#IsupportDigitalIndia – Facebook’s Big Swing at #DigitalIndia and The Miss ?

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PM Modi’s recent visit to US has been the talk of Digital town with the spotlight on #DigitalIndia , global giants Microsoft, Google and Facebook have shown avid interests in facilitating the dream of Digital India. The Launch of Facebook #IsupportDigitalIndia filter sparkled a debate on the underlying intentions to promote Internet.org in India.

For the uninitiated, Facebook launched Internet.org in Feb 2015 and received backlash from the masses citing it to be a violation of Net Neutrality. Save The Internet campaign mobilized the various stakeholders of Indian Ecosystem and created a formidable support for Net Neutrality in India. This indeed was a setback to zero rating services like Airtel Zero and Facebook’s Internet.org.

In an open letter to the Founder of Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg,  Save The Internet Foundation quotes

It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services. Further, we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact, it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.

Zuckerberg was resilient enough to address the concerns in post published on Hindustan Times stating that “Net neutrality and universal connectivity must co-exist” Facebook has been promoting the proposition of Internet.Org with Newspaper Ads and DVC’s, but the campaign has not really picked up as per expectations.

There’s more to Facebook’s Internet.Org which meets the eye

Analysts and experts believe that with the limited bundle of services which would be available under ‘Free Basics’, Facebook is trying to build a parallel internet world where in two-thirds of the population are conditioned to believe and approve information which is disseminated.

Since the fortune lies at the bottom of the pyramid Facebook is planning the path to Digital Dominance with the discretion on the number of sites which will be included. The Concerns on privacy implications, exclusion of vital web entities which include Facebook’s competitors like Google, YouTube, Twitter etal puts it into a slippery turf.

As they say “Little Knowledge is dangerous” with limited access to sites Facebook is trying to impart the little sense of knowledge amongst the socio-economically deprived. This might also make way for an alternate socio-economic divide where in the Urban Indians have access to the Internet while the Rural Indians are still graduating towards Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg opines that with a connected world we can increase social inclusion and close the digital divide. Vijay Shekhar Sharma from PayTm believes that Intenet.org would be the poor internet for poor people.

Research reports add to the claims of disguised intentions of user acquisition, digital dominance and unfair application of the data collected.

Ask Helani Galpaya, a researcher with policy think tank LIRNEasia , who in 2012 came across a curious anomaly while researching “bottom of pyramid” telephone users in Indonesia. When asked questions about the Internet, most of the respondents said they didn’t use it. But when asked about Facebook, most of them said they used it often.

“In their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” concluded Rohan Samarajiva, LIRNEasia’s head.

This isn’t specific to Indonesia alone, as Christoph Stork, a researcher with Research ICT Africa would find out too. Stork was flummoxed when he saw that more Africans were saying they had used Facebook than they had the Internet, a statistical impossibility.

(Excerpts from Hindustan Times Post – Dear Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is not, and should not be the internet)

If the intent is to build a connected world to empower the society, the connectivity should be seamless without any restrictions whatsoever.

#IsupportDigitalIndia a massive activation to make Internet.org happen?

The spotlight turned towards Facebook’s Internet.org with the invitation for PM Modi to attend the Facebook TownHall Q and A during his US Visit.

The sequence of events since then have been amusing and they remind us of lessons in communication and Social Media which when adapted in the right stead lead to a desired closure.

  • Connect with Influencers – The practice of Influencer Marketing which falls in line with the diffusion of innovation theory is age Old.

In this case, the biggest influencer at the moment in India is Narendra Modi, people follow him religiously no medium can match up to the impact of an inclusion of Internet.Org in PM’s Mann Ki Baat. Facebook made an attempt to connect with our Influencer with a gratification which is very rare a spot at the Facebook TownHall. Time will tell if this attempt would change the direction of winds.

  • Earn Media – Media Advocacy theory adopts a strategic use of mass media and community advocacy to change the social environment or advance a policy initiative. Media helps in bringing issues of importance to light commonly known as agenda setting.

Apparently Facebook flew a group of Elite Indian Journalists to Facebook HQ prior to the much awaited Facebook Townhall. The obvious motive is to influence their opinions with information which could lead to a positive sentiment towards the new positioning of Internet.org – ‘Free Basics’

  • Spot the trend and Jump on a Bandwagon – The Balance Theory proposed by Fritz Heider explains the concept of endorsements and associations. The likeliness or dislike towards a person, concept or phenomenon is motivated by the thrust to attain psychological balance. If we simply apply it to celebrity endorsements.

If a person likes Amitabh Bachchan, and Amitabh Bachchan endorses a product. The person tends to like the product more in order to achieve psychological balance.

However, if the same person already dislikes the product being endorsed by Amitabh Bachchan he may begin disliking him to achieve psychological balance. The Balance varies according to the amount of affinity or distrust the person has.

Applying this to the case at hand, Narendra Modi’s vision for Digital India is a huge hit. Corporate Institutions, Brands, and Individuals have shown immense faith in Digital India. From Facebook’s perspective, it was a master stroke to jump on the Digital India Bandwagon with #IsupportDigitalIndia because this gives them some hope to turn the negative sentiments towards neutral to positive. But this backfired as per the postulate of Balance theory and hence thorns of apprehension have been drawn against Digital India initiative as well.

Facebook has applied the above-mentioned lessons in the best way possible to make Internet.org happen, but this is what they missed

  • Principle of Convergence – If the intent is to build a connected world which facilitates better opportunities for the deprived then why not keep it fair, free and open for competitors as well.
  • Transparency – Internet.org or Free Basics does not entail the procedure of listing a site as per the scheme. Nor does it explicitly mention the privacy implications of the data collected with the virtue of time spent by people on the platform.

Closing Thoughts

The wave of analysis and speculations has stormed the internet in the past few days. Activists, Practitioners, and experts have been monitoring the issue with varied lenses and it would be interesting to see if this new positioning around ‘Free Basics’ and the massive #IsupportDigitalIndia activation result into a Tangible ROI for Facebook in India. Apart from the two learnings I have stated this one fits in perfectly to the scenario

“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”

Time for Facebook to go back to the ‘free basics’, Learn, Adapt and Evolve

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