From the Viewsroom

Fake news vs free speech

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 08, 2018

Why Facebook finds itself at an unlikely intersection

Facebook’s recent travails, which compelled its founder Mark Zuckerberg to issue an unqualified apology to its users in recent days, represent a wholesale loss of innocence for the enormously popular social media platform. Not too long ago, Facebook epitomised nothing more than benign ‘timepass’ frivolity: the most virulent thing you could do on it was to throw sheep at your friends or give in to mind-numbingly tedious rounds of Candy Crush gaming. Over time, however, it drew criticism from pop-psychologists for its channelling of a common-enough narcissistic streak in society, where every moment of our I-me-myself lives had to be validated by a super-abundance of ‘Likes’.

But even that sociological failing seems pretty tame compared to the notoriety that Facebook has lately acquired, ever since evidence surfaced in the US that its back-end advertising algorithms had been cynically milked to target anti-Semitic hate campaigns at white supremacists. Just as sensational has been the revelation that shadowy Russian operators used the platform to implant a flood of fake news and otherwise interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. All this has amplified calls, in the US and in continental Europe, to subject Facebook and other such platforms to greater regulatory oversight.

Facebook’s travails will surely get regulators in India salivating at the prospect of imposing yet more controls on social media platforms.In the past, they have too easily allowed themselves to go down the slippery slope of illiberalism: in the guise of targeting hate speech, they have throttled free speech in its entirety. True, these outlets have become de facto media platforms that serve as the primary source of information for many who wallow in ‘filter bubbles’. Yet, even given the heightened mischief potential of unfiltered ‘fake news’, the far greater danger is that regulatory overreach will cramp the already imperilled notion of free speech. Even a medium that traces its roots to frivolous Farmville games qualifies for that protection.

Associate Editor

Published on October 05, 2017

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