how social media fared in 2020

2020 was a pivotal year for Facebook and Twitter, testing social networks’ ability to contain hate speech and misinformation. But were they successful?

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2020 was a pivotal year for Facebook and Twitter, testing social networks’ ability to contain hate speech and misinformation. The companies have put in place various measures, including flagging misleading tweets and introducing new tools to stop fake news. But were they successful?

The tech giants have been criticized around the world for not being able to stop misinformation on their platforms, especially with the US elections and the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. In India, too, the companies were criticized differently.

In early October, Ankhi Das, the former director of public policy at Facebook India, South and Central Asia, said she would be leaving the company to pursue her interest in public service.

This has been criticized by India’s opposition lawmakers for the social network’s approach to regulating hate speech in the country. She had refused to use hate speech on some Hindu nationalist individuals and groups because she feared it would hurt Facebook’s business prospects, the Wall Street Journal reported in August.

Actions in India

Facebook was convened by the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) in September to discuss how the company allegedly failed to regulate the content in favor of the country’s ruling Hindu nationalist party. It was also asked how Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram stored and used data about its users.

Also read | How Targeted Misinformation Works on Indian Social Media

Ajit Mohan, head of the company’s India office, said the platform had stayed true to its design of being “neutral” and “impartial”.

Twitter, on the other hand, began flagging tweets with misleading content in April. In November, Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT director, tagged the tweet about the recent farmers’ protest as “rigged media” on Twitter, sparking a public debate. Some even saw it as a Twitter moderating its own content and thus overriding its role as an intermediary.

A similar case occurred in early December when senior journalist and writer Salil Tripathi suspended his Twitter account after posting a tweet with a poem about the demolition of Babri Masjid. Several users, including writer Salman Rushdie and Congress Director Shashi Tharoor, used social media to defend the journalist, calling him “an outrageous act of censorship.” Tripathi’s account was later restored.

In another episode of social media regulation, Facebook posted Kisan Ekta Morcha’s page, which posted updates on farmers’ protests. The California-based company said the site violated “community standards for spam.” This raised further questions about social media’s bias towards the ruling party. The site resumed later in the day after the news sparked widespread public outrage.

Antitrust hearing

Facebook is already in a flood of cartel cases worldwide. Several countries are questioning the tech giant’s policies and behavior. The first hearing of the US Congress in July of this year focused on Facebook’s takeover of the image sharing app Instagram and how the company suppressed competition. The company was also asked about its filtered political viewpoints arising from moderating content related to the coronavirus.

Also read | Here’s why you should read more about Facebook’s rejection of the documentary The Social Dilemma

Social Media and Section 230 in the US

Facebook, like most social media platforms today, is a child of Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act of 1996. The law was a major issue that year as the law generally relieved Internet companies from liability for material users free mail in their networks. US lawmakers met to review the implications of this law and revise the legal protections for online speech.

The way ahead

The discussion around section 230 is likely to deepen as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seek to contain social media platforms. This can lead to an increase in censorship cases on the Internet. While a platform can proactively clean up content, it also increases arbitrariness and ends the conversation with no tangible benefit, said attorney Apar Gupta, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, in a separate article for The Hindu.

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