Tech Talk | How Dominant are Privacy, Misinformation & Mental Health Issues in Facebook and Instagram?


Meta, the parent company of two major social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, finds itself hitting the headlines almost every year for wrong reasons such as privacy, misinformation and mental health.

Recently, in a judgment against the social media network for breaking European Union’s data privacy standards, Meta was fined a record $1.3 billion and told to cease moving data obtained from Facebook users in Europe to the US. This happened because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which came into effect in 2018.

But when Meta was asked to reveal details about the storage locations of data collected from Indian users, it did not respond. The company is not bound by any law to either respond to a query like this or erase someone’s data from the servers if they are requested to do so.

However, the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, which is similar to the EU’s privacy law, may change the scenario. The Bill talks about the “right to correction and erasure of personal data” but also includes cross-border data transfer under specific terms about which some have raised questions.

Coming back to the point, as per an expert, the terms of service for these social media platforms typically state that user data may be used for analytical or performance optimisation purposes by the company and this strongly suggests that the company has access to user data both within and outside the country. Although issues like data safety and privacy policies may not worry the majority of Indian users, with growing digitisation, the awareness ratio is also expected to grow.

But there are a few more concerning factors which may directly impact Indian Facebook and Instagram users. One of these issues is mental health. In 2021, according to reports, Facebook’s internal research about the impact of Instagram revealed that the social media network knew that it has a negative effect on teens’ mental health. But Facebook later said: “It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls.”

However, the American Psychological Association’s website says: “Studies have linked Instagram to depression, body image concerns, self-esteem issues, social anxiety, and other problems. By design, the app capitalises on users’ biological drive for social belonging — and nudges them to keep on scrolling.”

It is worth mentioning here that as more Indians are becoming ‘Digital Nagriks’, more issues about such platforms are becoming the norm, including scams and fake news. For example, researchers found a malware campaign started by cybercriminals in mid-February using the popularity of ChatGPT.

It affected 13 Facebook accounts or pages, with over 500K followers, including one Indian page which had over 2 lakh followers. The cybercriminals also ran Facebook ads promoting the “latest version of ChatGPT, GPT- V4″, which, when downloaded, installs malware on the victim’s device.

A social media expert recently revealed that random profiles verified with a Blue Tick are messaging users with a phony link, redirecting them to install malware.

In the case of misleading information, in March, a Washington State University-led analysis found that Facebook users were more likely than Twitter and other social media users to view fake news regarding the 2020 US presidential election. This shows that the company, which faced a series of questions during US Senate hearings regarding misinformation and user safety, is not doing enough.

The issue of misleading information in India led the government to introduce a new fact-check unit. The IT Ministry recently notified revisions to the Information Technology Rules, 2021, allowing the ministry to designate a fact-checking committee to determine whether online content related to the Union government is correct.

So, if any content is flagged as false by the fact-checking unit, platforms like Facebook and Instagram will be compelled to remove it, or risk losing their safe harbour, which protects them from third-party content lawsuits.

Also, it is worth mentioning that considering the way these platforms were dealing with public grievance reports, the government earlier decided to create the Grievance Appellate Committee, which is currently dealing with 62 cases and has disposed of 46 cases.​

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