Social media by no means altruistic, can polarise public debates: Supreme Court

Express News Service
NEW DELHI: Stressing the importance of social media, the Supreme Court on Thursday said such platforms have become power centres unto themselves, having the ability to influence vast sections of opinions. Dealing with a plea related to the summons issued to Facebook by the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee in connection with Delhi riots, a bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy commented, “Facebook has the power of not simply a hand but a fist, gloved as it may be. They cannot wash their hands of the issue as this is their very business. Their role is not as innocuous as they are seeking to contend,” the court said with of Facebook’s role in Delhi riots.

The observations are significant as social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have often argued that they are just intermediaries and cannot be held liable under India laws for misuse/abuse of the platform by the users.

“These platforms are by no means altruistic in character but rather employ business models that can be highly privacy intrusive and have the potential to polarise public debates,” the bench said. Highlighting the spread of misinformation on such platforms which has created ripples across the globe, the court elaborated that even “election and voting processes, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation”.

“The concern is whether the liberal debate which these platforms profess to encourage has itself become a casualty.” The bench held that for intermediaries to say they can sidestep this criticism is a fallacy, as they are at the centre of these debates. “It has to be noted their platform has also hosted disruptive voices replete with misinformation.

These have had a direct impact on vast areas of subject matter which ultimately affect the governance of states. In this modern technological age, it would be too simplistic for an intermediary like Facebook to contend they are merely a platform for exchange of ideas without performing any significant role themselves, especially given their functioning and business model,” the court said.

The bench observed governments have expressed concern for necessity of greater accountability by these intermediaries which have become big business corporations with influence across borders. It said algorithms, which are sequences of instructions, have human interventions to personalise content & influence opinions.