In May 2020, former president Donald Trump wrote on Twitter and Facebook, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” encouraging the use of lethal force against Black Lives Matter protesters. Mark Zuckerberg, in communicating with his staff about why he decided not to take down the post, compared it with a statement the company removed from its platform earlier that year in India.
Kapil Mishra, a Delhi politician from the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, had given the Delhi police an ultimatum a few months earlier on Twitter and Facebook. If the police didn’t clear the streets of protesters demanding a withdrawal of a discriminatory citizenship law, read the now deleted post, Mishra and his supporters would get out there and do it themselves.
And he wasn’t alone. Other members of India’s Parliament, such as junior finance minister Anurag Thakur, were caught on tape at an election rally in Delhi, urging their supporters to “pump bullets” into “traitors.” When questioned by the media, Thakur suggested that they merely reflected the mood of the public in Delhi.
In the days after Mishra’s statements, mobs of BJP supporters carrying firearms, iron rods, and petrol bombs began attacking Muslim neighbourhoods, killing 53 people and injuring another 250 in the heart of India’s capital. The Delhi government’s fact-finding commission, headed by an advocate of the Supreme Court, couldn’t have been clearer about what happened: “An incendiary public speech by BJP leader and former MLA Kapil Mishra on 23 February 2020 clearly incited violence in words and intent,” the report read.
Yet politicians like Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, and Parvesh Verma — all implicated in the government’s report — still have their Facebook and Twitter accounts, where they can spread their anti-Muslim message to their combined hundreds of thousands of followers. One post was removed, but their accounts remain. The social media platforms did nothing to block or limit their ability to make similar violent threats in the future or publicize policies that subscribe to Hindutva, an explicitly Hindu-supremacist ideology, despite India’s secular constitution. If these companies can silence a sitting United States President — the world’s most powerful official — why can’t they curb politicians with far less power, like Kapil Mishra?
There’s an obviously cynical conclusion to make: Donald Trump has lost his political power, while Kapil Mishra is only gaining his. The way that Facebook and Twitter have treated these two politicians highlights the fact that the platforms exist to protect the powerful and their own profits over everything else.
Populists don’t gain power in a vacuum. They build it using all the advantages that social media gives those who are not constrained by facts and are willing to make open calls for violence. The problem is not freedom of speech— that is sacrosanct. The problem is that, in the pursuit of profit, social media giants will amplify incendiary voices, giving them the freedom to reach more followers. It’s a systemic risk that governments need to tackle with emerging legislation.
Social media algorithms are the automated editors that decide what you see in your feeds. They are built on massive volumes of data that platforms extract by surveilling everything their users do online. These algorithms are built to maximize our attention and keep us clicking and scrolling so that people can be shown more ads. This addictive design has not been programmed to discern what is true or what is false, what is harmful or what is not.
My organization, Reset, was built to tackle these flaws at the heart of how social media is built. We advocate for stronger enforcement of rules and standards that can severely curtail the amplification of disinformation and hate. And we want to ensure that voices from the “rest of the world” are not lost in regulatory discussions of systemic risk. While the most stringent regulations are currently in places like California and the European Union, the worst harm is happening far away from the West.
In India, staff at Facebook can’t and don’t want to challenge political power that produces industrial quantities of hate and disinformation on their platform. In 2019, I was very surprised to find Facebook’s team in India asleep at the wheel ahead of a major “citizenship” counting exercise that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of genuine Indian citizens in the eastern state of Assam.
The government, with the help of the media, painted Muslim Bengalis in Assam as immigrants from Bangladesh. India’s home minister called them “termites” and threatened to throw them out of the country. Despite strong parallels to how Rohingya Muslims were disenfranchised in Myanmar and Facebook’s disastrous role in fanning the flames of genocidal violence there, the company hadn’t seemed to have learned any lessons. It had no plan in place to tackle the huge spike in hate speech and lies that accompanied the citizenship exercise, because they had barely any content moderators who could read and write in the Assamese language.
Public statements by Facebook claimed that what people say and do on its site is merely a mirror of society. If Donald Trump incites a whole movement of white supremacists, it is because white supremacy exists in American society, or Hindu supremacy exists in Indian society, as demonstrated by members of India’s own democratically elected parliament. There is, of course, some truth to that, and traditional media has also helped fan the flames of hatred.
But the “passive mirror” defense lodged by major social media companies is one of their greatest lies. Facebook’s own research in Germany showed that 64% of people who joined an extremist group did so because of Facebook’s recommendation tools (the company later paused the feature). In 2014, a former Facebook product manager wrote that Facebook carries out experiments on users all the time — to make them click the like button, click on more ads, and spend more time on the site.
The violent events in Washington on January 6 played out under the full glare of the global press, forcing platforms to enforce their own policies on inciting violence. But in the U.S. as well as around the world, social media is still enabling the rise of more Donald Trumps, like Kapil Mishra or Anurag Thakur in India. It won’t stop unless we hit “reset” on Big Tech.