The Supreme Court said intermediaries and social media platforms like Facebook which have a "disruptive potential" must be made accountable for their actions. Referring to global incidents like the 2016 United States Presidential Elections and Brexit, the top court said election and voting processes stand threatened by social media manipulation.
"While Facebook has played a crucial role in enabling free speech by providing a voice to the voiceless and a means to escape state censorship, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it has simultaneously become a platform for disruptive messages, voices, and ideologies," the top court observed.
The apex court's observations came in its verdict upholding the summons issued to Facebook's Vice President and Managing Director Ajit Mohan by Delhi Assembly's Peace and Harmony committee that is probing alleged hate speeches that were circulating on the platform during the February 2020 Delhi Riots.
The top court's verdict made references to several global incidents like the US Presidential Elections, Brexit, the genocide in Myanmar, and the violence in Sri Lanka where blame was sought to be placed at the door of social media platforms.
Referring to the communal riots that hit North-East Delhi in which at least 58 people died, the Supreme Court said that the need to go into this incident both from a legal and social perspective cannot be belittled.
"The capital of the country can ill-afford any repetition of the occurrence and thus, the role of Facebook in this context must be looked into by the powers that be," the bench comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari, and Hrishikesh Roy ruled.
Social media manipulation threatens democracy
Social media has become a platform that not only enhances equal and open dialogue between citizens and policymakers; but has also become a tool in the hands of various interest groups who have recognized its disruptive potential, the court's verdict read.
"This results in a paradoxical outcome where extremist views are peddled into the mainstream, thereby spreading misinformation," it added.
IN 2017, Facebook told the US Senate judiciary committee that Russian-backed content targeted at least 126 million Americans during and after the 2016 presidential elections. Referring to this incident, the top court pointed out that established independent democracies also felt the effect of the disruptive potential of social media.
A year later, a whistleblower from the British Firm Cambridge Analytica revealed how profiles of more than 50 million people were harvested without their knowledge and used for target political campaigns during the 2016 US elections and the voting process of the Brexit referendum.
"Election and voting processes, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation," the top court said referring to these incidents. The bench also referred to Facebook's recognition in failing to prevent division and incitement of the genocide in Myanmar. The top court also pointed out how Facebook had to apologise for its lack of serious response to evident signs of its platform's abuse in Sri Lanka, which again is stated to have stoked widespread violence in 2018 in the country.
"This has given rise to significant debates about the increasing concentration of power in platforms like Facebook, more so as they are said to employ business models that are privacy-intrusive and attention-soliciting," the bench ruled.
The effect on a stable society can be cataclysmic with citizens being 'polarized and paralyzed by such "debates", dividing the society vertically. Less informed individuals tend not to verify information sourced from friends, or to treat information received from populist leaders as the gospel truth, the top court cautioned.
Difficult to accept the simplistic approach adopted by Facebook
In this modern technological age, it would be too simplistic for Facebook to contend that they are merely a platform for the exchange of ideas without performing any significant role themselves, Justice Kaul, who authored the verdict said. Especially when these companies are not altruistic in nature but rather employ business models that can be highly privacy intrusive and have the potential to polarize public debates, he added.
The apex court said debate in the free world has shown the concern expressed by Governments across the board and the necessity of greater accountability by these intermediaries which have become big business corporations with influence across borders and over millions of people.
It is this potentially disruptive role that has been persuading independent democracies to ensure that these mediums do not become tools of manipulative power structures, the 188-paged verdict read.
Facebook cannot take a dual stand to suit its needs
Global companies like Facebook cannot be permitted to take contradictory stands in different jurisdictions, the top court said. For example, in the United States of America, Facebook projected itself in the category of a publisher which accords them protection under the ambit of the First Amendment (free speech), it added.
"This identity has allowed it to justify moderation and removal of content," the court said. "Conspicuously in India, however, it has chosen to identify itself purely as a social media platform, despite its similar functions and services in the two countries," it said.
Thus, depending on the nature of the controversy, Facebook which has an almost identical reach to populations of different countries "seeks to modify its stand depending upon its suitability and convenience," the judgment read.
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