Thursday, 18 July, 2024

Facebook: A Necessary Evil?


Hira Bahadur Thapa

Since the Facebook, faced sharp criticism in 2018 following revelation of the misuse of its data both in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America, it has come under severe strain due to its role in shaping the present society. Many have now blamed it for working to maximise its profit at the expense of people's fundamental rights.
Paradoxically, Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, in his most recent address at George Washington University, has strongly defended his company's action, which he claims to be in the interest of people's right to expression. The action of the company to let political advertisements go public without moderation has come under sharp criticism by some of the candidates of the 2020 US presidential race, including Elizabeth Warren, a democratic senator from Massachusetts.
Critics have levelled the accusation against the Facebook for being politically biased. Furthermore it was criticised for failing to protect privacy of the users’ data. The discontentment was very deep in 2018 raising questions to company’s ability to protect the individual privacy which prompted the lawmakers in Europe and the US to ask the company boss to face the parliamentary hearings. There were serious questions to Zuckerberg in the concerned parliamentary committees in London and Washington forcing the Facebook chief to commit to reform the company in terms of protection of individual right to privacy.
Despite many advantages the use of Facebook provides, it has found itself in the eye of a storm in the US on the issue of how to treat political speech. In a political environment the company has been accused of amplifying disinformation, hate speech and violent content. There are examples that establish these allegations but at the same time we should not be oblivious of the fact Facebook has contributed positively to the society.
The real purpose of the founding of Facebook is to give people a voice and bring them together. Indeed this technology company's role in getting people connected to each other is commendable. Using this social network platform people have been able to launch social work campaign. When some disaster occurs this platform has sometimes been utilised to encourage people to become generous and come forward to help whether physically or financially to the extent possible.
In Nepal too, the use of Facebook is going up as more and more people are eager to open their accounts and start using the platform for socialisation. Their interest in this sector has received a boost due to advancement in internet facilities. Information technology is one of the few areas where Nepal has leapfrogged with 4-G technology already in progress in some cities. With easier access to this technology people are internet-savvy and Facebook is the app that is most popular among all.
While the use of internet has facilitated our lives in many ways enabling us to obtain services online, it has come as a cost too. If the few recent months are any guide we have noticed that some youth seem to be lured to provoke hate speech through Facebook posts directed against the political leaders, which might been either because of their growing frustration against the government or their emotional reaction to some events happening in the society.
Responding to such unacceptable behaviour of some Facebook users Nepal government has also brought a few of them to book in order that misconduct is deterred and someone's character assassination does not take place. The government has also been mulling seriously to introduce regulations that it believes are necessary to check misuse of digital technology. Not surprisingly there has been some criticism of the government move fearing that people's right to free expression might be curtailed. The related media bill remains pending for the time being though no government in the world permits people use information technology to create disinformation campaign.
This is exactly the situation in the US where presidential election is planned for next year for which primaries are in full swing for both the Republican and the Democratic Party to finally select their national candidates. Lawmakers, especially from the opposition Democratic Party, are raising concerns and one senator has even compared Facebook to “Disinformation- For-Profit- Machine" as reported by Cecila Kang and Mike Issac in the October 17 issue of The New York Times.
There has been growing apprehension about Facebook's role in the US. Senator Warren has tweeted that “Facebook is actively helping president Trump express lies and misinformation. Facebook already helped Trump once. They might do it again and – profit off it". No less concerned are the European governments about Facebook's challenges, which are piling up. Considering the likely consequences of uncensored information released by Facebook as per its founding policy, the European High Court ruled recently that individual countries could order the company to take down posts not only in their own countries but elsewhere.
As criticism mounts the company is under the moral pressure to reform but its boss has defended its policy of not blocking political advertisements conforming to constitutional right of people to freely express their opinion. Viewed against this approach it seems that traditional media companies like various television channels differ from Facebook. Traditional companies apply moderation in the political speech they release while social media company declines to do so. Facebook believes that comments by political leaders are beneficial to hear from the people's perspectives although they sometimes carry some elements of falsehood.
As a social media company Facebook has not faced much regulation and therefore there is a cloud over it. Truly speaking, Facebook is a useful tool to promote socialisation and connectivity. What counts more is how we use the platform.

(Thapa was Foreign Relations Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008 to 2009. He writes on contemporary national and international issues. He can be reached at