjudicator in what constitutes fake news, often based on its own political preferences

    Tech monopolies must not have the ability to meddle in India’s elections. As citizens of a sovereign nation, we deserve better.

Imagine that a trusted friend sends you a message using some messaging app, a message that reliably exposes a political party that you were contemplating voting for.

In the cacophony of polarised news, you value such information and you think it is worthwhile forwarding it to a group of friends, who are also as undecided as you are. You forward it, see two ticks appear, think you have done your bit to help spread awareness. You get on with your life.

But, how do you know that the message was really delivered to the friend? Do you call your friend to check if they received the message?

You only ever do such a thing with old people, where you send an email and then call them asking to check the email. But with friends? Never! What if the messaging company wants to prevent this message from spreading? What if they ‘accidentally’ drop a few messages like these and call it a ‘bug’?

Now, you may say this sounds farfetched. But, is it? Think about it. WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app, is owned by Facebook. For most people, it is incredibly easy for Facebook to figure out their political leaning via algorithms.

Similarly, using techniques like machine learning and natural language processing, it may be an easy undergraduate project to figure out the leaning of any political article you may be sharing.

That is, even rudimentary applications of the existing technology can enable Facebook to slow down the spread of messages it considers inappropriate. They already do that in a limited form by putting a cap on how many people you can forward a message to at one point if the message is shared many times before. They also decide what to show you on your feed based on your likely engagement. And they even brazen it out by virtue-signaling calling it an “effort to limit fake-news”.

Facebook is hardly unique in possessing this ability. Take Twitter. You tweet something that, you think, is worth sharing. You see the tweet posted on your feed. But, how do you know that others see it? Again, it is incredibly easy for Twitter to ensure that you do not get to see what it does not want you to see. Twitter, allegedly, already practises this by curbing the influence of handles such as historian scholar @TIinExile, popularly known as ‘True Indology’, who routinely exposes propagandist bigots.

One could argue that these are private companies whose services you use for free. They are in no way beholden to offer you freedom of expression. It is their platform, and hence their rules. For one, they could make these rules explicit. But then again, they aren’t the only private companies burying things in fine print.

The larger point is that the extent of power that these mediums wield today should send alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. To appreciate the threat, consider the following: in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 29 seats had a less than 10,000 margin of victory, 52 seats had a less than 20,000 margin of victory.

An implication here is that to swing 52 seats, one needs to swing at most 10,000 votes per constituency — about 0.7 per cent of votes (on average) per constituency. Subtle persuasion methods — eg, promoting videos of a certain leaning targeting specific voters in specific constituency — can be deployed to achieve such an end. It is entirely irrelevant whether these companies will indulge in wrongdoing of this sort. That they can is the problem.

It is increasingly appearing that the information democracy from about 2009 to today — an era where mass leaders could bypass the agenda setters and take their message to the public, an era where fake news peddling celebrity journalists would be routinely exposed — was an aberration. Big Tech seems to have taken the role of an adjudicator in what constitutes fake news, often based on its own political preferences.

It will be difficult for these tech companies to resist the seductive temptation of establishing favourable leaders in various democracies. Whether they will do so out of their volition, or through some more sinister designs is a matter not worth speculating over. That they pose an enormous threat is the only truth.

The road ahead is less obvious. One alternative is suggested by the University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales. He argues that we should restore competition in social media by assigning property rights of ‘social graph’ — all the digital connections that individuals make—to the individuals. To quote Zingales,

If we owned our own social graph, we could sign into a Facebook competitor — call it MyBook — and, through that network, instantly reroute all our Facebook friends’ messages to MyBook, as we reroute a phone call.
If I can reach my Facebook friends through a different social network and vice versa, I am more likely to try new social networks. Knowing they can attract existing Facebook customers, new social networks will emerge, restoring the benefit of competition.

Ideally, India should have its own Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram. Our private players have the capacity to build such platforms. The challenge will be to get users on it. Perhaps, prominent Indian leaders, actors, sportspersons should move their accounts to these platforms and encourage other users to migrate.

A perfectly reasonable counterpoint would be, “But how does replacing US tech giants with equally powerful Indian tech giants help democracy?” The key difference is that, unlike a foreign promoter, the promoter of a company incorporated in India can be tried and punished in India.

A somewhat academic tendency is to dismiss these concerns as ‘conspiracy theories’. Any arguments that advocate waiting for more ‘evidence’ of wrongdoing on the part of big tech are dangerous. By the time we may have enough evidence, we may have lost any ability to act on it. Better to be safe than sorry on issues of national security and sovereignty.

The price of inaction is enormous. Tech monopolies must not have the ability to meddle in India’s elections. As citizens of a sovereign nation, we deserve better.

Aditya Kuvalekar is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Carlos III Madrid. He works on game theory and market design.

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