Social media community guidelines are important, but not perfect in emerging markets
On September 5, the High Court bench of Justice Md. Mozibur Rahman Miah and Justice Kamrul Hossain Mollah, during a public interest litigation hearing, accused BTRC of being reluctant to remove defamatory, viral content from social media. The bench, citing the media's attempt to assassinate Pori Moni's character, also went so far as saying that the BTRC "can instantly stop defamatory materials from spreading online. But it doesn't -- as if it enjoys them" and waits for specific High Court directives before taking any action. In response, Posts and Telecom Minister Mustafa Jabbar said that BTRC does not have the power and capability to block any content from the platforms. "The government is helpless," said Jabbar in a press briefing, adding that Facebook and YouTube often do not respond to Bangladesh's requests to remove defamatory content that do not violate their community guidelines.
To the naked eye, this back-and-forth exchange appears to be nothing but a game of tag -- the last entity with the blame is "it" -- with no tangible impact on cyber governance and assessment frameworks. However, it requires nuance to understand how social media giants calculate risk assessment and the significance of community guidelines that determine when social media companies act.
THE COMMUNITY POLICY MONOLITH
The recent events in Afghanistan, for instance, impacted Bangladeshi politics and security landscape just as much it did in the EU countries. The effects are often inter-temporal -- felt through the years with moments of high risk and patches of downtime. Undoubtedly, there are differences in culture, customs, politics, and policies between Bangladesh and the EU. The one thing that remained the same and universal, however, is our reactions to the events.
Just like any other country, Bangladesh remains watchful, attentive to the developments, and willing to be open to an inclusive, transparent and open government of the people. We know this because governments are monolithic institutions, capable of negotiating a solution back-and-forth within the cabinet before declaring it a policy that acts as the single source of direction, which we may call a rule or a law.
Social media, by contrast, has the responsibility of hosting myriad opinions by various people from all walks of life. By definition, or by how the world has gradually sought to operate itself, a privatized party like Facebook or YouTube is highly discouraged to negotiate between themselves and reach a conclusion on which opinions to keep and which ones to discard. With dynamic world events constantly impacting freedom of expression, social media companies were pressed to find a middle ground. The objective was simple: to protect users from misinformation, hate speech, and any phenomenon that negatively impacts not only the world, but the reputation of the companies. They cannot police opinions, but they can view reactions to major events of the world as universal, and "standardise" their impacts to determine the contours of safe online behaviour.
UNIVERSALITY OF REACTIONS
In October 2020, a French school teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by Islamists for displaying a caricature of Prophet Muhammad in the classroom. After the initial shock-and-awe, social media in France, and particularly in Europe, was dominated by hyper-conservative criticism, and the oft-appearing hate speech, regarding the EU's decision to take in Muslim refugees. The objective for social media giants back then was to monitor content so the online hubris does not spill over into offline violence on the streets of Paris.
Soon after, in a presidential address, Emmanuel Macron regarded Samuel Paty as a "quiet hero" of freedom of speech. Within days, social media in Pakistan burst up, calling for anti-France protests on the streets, demanding the government expel the French envoy. The objective for social media giants, even in Islamabad, was to stop the online fire from translating into offline violence.
ADHERENCE TO THE MONOLITH
This standardisation -- focus on mitigating the risk of offline violence -- is boldly reflected in community policies, where social media, like Facebook for instance, invests heavily on the "mitigation" of harm stemming from the universality of reactions. While the nature of harm differs in different markets, the implications of such harm remain the same, and social media companies will argue that a large chunk of their risk analysis involves mitigating the implications as much as possible. Through years of trial-and-error, these media giants have codified their community standards so that sociopolitical shocks, anywhere in the world, can be translated into actionable insights that contribute to the prosperity of independent and resilient communities without the need for intervention. This is why, when governments take up their requests with the social media giants, a general line of response is to rely on the significance of their community policies.
Are the community policies sufficient? Emerging markets in South Asia, Latin America, and Africa are constantly challenging the fortified walls of these community policies as if to say that a monolithic set of policies do not adequately represent the plethora of intertwining problems that persist in these regions. Most recently, for instance, there was content circulating on Facebook that accused Afghans leaving the country of being "traitors for deceiving the Taliban and fleeing to live as second-class citizens in other countries". Off the bat, the content visibly praises the Taliban's regressive and hyper-conservative actions before taking power and dehumanises the plight of the Afghan refugee. It is clear that the post advocating for and praising Taliban violence and, at worst, risking calls for offline violence violates Facebook's community policies. Facebook, however, deemed that it does not.
In a closely-knit, constantly changing world, marred with new and unique threats, there is certainty that community policies require constant revision to reflect the state of affairs of the world and be representative of the various communities the social media companies operate in. It will be naïve to expect each market has its community policy and operation teams based in the region. But to fully realise the benefits of standardised community guidelines, the new emerging perils need to be mitigated with a closer, more localised focus.