30/11/2015 9:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Counter Facebook Majoritarianism?

Social Media Word Cloud with Megaphone Shape
cigdemhizal via Getty Images
Social Media Word Cloud with Megaphone Shape

The intention of this post is not to suggest ways of dealing with majoritarians -- those who believe that being part of the majority in a certain domain allows them to dominate, oppress and exploit others in the minority -- on Facebook. Instead, I want to explore the policies of Facebook that facilitate majoritarianism of various kinds.

Facebook's organising logic is abstracted from the punk movement of the 1960s and its rallying cry of "body as property" and "street as stage". Newsfeed is a street that flows before you as you scroll down. You write on the "wall", fashioning yourself and performing through posts and photos. Even companies like Apple or Google perform the idea of "coolness" with a commitment to youth cultural rhetoric. Hardly surprising, given the very idea of the personal computer emerged from the hacking subculture of the 70s.

"Facebook has provided a fabulous possibility to the democratic process... the citizenry, bounded by familial, social and spatial givens, could find a new, effective mode of actualisation outside these constraints."

Graffiti has often been called "criminal art" for it questions private property -- on the very protective mechanism of that private property -- by means of anonymous authors and it has been a major part of youth movements. When Facebook extends the practice for a new kind of private-public domain, it could be blamed for neutralising the once subversive, collective and political act into a contained, apolitical, personal exercise.

But this negotiation between the first global wave of the 60s (after all, Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" in 1963) and the second global wave in the 1990s primarily in the domain of information and communication technology should not be dismissed as one merely of commercial appropriation. In this process, Facebook has provided a fabulous possibility to the democratic process: it enhanced participatory possibilities so much that the citizenry, bounded by familial, social and spatial givens, could find a new, effective mode of actualisation outside these constraints. Into the owned, consolidated and mediated networks of media, Facebook's new medium and mode brought in a global subculture that was capable of subverting the local mainstream's values. Facebook created a space to perform oneself with a connected audience; to perform against one's spatial, religious, cultural and social givens. Surely it didn't help in the rather unnecessary transcending or erasure of identities. Instead, it enabled those whose access to the domain of speech and public sphere was restrained due to various factors find collective expression -- beginning famously with the Arab Spring.

However, some of the provisions in the Facebook mechanism are threatening to question exactly this potential. If a number of people report to Facebook that you are masquerading with another name on the platform, they close down your ID and you can only get it back when you submit your identity proof. This makes Facebook a digital version of your legalised personality, draining it of the potential to defy spatial boundedness. As long as one is not harming or harassing somebody else, how does it matter whether the ID is fake or genuine? In case of harming or harassing, will the fact that one's real-life persona is replicated serve any purpose? The copy of the identity proof cannot be -- and is not --the only way to get hold of a misuser in such cases.

This replication of the meatspace on cyberspace poses other issues as well: established organisations -- political or religious -- are in a better position to mobilise mass support in online spaces as well, for they have a captive group with them. People with counter views or minority opinions can then easily be reported out and if numbers are all that matters, the manufacturers of opinions are much ahead. The necessity to present one's real-life personality shuts off the possibility for many views that can only be uttered in the underground, thanks to social taboos.

"Facebook has to emerge a system of identifying and warning those who indulge in politically incorrect attacks..."

One could ask if this is not the case with democracy also. No. Democracies are necessarily mediated by collective standards of human rights, constitutional documents and other democratic institutions. Facebook has no such mediating units. In the age of netizenship, the republic of Facebook has to introduce such means. For example, personal criticism, personal hatred and political incorrectness are three different entities. While the first is fine, the second can be curbed only through word choices when reported by individuals and for the third, Facebook has to emerge a system of identifying and warning those who indulge in politically incorrect attacks (a Jewish invention of the 1930s, political Correctness, or PC, against verbal violence is a wonderful ethical achievement that should be made use of).

There have to be certain standards for community behaviour and freezing these in linguistic, programming terms cannot be impossible. That one learning from the digital world helps here: that all behaviour can be mapped to patterns. The ethical frame of this has to be drawn.

Facebook has reiterated this aspect of its existence in many occasions: the global rainbow colouring of profile pics to celebrate the legal recognition of homosexuality in the United States can only be justified as their claiming of the legacy of the youth culture of the 60s, and not through popular support in many countries. Homophobes in India would as of today outnumber those who believe in the human rights on sexual choices.

But does all this fall flat in the face of the fact that Facebook is, after all, a privately owned public sphere (a publicised private space)? Facebook is a platform that its users partner to build; its success is entirely based on the usage by the user-base, making accountability mutual. This interdependence necessitates a movement that seeks the rights to one's digital personality, founded on the principals of a techno-ethical paradigm. For Facebook, what is at stake is a legacy it has claimed from its foundation; for users, it is saving a cool, free and innovative platform they have helped to create from becoming another boringly uncool, trapped and repetitive mainstream instrument.

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