Facebook vs. Democracy

Monday, 15 February, 2016

“In our post-internet age, labor and commodities have been replaced by attention and connectivity. By controlling these, Facebook in many ways has its algorithm decide what is important in the future. I am positive that its role as a gatekeeper of information will cause much deeper problems in the long term,” so writes Om Malik in a hard-hitting post titled “Nothing Is Free, Not Even Facebook Free Basics.”

The background here is the fiasco of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative to bring internet access to the poor in India. Had it succeeded, the users would have found themselves in the a world where Facebook was the centre of their online universe, allowed to see only what Mark Zuckerberg defined as the internet. On top of that, many Indians felt Zuckerberg and his team didn’t understand the politics, the culture and the history of country that is deeply suspicious of global corporations. What the Silicon Valley coders couldn’t comprehend is that the East India Company had been there and done that. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, as they say in New Delhi.

This just in: “Facebook says India MD Kirthiga Reddy’s US move not linked with Free Basics.”

But back to Om Malik. His worries about Facebook are not confined to India. A much greater threat looms in his adopted homeland, he contends:

“In a more draconian scenario, it isn’t hard to imagine Facebook helping sway the outcome of elections. In the U.S., election-spending and Facebook are a potent mix, as we are made aware every day. In emerging economies, where money has an outsize influence on election results, can Facebook stand up and say no to dollars? Can it say no to money — anyone’s money, for that matter — if its overall growth starts to stall?”

Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreessen are on the back foot now, which is an unusual and unpleasant place for them to be. They’ll rebound, no doubt, but a little more humility and lot more honesty is now needed from Facebook. With great power comes great responsibility.

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