Facebook To Combat 2019 Political Interference

Facebook Inc. plans to make more information available world-wide about political ads purchased on its services, expanding the social-media giant’s effort to defend against politically motivated interference in elections from India to the European Union. The company said Monday that it will take steps to guard against the spread of fake news and misinformation on its platform in coming elections, including expanding the reach of a searchable database of political ads. The new tools—similar to those it applied in the run-up to last year’s midterm election in the U.S. will be available next month in India, before expanding to the EU in March ahead of the bloc’s hotly contested parliamentary election spread across over two dozen countries and languages in May. The effort is one of the largest and most complex tests of the company’s response to interference in the U.S.’s 2016 presidential election, when Russian propagandists purchased thousands of targeted Facebook ads. This comes at the same time as a broader effort by Facebook to overhaul how it moderates content on its social network. On Monday, Facebook described new aspects of how an outside group will review the company’s content decisions, including the board’s authority to reverse internal decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts. The external group could create a buffer between the company and criticism that its decisions to ban certain kinds of content or specific users are inconsistent and biased.

In a document that outlines the group’s draft charter, Facebook said it would select up to 40 people globally to serve on the board. Facebook users can refer questions to the board and the company will also refer content decisions to it, particularly for issues that draw public debate or when decisions appear inconsistent with the company’s values. Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg first announced the decision to form this group in November. On the misinformation front, in the EU there are growing concerns that Russia or other foreign actors will seek to sway national votes for the bloc’s parliament, in which euro-sceptic, anti-establishment and extremist candidates are expected to win significant support. Nick Clegg, the former British politician hired by Facebook last year, said in Brussels on Monday that Facebook’s new policies are a result of the company’s realization that it had been too slow to respond to misuse of its tools in 2016. “We’ve learned hard lessons,” Mr Clegg said in a speech before regulators and lobbyists.

The Menlo Park, Calif., company has faced a barrage of criticism about its data-privacy practices and role in fanning violence in politically volatile countries such as Myanmar. Facebook has responded by pivoting to support greater oversight and regulation by countries around the world. In his speech on Monday, Mr Clegg said the EU should come up with a flexible-but-effective regulatory model that can protect individuals while serving as an alternative to China’s model, which offers few restrictions on the use of personal information. “The real choice is between an appropriately regulated tech sector, balancing the priorities of privacy, free speech, innovation and scale; and an alternative in which ingenuity runs roughshod over some basic guarantees of privacy and individual rights,” Mr Clegg said. “We would like to be at the heart of that discussion.”

When it comes to its work on elections, Facebook said Monday that under the new rules to prevent foreign interference, advertisers will have to be authorized to purchase political ads—even issue-based ads. The company has already created libraries of political and issue ads for certain countries, including the U.S. and Brazil. That library will now roll out to other areas, such as the entire EU, before becoming available globally, the company said. The library will include details about individual advertisements that include the amount spent and the number of people reached, as well as demographic data on those people. It will be searchable for as long as seven years. Facebook also said it would set up two regional operations centres in Dublin and Singapore to act as hubs to coordinate and respond to fake news, hate speech and voter suppression across multiple countries. The company said the hubs would house experts from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to work on these issues. The hubs will coordinate with a global election-monitoring office the company opened in its California headquarters last year.

Earlier this month, Facebook said it had removed about 500 pages and accounts linked to what it said were two Russia-based misinformation campaigns. Facebook said one of the campaigns shared technical overlap with Russia-based activity before the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, including behaviour that shared characteristics with a Kremlin-aligned organization called the Internet Research Agency. In both July and August of 2018, Facebook said it dismantled influence campaigns originating in Iran and Russia that were designed to sow division in global politics.

Credits: Sam Schechner and Kimberly Chin for The Wall Street Journal, 28 January 2019. Daniel Michaels and Georgia Wells contributed to this article.