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7-min read

Facebook Has a Plan for Elections and That Includes New Tools for Political Leaders

Facebook's public policy director (India and South Asia) Shivnath Thukral said the launches were a part of the social media giant’s engagement with the electorate.

Aishwarya Kumar | News18.com@aishwaryak03

Updated:March 13, 2019, 5:43 PM IST

New Delhi: Facebook is all set to launch a set of new products, one of which includes video capsules for political leaders to reach out to their candidates.

In an exclusive interview with News18, Shivnath Thukral, public policy director (India and South Asia), said the capsules would enable the leader to reach out to his/her voter base by giving out information about what they stand for, their motto and what their campaigns are going to be about.

The launch, Thukral added, is part of the social media giant’s engagement with the electorate.

“We feel greater participation in democracy is an important aspect. In the last week of January on National Voter’s Day, we encouraged people to register on the Election Commission of India website. During the state elections, we encouraged people to go out and vote. And now, we are in the process of launching products. All this is to make sure that the electorate is engaged with the election process,” he said.

The Election Commission on Sunday announced the poll dates starting next month and laid emphasis on social media engagement and the misuse of it during the election season.

Thukral said, “The most critical thing to know is that we work very closely with the EC to understand what is it that the poll body wants and make sure there is no abuse happening from its end either as we are critically engaged with the other stakeholders, including political parties, media and civil society. Our preparation is focused on how to prevent abuse and how to make sure there is no misinformation.”

“For us to reach that goal of preventing abuse on the platform, we are approaching it in five different ways. First is to reduce the spread of fake news across all our platforms. Second is making sure that there is a huge amount of transparency in the way advertisements are played out on the platform, like political advertising. Third is trying to disrupt bad actors who are actually coming on the platform with the intent of doing something wrong. Fourth is looking at cracking down on fake accounts. We feel fake accounts are the single biggest source of fake news and misinformation. Fifth, as an effort to encourage people to take part in democracy, we have civic engagement products where we keep the electorate informed and engaged,” he said, adding that Facebook was working with seven independent fact checkers — India Today Group, Vishvas.news, Factly, Newsmobile, Fact Crescendo, BOOMLive and AFP.

“You and I as a consumer can report on something that we think is fake news or false. It goes to the fact checkers. They fact check the story and they use tools to declare whether it’s true or false or misleading or can’t say. Based on that, we reduce the virality of the story. We have already seen during the state elections and as we continue to work with our fact checkers, the impact of reducing the virality of such stories is quite significant,” Thukral said, adding that fake news was a real world issue and not just a tech issue.

“Fake news is emanating from somewhere. Technology is not the source of it. It is being used to spread it. Human behaviour is something that we can’t check. What I can check is, however, how it manifests on my platform. That is the responsibility of Facebook,” he said.

Many in India don’t want to reveal who pays for ads

Recently, Facebook started disclosing details of advertisements on its platform.

The aim, Thukral added, is to ensure that the consumer gets to see details of any ad with political content — who has paid for it, who has placed an advertisement, how much was paid for it, for how long it’s been active and who the target audience is.

Now, the social media giant has started an archive library which has every advertisement and a report of it will be published every week.

In its Ad Library, Facebook has a total of 16,556 ads reported till March 4 this year that is “related to politics and issues of national importance” in India. The total amount spent on these ads is over Rs 4.13 crore.

As reported earlier by News18, the Ad Library Report shows the BJP has been the heaviest advertiser on the platform since February 2 and most of the ads were funded by ghost advertisers which ran advertisements without any proper disclaimer.

“For you to qualify to put out a political ad, you have to be certified. That authorisation is done in terms of physical verification. If you’re an admin of a page and you want to post a political ad, you have to go through the authorisation process. A representative of Facebook will actually visit the place of the admin and verify all details. After this process, if he/she wants to get an ad, that individual will have to get a disclaimer — he/she has to identify the admin or whether who has paid for the ad. There are two categories where one can post an ad — paid for by and published by. In India, many people don’t want to identify who has paid for it. And once the code of conduct applies, they have to put up the requisite MCMC Certificate (Media certification & Monitoring Committee) issued by the EC. The ad in itself has to go through a review process. We have learnt from whatever happened during the US elections and have strengthened our transparency based on those learnings,” Thukral added.

When quizzed on proxies being used for posting advertisements on the platform, Thukral said the law of the land did not force anyone to reveal who paid for a particular ad.

“It requires me to ensure that all checks and balances are there. That my platform at least empowers the user to have all the requisite information. You see a symbol, you know which person or party the ad comes from. If you see an ad on a billboard, it’s the same logic that applies. But if you see an ad which is pushing you to believe in a position, say national security for example, you know who has published it, if not, the person who’s paid for it. You have some piece of information with regards to the ad as against no information. The consumer can have his/her own perspective on it,” he said.

Fake News v/s Fake Accounts

Thukral said fake news could sometimes be rumour mongering. “People can interpret a statistic differently. Would you call it fake? I don’t know. It’s an interpretation. Fake news is what violates our guidelines on voter suppression. Like reports on poll dates even before the official Election Commission announcement or that NRIs can use proxy votes. We are not the judge of that but they end up violating our policies too which mislead voters,” he said.

Fake accounts, however, is a different ball game altogether. “A fake profile is something where one constantly tries to beat the system and keep on creating fake accounts to spread fake news or share fake news. It’s about many profiles by a single person using different identities. We go after that. Fake news is more information problem and fake profile is more of a behavioral problem. That’s how we are looking at both issues separately,” he said.

Thukral said the war against such accounts was an ongoing one. “Between September 2017 and October 2018, we removed 2 billion fake accounts from our platform. There are bots involved in creating those accounts, people create fake profiles and we go after them asking them to prove the real identity. That’s a big problem and an ongoing quest,” he said.

Pages which believe in clickbait or lead you to other ads are removed. Then there is coordinated bad behaviour, where people with the intent of creating mischief create fake profiles and accounts.

Thukral said tools available to Facebook keep them informed if someone was behaving in a manner intended at spamming.

“We do feel Facebook is a force for a greater social good. And I think India being the largest market indicates that people believe in the good of Facebook. A lot of people believe it is not the bad overtaking the good at Facebook, but our responsibility is to make sure that does not happen. When I see more and more people engaging in healthy discussions, leaders wanting to reach out to their voters, they are indicative of people still believing in the good of Facebook,” he said.

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