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Facebook and India

I saw the movie “Social Network” in the PVR multiplex in Ahmedabad in 2010. The movie was about the founding of one of the defining online institutions of this generation, Facebook. It focused on Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and the conflicts surrounding its creation. In the same year, Facebook had set up its first India office in Hyderabad and was growing, far removed from what it would eventually become.

The movie closes with a scene where Zuckerberg sits alone after a day spent with lawyers and conflicts. He finds his former girlfriend’s Facebook profile and sends her a friend request, refreshing the page repeatedly. He had built the social network driven by anger after they broke up. The site that he had so cleverly brought out for connecting people fails him and leaves him lonely and disconnected from his girlfriend and everyone else. The message of the movie seems to be that applications like Facebook, merely create a sense of faux community, a world that is neither based on close personal affections nor possessing deep roots of humanity and hence a lie. Harvesting Facebook for ‘likes’ and ‘friends’ appears to be highly narcissistic.

The original Harvard Facebook was to enable students to use their ‘.edu’ email addresses to connect with other students at the school. Mark Zuckerberg, who was a student, found a way of integrating the campus social experience with the Internet. He wrote a new programme that made a comparison between faces of Harvard students and allowed users to rate them for attractiveness. It proved quite popular, attracting 22,000 views in its initial hours. The site, however, violated Harvard’s security policy because of copying student ID images and was shut down by the university within days.

Facebook was subsequently formed in the same year by Zuckerberg and three student friends. It became Facebook.com in August 2005 and crossed the Atlantic the following month. Statista (www.statista.com) reports annual revenue of $86 Billion in 2020. It has more than 1.84 billion daily active users. Zuckerberg is one of the super-rich of the world. 

Facebook’s birth was mired in legal issues. Mark Zuckerberg was accused of reneging an agreement entered with the Winklevoss brothers and Divya Narendra, all students of Harvard, to help them build their own social media site at Harvard.

Maya Phillips, writing in New York Times on October 20 say that Facebook “seems to highlight our isolation more than connection, and we’ve lost our trust in it. Social media uses terms of intimacy and familiarity to create the illusion of human connection despite the artifice of the medium. You “friend” someone and “like” them. You express your enthusiasm for a post by clicking a tiny red heart.” Frances Haugen, a data scientist who worked at Facebook as a product manager on the Civic Integrity team, came out in public recently with the disclosure that the social media platform has lied to the public about using hate and violence to increase traffic and engagement—and thus, profit.

Facebook collects data based on where you hover over the Facebook page. When you like an entry like consumer items, type of food, books etc. Facebook has been accused of selling this data to data analytics companies. They use this data to profile you, find your commercial and political preferences and sell this to commercial and political organizations. Even if you are a passive user of Facebook, there are pages and pages of data, as my experience proves.

The posts that you see when you open your home page on Facebook is determined by the Facebook algorithm. Every post is subjected to a ranking procedure, based on recency, popularity, content type, and relationship. Posts that a user is unlikely to engage with, based on that user’s past behaviour are discarded. Then, it runs a neural network over the remaining posts to score them in a personalised way and ranks them in order of value.

In the cyber world, we live, it is not Facebook alone which stalks us. Prof. Douglas C. Schmidt of Vanderbilt University has reported on Google’s data collection. The channels through which Google collects data are the Android phones, Chrome web browser, company’s numerous free services like Gmail and YouTube. Passive data collection happens whenever you use these applications, without intimation to you of its happening. The collected Data is regularly communicated to Google.

Another charge against Facebook is that it propagates “fake news”. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been charged with permitting fake Russian Facebook accounts to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars to spread propaganda through paid advertisements to influence the election results. 

Facebook’s business model makes it susceptible to scandals and accusations of data harvesting. One of the most notable cases occurred in 2018 when they were engulfed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The data firm was accused of creating psychological profiles of Facebook users through improper use of their personal for political use later. This data was allegedly used to help influence the US and UK elections. Zuckerberg was called before the U.S. Congress to testify in Facebook’s defence. Federal Trade Commission also ordered scrutiny of Facebook over the allegations.

Facebook and India were the theme of an article by Prof. Varadarajan of NYU’s Stern Business School written in March 2010 when Facebook opened its Indian office in Hyderabad. He cites a statement attributed to Prof. Sree Sreenivasan, a digital media professor at Columbia: “Indians take to Facebook naturally and with great passion. It allows them to do two things they love: Tell everyone what they are doing and stick their noses into other people’s business.”

Varadarajan says that India is a land of the “open crowd” whose first and supreme attribute is the urge to grow. Sudhir Kakar confirms this in his book, The Indians: Portrait of a People: “in the Indian psyche: there is a negation of separation and a celebration of connection.” Over 330 million Indians are connected through Facebook, making it the leading country in terms of Facebook audience size. Is it any wonder, then, that Facebook is flourishing in India, in the place where it rightly belongs? Even if it means that in this age of information technology and artificial intelligence, you are constantly being watched and observed by Facebook and your commercial, political, and social behaviour is anticipated through algorithms and you are fed a constant stream of fake news.

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