On 17 December 2020, a group of mostly Indian American protestors gathered outside Facebook’s headquarters in the United States. A pair of turban-clad men held up a banner telling the company to “STOP the suppression of freedom of speech.” Another protestor carried a poster exhorting passers to “honk for human rights.” Yet another waved a sign declaring, “We stand with farmers.” Three days later, demonstrators rallied outside Facebook’s Vancouver office, in Canada, with similar posters. “No Farmers No Food,” read several of the signs.
In recent years, protests in America against Facebook, one of the most controversial companies in the world, have become commonplace. But this was not a typical anti–Big Tech demonstration. The Indian Americans and Canadians gathered at the company’s gates were not there because of Facebook’s usual controversies—its surveillance of users or its role in spreading political misinformation. Instead, the immediate cause of their anger was that Facebook had suspended pages protesting the farm laws enacted in India, earlier in the year.
The new laws, hastily passed in September 2020, allowed farmers to sell outside government-regulated mandis, or markets, directly to corporate buyers. In theory, this change could help farmers by generating more competition for their products. But in practice, farmers and liberal economists believe that the laws, once fully implemented, will kill the mandi system altogether. Farmers will then have to sell directly to corporations. This, they warn, will not look like a utopia of competitive bidding. India’s biggest food companies have tremendous market power, which they could use to force farmers to accept even lower prices. This could push many independent farmers out of business. It’s a possibility that has driven more than two-and-a-half crore people around the world to strike, march, or otherwise demonstrate—making the movement, according to many observers, the largest protest in world history.
Facebook said that the December suspensions, which included the account of the Kisan Ekta Morcha—an umbrella organisation formed by the farmer unions for the protests—were enacted after automated software mistakenly found that the pages had violated community standards. The company reversed the takedowns after the outcry. But many protestors smell a deeper connection between the social-media giant and India’s new laws. In April 2020, Facebook purchased a 10-percent stake in Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio, the telecommunications arm of the Reliance empire. In addition to dominating telecom, Reliance is the largest player in petrochemicals and in retail. When its latest acquisition is complete, the company will control 40 percent—a large plurality—of India’s organised groceries sector. That could make it the biggest buyer of farmers’ products and, therefore, the biggest beneficiary of the right to negotiate directly.
Farm-law opponents quickly wised up to this possibility. In India, protestors began burning Jio SIM cards to express their anger. In America, they directed their ire at Reliance’s social-media investor. In interviews with reporters, several demonstrators in California and Vancouver speculated that Facebook took down the protest pages as a favour to Ambani. At the Vancouver protest, one person held up a sign that declared: “Modi + Zuckerberg = Ambani’s puppets.”