Facebook is on a cleansing spree. The social network is implementing measures and large-scale policy changes in many countries, including India, to counter the potential misuse of the platform. There are wholesale changes in how Facebook monitors content, fact-checking with third-party partners, a new ad policy that demands transparency and stricter monitoring of Pages on the social network. All this gains even more importance, as we are now just days away from the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
A lot has happened on Facebook in India over the past few hours. Much of this has to do not just with the authenticity content being posted, as often is the grudge by many, but Facebook is also analysing the quality of content, who is posting it and any red flags for potential spamming or what it calls inauthentic behaviour. Labelled as “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior and Spam”, this is a large-scale effort at eliminating traces of what can be considered fake news, spam, inauthentic content and misinformation. The numbers tell their own tale.
In the first part of the clean-up, Facebook says they have removed 687 Facebook Pages and accounts, which they say were connected with individuals associated with the IT cell of the Congress party. These pages and accounts had a reach of 206,000 Facebook users and had spent US$39,000 (around Rs 2,701,680) on ads on the social media platform, between August 2014 and March 2019. At the same time, Facebook also said they had taken down a further 15 entities for sharing incorrect and unauthentic information—this includes 1 page, 12 Facebook accounts, 1 group and 1 Instagram account. The page is believed to be The India Eye, which is now offline on Facebook and Instagram. The content that The India Eye posted revolved around mocking political opponents and praise the current Narendra Modi government for its achievements. When the Facebook crackdown happened, The India Eye had 2.6 million followers on Facebook and more than 30,000 followers on Instagram. Interestingly enough, Twitter has also banned The Indian Eye account, and it happened after Facebook’s action.
India isn’t the only country where Facebook has taken down a lot of content and eliminated a lot of profiles and pages. Globally, similar steps have been taken in Pakistan, Phillipines, Iran, Russia, Macedonia, Kosovo, UK and Romania over the past few weeks.
In February, Facebook had also announced the new Political Ads Policy for India. Political adverts on Facebook are accompanied with "Published by" or "Paid for by" disclaimers as specified by the advertisers at the time of buying the ad space. The idea is to give Facebook users a better idea of who has paid for the advertisement that they are seeing on their timeline. The social network allows only advertisers who have completed authorizations and specified disclosures about who's responsible for any ad, to run political ads.
The other big impact of this new policy is that users now know who is spending how much to publicise their message on Facebook. After the first month ending March 23, advertising on Facebook was heavily dominated by pro-BJP advertisers, according to the numbers of the Ad Library Report for India. An advertiser with the name Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat spent Rs 11,562,550 on putting out 2,498 adverts on Facebook during the month. The same advertiser also spent Rs 10,831,546 on 1,227 adverts, which ran without a disclaimer. A glance at the Top 10 advertisers on Facebook for the month are dominated by BJP supporting pages on the platform.
In January, Facebook had rolled out new tools Page administrators. The most interesting among those was the Page Quality tab—this will include a section which lists all content removed by Facebook for violating the community standards, and another section where all content recently rated “False,” “Mixture” or “False Headline” by third-party fact-checkers is listed. “We’ll be providing more information in the Page Quality tab over time. To start, we’re including content removed for policies like hate speech, graphic violence, harassment and bullying, and regulated goods, nudity or sexual activity, and support or praise of people and events that are not allowed to be on Facebook,” the social network had said in an official blog post at the time.
There is no doubt that Facebook is staying vigilant, and is being proactive ahead of the upcoming General Elections in India. The measures in place to monitor what content is being posted, who is posting it and who is paying for adverts is a solid start. Perhaps what really makes this worth all the effort is the active identification of and the crackdown on pages that flout norms of community standards and decency. Make no mistake, no political party will want to be caught with a smoking gun—and this is Facebook fighting a battle against unofficial associates tasked to do the publicity work.