Facebook ‘hits the street’ to verify political ads in India — but that might not be enough

Facebook ‘hits the street’ to verify political ads in India — but that might not be enough

  • Facebook is increasing the level of authentication for political advertisers in India ahead of the general elections in 2019.
  • In order to post political ads, the advertiser has to send in scanned documents which will be verified by the Facebook team based in India through actual site visits.
  • This is the first time that Facebook will be ‘hitting the streets’ physically to verify credentials.
  • There are concerns that the method of verification isn’t completely full-proof to address the unique challenges of the Indian market.

After implementing stringent norms in the US, Brazil and the UK, Facebook is tightening their authorisation process for political advertisers in India — the company’s largest market when it comes to users.

It’s the first time that the social media platform is going to be ‘hitting the streets’ to verify the identity and location of political advertisers in the country ahead of the 2019 general elections. But there are concerns that even this may not be enough to keep duplicitous players at bay.

Basically, what’s going to happen is that people who want to post ads relating to a particular political campaign will have to send in scanned documents of their address and identity proof. Facebook’s India team will then visit these locations in order to ensure their validity.
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Or, there’s a secondary method akin to what was implemented ahead of the US midterm elections where Facebook plans to send a verification code by post to address on file.

So whenever a political ad runs ahead of the 2019 general elections, it will include a disclaimer label to provide people with information on exactly who placed the ad.

And, these ads will be stored in the ‘Ad Library’ as well so that anyone can search for them, regardless of whether or not they’re a member of Facebook.

Either way, this process will take ‘weeks’ to complete according to the company, which is why it has asked agencies to start putting in their requests now.

The loopholes that remain

Facebook, at its end, has published the ‘Facebook Cyber Security Guide for Politicians and Political Parties’ as a part of its Indian Election Integrity Initiative. But, even ahead of midterm elections in the US, the company had faced the issue of ‘proxy advertising’. That is basically when third party entities post on behalf of political parties and candidates.

Vice News, a media publication, for example, bought ads on Facebook during the recent US midterm elections on behalf of some of the top senators in the US to test Facebook’s approval system — and succeeded in proving how easy it was to circumvent.

So, even in India, there’s a possibility that fake news publishers or news publishers with certain allegiances could act as a proxy for their owners — who may be political parties or even individual members of parliament (MPs).

On the other hand, the new authorisation process runs the risk of exempting eligible news publishers from authorisation altogether because their content advertising — which will cover the elections or political issues — overlaps with the general elections in 2019.

While these are only some of the workarounds that have come to light, there may still be other avenues through which this system could be exploited.

Cause for concern

After the five-state elections that took place across India just last week, political parties in India are gearing up their digital strategies for the months leading up to the general elections 2019 come April.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is still a shadow on Facebook’s security resulting in increased demand for countries all over the world for it to develop full-proof systems that will prevent the misuse of the platform during the election process.

Reports of Russia meddling in the US Presidential elections — yes, the same one that led Trump to come into power — has only served to cast more suspicion on Facebook’s authority.

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