Facebook: A coercive political actor?

Facebook's influence in the Kashmir conflict

Marco D'Alessandro

Society and culture, International relations | South Asia

7 September 2016

If Facebook could stack an election against the likes of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump, would you want it to? Would you want it to quash the threat of global terror by employing algorithms to censor content which demonstrates partiality to flagged organisations or individuals?

Facebook may seem to be an innocuous and convenient communication platform, however it has become apparent that Facebook has the means to transform these questions into reality. In the majority of situations the only mechanism capable of constraining Facebook is corporate morality.

The website’s capacity to intervene in political activities last gained media attention earlier this year when it took a partisan and coercive approach to conflicts between Kashmiri separatists and Indian forces.

In early July, The Guardian sourced numerous reports claiming that videos, posts and accounts had been deleted for displaying content relating to the death of Burhan Wani. Wani lead the Hizbul Mujahedeen, an organisation seeking Kashmiri independence, viewed by many in India as a terrorist group but as freedom fighter by Kashmiris and Pakistanis.

The deletion of content was extensive. In one instance a journalist’s account was deleted under Facebook’s no tolerance policy for support or praise of terrorist organisations, due to the inclusion of a photo depicting the funeral of Wani.

Many argued that this and other examples of censorship, such as a week-long block imposed on an account for providing a link to a blog mentioning Wani, were political in nature. Facebook’s policy caused deep frustration in Kashmir, depriving people of a forum many had used in the past to voice opinions about regional politics and tension.

Image taken under a creative commons license from Flickr

Image taken under a creative commons license from Flickr

From the nature of censorship incidents uncovered by The Guardian it’s easy to see why many Pakistanis and Kashmiris believe that Facebook took a pro-India stance and actively participated in political suppression, extending beyond its duty under its own policy to shield users from extremist content.

Facebook’s actions in Kashmir provide a complete contrast to the defined status of political neutrality the website has adopted in the United States.

Evidence emerged in 2012 that Facebook had conducted an experiment aimed at discovering whether the site could be used to affect voter turnout in that year’s Federal election. An academic paper published on the study found that Facebook’s “I voted” initiative could have raised participation by as much as 0.6%.

Earlier this year speculative articles were published contemplating the website’s capacity to rig an election. The site has approximately 1.59 billion users worldwide and the tweaking of algorithms to alter what users see therefore has strong potential to influence thought globally. After Zuckerberg publically made anti-Trump comments the question was raised by employees as to whether the company should attempt to stack the election against him.

This issue was suggested as a discussion point in regular Q&A sessions between employees and Zuckerberg, although it did not receive adequate votes to be the topic for that week. However, a statement made by Sheryl Sandberg, a high level company employee, suggests that there is no intention of doing this: “Facebook would never try to control elections.”

Facebook’s 2012 experiment appears not to have favoured any one party. Despite this, if Facebook wished to do so, the only significant constraint would be their own morality. Facebook is protected by the First Amendment in the same way a media outlet is, unconstrained by the law in the censoring of content.

According to Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, the only time in which a legal constraint would apply is if Facebook were to collude with a candidate.

“If Facebook was actively coordinating with the Sanders or Clinton campaign, and suppressing Donald Trump news, it would turn an independent expenditure (protected by the First Amendment) into a campaign contribution because it would be coordinated—and that could be restricted.”

Despite Facebook presenting a stance of neutrality this does not seem to extend beyond the borders of the United States or perhaps other western nations, as evidenced by Kashmir. The role the website will take outside of this somewhat protected bubble is uncertain. Facebook’s neutrality is already undermined by existing algorithms which filter content to display posts based on your ‘likes’ and interests, meaning most users are deprived of exposure to conflicting views.

The capacity of Facebook to influence a wide range of political matters has become evident in the last few years, however the implications of this remain unclear, its potential remaining in its infancy. Despite choosing to make a public commitment to relative neutrality in the US the site’s involvement in the quashing of Kashmiri political discourse is worrying.

Facebook’s capacity to yield influence and its recent actions surrounding tensions in Kashmir demonstrate that it has now become a coercive political actor, almost devoid of legal constraint. The question of how or if it should exercise its considerable influence is one for each individual and begs another important question; how is Facebook influencing you?

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