On Monday, November 18, 2015, Facebook finally managed to steal some of Twitter’s thunder. For a change, the platform played host to a social media controversy exclusively.
It began when people started – an increasingly large number, as the day progressed – noticing that a thewire.in article shared by them on their Facebook page had mysteriously disappeared from their timelines. The article in question – “When Mr. Modi Went to London” – written by Satyabrata Pal, a former diplomat, is a scathing account of how fraught with political and diplomatic tension Narendra Modi’s last visit to United Kingdom in 2003 was.
Modi, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the international community’s hostility towards him, and even the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s supposed reservation about the visit – the article had all that it takes to make a blockbuster on the Internet. So naturally when the article disappeared from people’s Facebook page, some smelled more than a whiff of conspiracy.
From the above warning message, it seems Facebook had a security issue with an image in the article. Fair enough, for Facebook does prop up such warnings from time to time when it senses a security concern. But the obvious question: why did Facebook let users share the article in the first place if there was indeed a security issue with it? The best people to answer that would be the folks at Facebook and we did exactly that. We sent them a detailed questionnaire with the following queries:
Facebook got back to us with a template response: “The content was mistakenly captured by our spam filter and has now been restored. We are sorry for the error and inconvenience caused.”
Facebook’s response is exemplary of how it functions: with very little transparency, as is evident in its own Transparency Report. The report, which lists out the number of content restrictions from January to June, 2015 is conspicuously opaque for a “transparency” report. There is no detail about what content was actually restricted and on what grounds. In terms of explanation, this is what Facebook offers:
We restricted access in India to content reported primarily by law enforcement agencies and the India Computer Emergency Response Team within the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology because it was anti-religious and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony within India.
Which, well, pretty much translates into, we pull down stuff that the government doesn’t like. Recently, it restricted the “Atheists India” page and marked it unsafe without even informing the page’s admins. And since Facebook wouldn’t bother to explain, we will never get to know what exactly prompted the move. We’re guessing it was “anti-religious”.
Some time back, the corporation blocked the page of Sikhs for Justice”, a US-based human rights group, in India, again without telling the admins of the page the reason behind the move. And in a hilarious PR disaster Facebook, yesterday, suspended the account of a girl named Isis – later acknowledging their “error”.
In the case of The Wire too, Facebook didn’t bother informing the organisation. In fact, according to The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan, an email he sent to Facebook, seeking an explanation, elicited no response. He also stated that that there was no tech intervention on the website’s backend in between the article being blocked and then restored on Facebook. Varadarajan is not entirely convinced with the theory that the image in the article had a security issue. “Even after I had removed the image, I couldn’t share the article on Facebook,” he maintained.
The temporary disappearance of the Wire story from people’s timelines could well have been a genuine error. Some people on social media have pointed out at what could be a lapse on The Wire’s tech team, but if that’s the case, it is strange that the tech slip is exclusive to only this article. According to Pratik Sinha, who runs the popular Truth of Gujarat page on Facebook, it is likely that some people reported the article as offensive and that alerted Facebook’s security filters.
But all said and done the truth is, we will never know with certainty what really transpired, because Facebook, very simply, doesn’t want us to. As the company fights a major perception battle vis-à-vis its much contentious Free Basics services, its averseness to being more accountable to its users is rather strange. Closeness and secrecy about operations are qualities people expect from spying agencies, not an egalitarian social media platform. Hopefully, Facebook aims to be only the latter.