The Indian election might be Facebook's last chance to prove that it can fight fake news and political bias

The Indian election might be Facebook's last chance to prove that it can fight fake news and political bias

  • Facebook is reportedly planning to set up a ‘war room’ to monitor user activity ahead of the general elections in India.
  • If Facebook faces another data breach, that too ahead of the elections in a country that's home to its largest user base, it may lose its credibility altogether.
  • The social networking giant had previously set up similar war rooms ahead of the US-midterm elections and the elections in Brazil.
The upcoming elections in India might be Facebook’s last chance to prove its credibility in the market — not just locally, but globally as well. The social networking giant is going all out with plans to set up a ‘war room’ to monitor all election content.

Shivnath Thukral, the director of public policy in India and South Asia for Facebook, said that the operations center in Delhi will coordinate with Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park, Dublin and Singapore in order to ensure round-the-clock monitoring of misinformation.

With 300 million monthly active users, Facebook has too big of a stake in the Indian market to lose credibility. Another scandal like Cambridge Analytica (CA) — where the data of 87 million users was harvested and then used to meddle in the US elections by helping Russia spread fake news — in a country that consists of its largest user base may not be something that Facebook can recuperate from.
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Even in India, over half a million users were ‘potentially affected’ by the CA-Facebook data breach. Christopher Wylie, the former CA employee who blew the scandal wide open, also disclosed that SCL — CA’s parent company — has worked on at least eight projects in India.

And, Facebook has more to worry about since WhatsApp and Instagram also fall under its purview. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress have reportedly formed 50,000 WhatsApp groups that are part of their campaigning. In 2018, WhatsApp has come under fire from the Indian government after fake news circulated on the messaging platform led to a number of mob-lynchings in India.

Yet, the exact impact and influence of online platforms and digital tools is still under debate. The Internet Mobile Association of India reported that social media only had the ability to influence 3-4% of urban votes. Others argue that even though, social media is definitely a heavy influence, it’s not a determining factor. This is unlike the US, where the majority of people get their news via social media networks like Facebook.

"Companies have noted that though firms like Cambridge Analytica can create psychographic profiles of individuals based on facebook quizzes and analysis of other social media content, in India, manual data collection is still a more reliant way of collecting information as there are a number of contextual factors (language, phonics, spelling) that humans can decipher and navigate that analytic has yet to overcome."

Elonnai Hickok, Chief Operating Officer at the Centre for Internet & Society India (CIS)

The US Model

Last year, Facebook set up ‘war rooms’ ahead of the US midterm and Brazil elections that eventually shut down in late November once the elections were over. Even then, Facebook indicated that it may start new war rooms for the coming elections in other countries around the world.

The previous war rooms were makeshift control centers, which Facebook claimed were a part of its effort to counter the spread of misinformation and fake news on the platform. It essentially bring its employees from different teams together so that disturbing trends in user activity can be caught quickly.

But, some, like Fortune and the New York Times, speculated that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

In the case of the US elections, Facebook’s response team coordinated a response to a tip given to them by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that indicated the threat of Russian activity ahead of the midterms. Without a war room, such a situation would’ve taken longer to address.

The Indian government has set up their own parliamentary committee to look into the practices of social networking sites ahead of the elections in the country. The India public policy director, Ajit Mohan, met with them last Friday where the country was issued a 10-day deadline to respond to the committee’s concerns.

Twitter was also given a similar deadline after their meeting on February 26.

The committee’s concern is that since Facebook is a ‘hybrid’ company — consisting of Instagram and WhatsApp — it does not have a clear regulatory framework which applies to all of their content, advertising and marketing operations across the platforms.

Facebook was reportedly also asked about its global lobbying practices against data privacy laws after the Center of Accountability and Systematic Change (CASC) wrote a letter to the committee to address the issue.

Facebook has also set up a political ad library where advertisers are listed according to their expenditure and the number of ads issued. The library reflects whether the ads went out with or without a disclaimer. Facebook’s efforts also include on-ground vetting of advertisers, bringing in two new disclaimer categories, and adding five new partners to its third-party fact checking initiative.

Facebook has to stay vigilant since its market share is already on the downtrend with users dropping from 76% to 66% from December 2017 to December 2018 — the largest drop being from the US.

In order to keep an already bad situation from getting worse Facebook’s war room can’t just be a ‘publicity stunt’ ahead of general election 2019 in India. They’ll have to walk the walk and talk the talk in order to maintain their credibility in their largest market.

See also:
Here's how global tech giants are tackling 'fake news' ahead of elections in the world's largest democracy

Hyper-nationalism behind India’s fake news menace: Report

Facebook's '10 Year Challenge' takes a political dimension in India