Facebook plugs fake news loopholes ahead of SA elections

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Emilar Gandhi, Facebook public policy lead for SADC region.
Emilar Gandhi, Facebook public policy lead for SADC region.

Facebook, the world's biggest social networking platform, is working to ensure the integrity of South African elections.

This is according to Emilar Gandhi, Facebook public policy lead for the SADC region, in an interview with ITWeb this week.

General elections will be held in SA on 8 May to elect a new National Assembly and provincial legislatures in each province. It will be the sixth election held since the end of apartheid in 1994, and will determine who will become the next president of the republic.

The South African elections come at a time when Facebook, with over two billion users globally and about 14 million active users daily in SA, faced backlash over the past two years for not acting fast enough to combat fake news, propaganda operations and extremist content spread on its platforms.

Scandals that hit Facebook in 2018 included data privacy issues, election interference, as well as the spreading of fake news.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised stronger controls on the social network following the scandal-ridden 2018.

Significant investment

According to Gandhi, Facebook's goal is to protect the integrity of democracy in SA in the upcoming elections.

She noted the social media company has invested significantly in these efforts globally, and is now replicating those efforts at a national level.

In terms of fake news, Gandhi said Facebook is doing quite a lot ahead of the elections. "Firstly, what we are doing is disrupting bad actors, either domestic or foreign," she said.

"Secondly, we are working on removing fake accounts from the platform. At Facebook, we place value on authentic dialogue and we believe that people are accountable for their actions if they are using their authentic identity on Facebook."

The company has invested in people and technology to ensure it can proactively detect fake accounts before they are even reported, she noted.

Thirdly, Gandhi said, Facebook is working to reduce the spreading of false news and misinformation in SA as the elections approach.

Last year, Facebook enlisted Africa Check and AFP to tackle false news in SA to help assess the accuracy of news and reduce the spread of misinformation, while improving the quality of news people find on its platform.

Gandhi explained that Facebook was built as a place for connecting with family and friends but in recent years, it has become a place where people look for news. However, she noted, false news is bad for people and it's also bad for Facebook.

"So we are working with these partners [AFP and Africa Check] for them to verify the accuracy, not only of articles but also give them the ability to look at photos and videos in relationship to false news.

"What happens is if one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, we de-rank it within the news feed. We lower its distribution to an extent that it won't reach as many people as possible."

She pointed out these fact-checkers are independent and are certified by the International Fact-checking Network.

Civic engagement

Fourthly, she added, Facebook is deploying civic engagement products prior to the elections. In January, the social media company launched a voter registration campaign where it encouraged South Africans to register to vote.

"In the run-up to elections, we also give people the option to report any news or information on the platform that is spreading false news related to the elections.

"Beyond that, as the African public policy team, we have also been working with different stakeholders because we know we cannot do it alone as Facebook. We are even currently in the process of talking to different stakeholders - be they government, electoral commission, academic institutions or civil society organisations - for them to identify vulnerabilities and gaps in our policies."

Regarding political advertising, according to Gandhi, Facebook trained 48 political parties in SA focusing on community safety to ensure their accounts and presence on the platform are safe.

"For ads, today you can see any ad a page is currently running in its 'Info and Ads' section or in the Ad Library, regardless of whether it's targeted to you or a political party."

The Ad Library also includes page information such as creation date, name changes, page merges, and primary country location of people who manage pages with large audiences.

"The Ad Library is available to everyone, including people who aren't on Facebook. We're also working to offer a global version of ads transparency tools this June to help ensure authenticity and transparency is behind political advertising," Gandhi concluded.

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