From the importance India holds as a market for Facebook, to the recent controversy involving a Facebook India public policy executive, Facebook India head Mr. Ajit Mohan touched upon a lot of important topics during a recent interview. Mohan was interviewed by TechCrunch as part of their annual event, Disrupt 2020. Here is what Mohan spoke about, as he touched upon a wide range of topics – referencing his plans for Facebook’s future in India, how they are adapting the Facebook India business to the market’s very specific needs, and Facebook’s deep dive into Indian politics.
Why India Excites Facebook
When asked about why the social media giant gives special focus to our country, Mohan said that India is one of the company’s largest market. “The largest number of people on Facebook and WhatsApp are in India. Instagram has grown really fast, so that really sets the context for our family of apps in India."
However, he said that the excitement for India goes beyond the massive user base the country has provided. He said that Facebook is deeply immersed in the cultural fabric of India. Further, he spoke of Facebook’s “values of free expression", which seemingly align well with the open democratic system of India.
Another thing that excites Facebook about India is that the country is going through a very ‘exciting’ social and economic transformation, where digital services play a key role. Mohan supported his point by mentioning how in the past four years, more than 500 million people in India have come online. “If you look at Facebook’s family of apps, we believe we have a useful role to play in fuelling that transformation," Mohan said.
Massive users, limited revenue
On India not contributing enough to Facebook’s bottomline, Mohan said that he believes that Facebook is still consequential, since most marketers, big or small, look at Facebook and Instagram as the first force to drive their marketing agenda. Further, he said that advertising revenues still have a lot of room for growth. “Our lens is really long term on India. We do believe that in the next five to 10 years, as India’s GDP grows, and as marketing and advertising gets larger, I do feel comfortable that we will continue to be a consequential player."
Mohan further said that a lot of conversation at Facebook about product innovation does not really start with how much revenue it makes. Instead, it invariably tends to focus on the positive consequence of the company chasing its mission, the company trying to play a constructive role in connecting people, and in helping businesses grow.
He also said that apart from revenue, pilot projects like WhatsApp’s partnership with JioMart present an opportunity to build an India-first model, then experiment at scale. In a world where it succeeds, Facebook sees a huge opportunity to take those models global. Pilots like the WhatsApp-JioMart initiative, Mohan said, might throw a revenue opportunity while making shopping easier, hence helping businesses (including Facebook’s own) grow.
“Aside from being invested in India for the long term, we see a very enabling role in driving India’s digital transformation. We also believe that there is a lens where we believe we can pilot models in India that we can take to the rest of the world, including a lot of markets where the learnings from India apply in a very consequential manner."
“We continue to be very fiercely excited about advertising as a revenue opportunity in India as well," Mohan said.
A political tool
When asked about the recent controversy surrounding the social media giant, and its content policies, Mohan repeatedly stressed on the importance of being an open, neutral, non-partisan platform for Facebook. “I think we have a deep belief and conviction that our enabling role is as a neutral platform that allows speech and expression of all kinds, including political expression," he said.
He further said that there are a lot of guidelines in place to make sure that Facebook enables the diversity of expression and opinion, as long as it’s able to make sure that the safety and security of people on Facebook is protected.
Over the past weeks, Mohan underlined that the conversation over the last few weeks has been for Facebook to give better clarity, not just about being an open and neutral platform. He also acknowledged the narrative of Facebook’s internal systems being designed to ensure that even the employees are free to express their point of view. He also clarified that an employee’s opinion is separate from that of the company – an important outlook given Facebook’s conflicts internally, worldwide.
“In many ways, some of the guiding principles online apply to discussions and expressions inside the company as well. We believe that the employee should have the ability to respectfully communicate their point of view. But the systems are designed to make sure that any preference or opinion of an employee, or a group of employees, is quite separate from the company, and the company’s objective enforcement of its policies," he added.
Further he said that since the latest controversy, he has had a conversation with multiple stakeholders to give more insight into Facebook’s policies, as well as how the company enforces them. On the other hand, he said that no individual really unilaterally has the ability to influence the decisions Facebook takes on content enforcement.
Referring to the case of Facebook India executive Ankhi Das, and her allegedly ignoring hate speech from a BJP lawmaker, Mohan again reiterated how Facebook doesn’t have any constraints on people expressing their point of view. Secondly, he said that no individual (in this case, Ankhi Das), has the decision making or the unilateral power to influence the enforcement of content policy. Further, he said that the content policy team is separate from the public policy team, which is headed by Ankhi Das. He also said that the enforcement of Facebook’s decisions in an objective manner is very important for the company, because Facebook takes it quite seriously that it is a platform that allows for expression of all kinds and shapes.
Mohan said that since India is still in the middle of fighting the outbreak, a lot of Facebook’s energy has been focused on making sure that people on its platform have access to accurate health information related to COVID. “We have done this with people across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. We have worked with the government of India, as well as state governments around the country to make sure mechanisms like chatbots are activated for people to have access to accurate health information."
Further, he said that now Facebook is focused on figuring out how can it fuel the economic recovery. He said that the company is particularly focusing on small businesses, since they are at the heart of the Indian economy. “As a family of apps, we do play a particular role for small businesses in terms of enabling their growth," he said. Further, Mohan pointed out that businesses of all sizes leverage Facebook and Instagram platforms to reach their customers, not just locally, but around the world. “I do think there are many threads that have opened up on the back of the pandemic. And while as much of our effort is focused on making sure the people have access to accurate health information, and figuring out how we can fuel the economic recovery." The Facebook India chief also pointed out the increase of people going online during the pandemic. “We’re also seeing that there is an acceleration in the shift from offline to online. We are seeing that in the behaviour of the customers on our platform. I think there will be a fundamental acceleration in the adoption of digital," Mohan said.
Investing in India
When asked about Facebook investing in Indian companies, Mohan reiterated his point, saying that the country is going through an exciting social and economic change. “We (Facebook) are thinking through how we can be an ally for India’s economic transformation, and we wanted to create a program for taking minority investments in early stage startups because we really wanted to figure out how we can be helpful for the startup ecosystem as a whole."
He also said that Facebook did not take a sectoral view when making investments. He said that the starting point was when Facebook saw opportunities where exciting founders and teams building models that in some ways were unique to India, and could go global. “Those are the kind of companies where we feel like we can add value as well as learn from these startups. But fundamentally, the primary objective was for us to lean in and play a positive role in investing in the startup ecosystem in India."
He categorised Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment in Reliance Jio differently though. He said that Facebook invested in Jio because the social media giant saw a company that has played a pivotal role in setting the foundation of India’s digital transformation, and continues to play that role while still exploring specific opportunities like the WhatsApp-JioMart partnership, where he believes that the two companies working together can really fuel the small business ecosystem in a way that’s good for the Indian economy.