Chapter Twelve: Facebook enters the virtual reality

Hello, World! The top technology news in India continues to be the Pegasus scandal, with opposition parties remaining united as well as firm on debating the matter in Parliament. The government is not only avoiding a debate in Parliament but also any discussion over it in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology. Multiple petitions have been filed before India’s top court and the court has listed at least one of them for hearing next week. Meanwhile, the West Bengal government has constituted a commission of enquiry into the scandal as have the governments of many countries. Whatsapp’s global CEO has demanded a moratorium on spyware.

According to reports, Facebook’s revenue from its Indian operations has reached one billion dollars. In February, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed that WhatsApp has 53 crore or 530 million users in India followed by YouTube with 44.8 crore (448 million) users. He further added that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have 41 crore (410 million), 21 crore (210 million) and 1.75 crore (17.5 million) users in the country respectively.

So far so good. Where does this ‘revenue’ come from. It does not come from thin air. We the people, pay for it. Is one billion dollars an adequate amount for Facebook to believe that it owes it to its customers to act against misinformation and propaganda which harms democracy, causes violence, takes away power from citizens and hands it to governments and corporations? Also, is Facebook adamant to convert human beings into a bot to be subject to its narratives and virtual worlds far devoid of reality? We wouldn’t advise you hold your breath for the answer.

On the other hand while Facebook wants us as consumers to get further immersed into their world; globally we are facing large-scale challenges of social media addiction, social media as a den of misinformation and Fake news, social media as a destination of online trolling and hate speech and so on.

This is certainly good news for Facebook’s entire business model. However, let us look at this news in tandem with the recent history of Facebook in India and the major impacts it has been leaving on the Indian society and democracy.

Facebook has exacerbated the socialising aspect of us, that technically has always been in place. The revenue model of Facebook is largely through advertising. Monetising on users’ data. That revenue will not be added. Provided how the company has grown so much solely on capitalising on millions of Indian users’ data, that willingly or unwillingly has been submitted to data by these users  only. This entire revenue has increased manifold in the last 7 years when the un-democratic activities have been increased without checks and balances; people have discovered new ways to disseminate information, peddle narratives. These users have been overloaded and subjected with all kinds of information- good, bad, fake news, hateful speech, misinformation, political polarisation et.al. A news story revealed that Facebook did not take down the hateful posts against Indian Muslims during the communal violence in New Delhi, in order to protect political and economic interests. Not only Facebook but Whatsapp was instrumentalised to minutely execute the violence.

This implies that more people are getting added or attracted to social media platforms like Facebook for let’s say leisure or socialising activities, but they are also subjecting and exposing themselves to harmful content, which is an outcome/result of the entire social activities on Facebook. The entire botisation of the humans is being dangerously common. This is when multiple reports by civil society organisations have laid bare the operations and activities on Facebook vis-a-vis their community guidelines being flouted openly. 

We at DEF too conducted months long ethnographic research study on Facebook pages, groups and people, the profiles/accounts of which are probably still there.  Read the report here.

Facebook’s own data reveals that its subsidiary product WhatsApp has the highest users in India, but the nature of this application restricts Facebook to apply its regulations or community standards on WhatsApp. The one-to-one interface of the app cannot be made public for the risk of jeopardising the privacy of people. 

Adding to this Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced about his investment and future plans for Facebook in virtual reality. He says,

"In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company".

The term ‘metaverse’ refers to a shared online world in which multiple users can hang out, spend money, consume media and potentially even work and this has been coined by a sci-fi writer, Neal Stephenson.Read here:

How exactly would all of this work? Zuckerberg explains this:

“Think of the metaverse as an immersive virtual world where people can spend time together and hang out, much like you can do today with virtual reality, dialled up to 11. You’ll be able to “teleport” between different experiences”.

This announcement by Zuckerberg gives Black Mirror vibes. How, you ask!

Well, this technology if leveraged and takes a final shape will subsume into one’s life. It will create a deeper network of addictiveness to the virtual world. This will be another layer to the ways social media has been constantly shaping our lives, parasitising itself. 

This has been well argued by John Lanchester.

Ever more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens”. 

Read the entire article here:

 As the Pegasus Saga has confirmed the fears of jeopardising one’s life, the consequences of these steps and decisions by technology companies must be gauged with various lenses — internet governance, privacy and surveillance, mental health, among others. Social media has the democratising potential and that cannot be undermined but these technological advancements can also be used to hack and surveil democracy. Policy and lawmakers must move towards protecting its citizens' rights on the digital sphere by ensuring fair, equitable, constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, we at DEF are continuing to interact and understand the situation of Covid1- pandemic, subsequent effects on myriad aspects of life and vaccination drive in various parts of India. Watch here how Nuh episode14 of DEF Dialogues2.0, where Samar Khan from Nuh, Haryana speaks about the large-scale vaccine hesitancy in the district & the steps he along with his team are taking to fight the rumors, misinformation, & fake news.  

Fauzia Naseem — Woman of the Internet is 28 year old Bihar based barefoot engineer, who not only fought the pressure to discontinue her studies but successfully completed her engineering in college. How she came to be associated with DEF and what shaped her entire journey as a barefoot engineer, head to this post:

Read how DEF’s digital centers conducted online skills development sessions in 7 locations. The sessions were focused on talent mobility, and development and planning needed to adapt to the rising needs. 

This week we want to share a book which has grabbed our interest and has us intrigued.

We promise to share our thoughts on it next week. Until then, stay safe and protect your rights!

  

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.