If you want to bury a controversy, come to India. There is a convergence of interests here. A government acquiring a reputation for minority-baiting and a social media company being charged with allowing hate-mongering on its platform can get together to exonerate each other by building an alternative narrative. A warm fuzzy one about how Indian school children can hear thunder using virtual reality (thanks to a clever partnership with CBSE), how surgeons can watch and learn about knee surgery, or how small businesses can prosper with the small business loans Facebook is set to give to kirana shop-owners and others already using WhatsApp. It is not clear what virtual reality will do for small businesses that need real-world clientele. But Meta is now at hand!
Mark Zuckerberg’s cold, calculated genius was in evidence when the crescendo of whistle-blower revelations about Facebook’s monetizing of online hate were at their peak. He suddenly announced that Facebook was metamorphosizing into Meta, a futuristic avatar that will drive the use of virtual reality. (The name is drawn from Metaverse, a coinage that belongs to a novel called Snow Crash, published in 1992).
No more responding to controversies about content moderation, even as a second whistle-blower surfaced with more India-focused revelations.
The Meta-launch married politics with technology last week, showcasing a gush-driven platform called Fuel for India. This is the second such event. At hand were ruling party politicians, Rajeev Chandrasekhar and Smriti Irani, as also the chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, who talked of WhatsApp usage in Odisha. Concepts such as tech for good, conversational marketing, and social commerce were thrown around, and the minister of state for skill development and information technology said indulgently that India would be in full tilt partnership with companies such as yourself as a force for good.. Lawmakers in the United States of America who have been skewering the Facebook founder in weeks of Congressional hearings would have gagged after hearing that. India’s movers and shakers are remarkably non-judgemental when it suits them, and with endorsements like that you can ignore the critics sniping from the sidelines.
With over 700 million internet users, India was made out to be a WhatsApp nirvana. Every day, six million reels are made in India, we were told. “It is the biggest country in the world for us!” said Meta’s founders. Isha Ambani and Akash Ambani, Reliance heirs, were “super excited to be there” and spoke of the JioMart experience through WhatsApp and the advent of Jio mobile on WhatsApp recharge. Social entrepreneurs talked from their lovely living rooms and poolsides about their success in connecting rural suppliers to markets via WhatsApp.
Metaverse will be about the next chapter of the internet, said Zuckerberg, adding, “I’m really excited about the role India will play in building this future.” ‘Excited’ and ‘awesome’ are adjectives that he and his CEO, Sheryl Sandberg, use constantly when they are here. India’s importance, they emphasize, is not only because of the sheer size of the market but also because of the creator and developer talent pool to be found here, including the gaming-developer community.
That may well be true. But it is also important because India is not coming down hard on social media as governments in other parts of the world are. Narendra Modi, his party, and his followers used WhatsApp to the hilt in the build-up to the 2014 election and thereafter. While other democracies — Australia and some in Europe — bat for mainstream media, which is losing its viability on account of Google and Facebook using media content without paying media companies, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in India is not about to shed any tears for the viability of mainstream media. Like Donald Trump, our leaders have little use for mainstream media but plenty of use for social media, which can be bent to their purposes. After Modi changed the rules of media engagement, there has been a steady process of delegitimizing the mainstream media and increasing the reliance on social media. In 2018, Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s IT cell, predicted that the forthcoming elections would be fought on the mobile phone and could be called ‘WhatsApp elections’.
A 2017 report by the Omidyar Network showed that the Facebook family — Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram — accounted for 95 per cent of social or communication app usage in India at that point. This alone explains why India should be the first point of call for the platform’s top honchos.
But that dominance may be slipping.
A Forbes analyst explains why Zuckerberg has been working towards launching a virtual reality app. Facebook as a company has been losing younger users to YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat, even if Instagram retains its popularity among them. Buying up another competitor to solve the problem is not likely given the anti-trust issues Facebook faces in the US. So the company may be focused on building a new app to win back young people. The writer quotes Zuckerberg telling a Wall Street conference call: “We’re retooling our team to make young adults our north star.”
The same analysis explains why the money it will cost is not an issue for Zuckerberg, who estimates the concept will cost $10 billion in the first year and more in future years. Facebook took in $29.1 billion in profits on $86 billion in sales last year, says Forbes.
Metaverse, according to Zuckerberg, is going to be the successor to the mobile internet. He has been exploring the potential of virtual reality for a while, having invested in a VR headset manufacturing company in 2014 and bought other VR-focused start-ups subsequently. But analysts point out that others, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are also looking at this space. And that making it deliver returns on its investment will not be easy.
For now though, Meta’s primary goal is to leverage this new vision to change the global narrative on Facebook which has not been flattering in recent months. And to co-opt only-too-willing partners in India for this reinvention.
(Sevanti Ninan is a media commentator and was the founder-editor of TheHoot.org)