Facebook makes headway against online abuses ahead of India election

Facebook has toughened the rules in India and political ads now include ‘published by’ and ‘paid by’ disclaimers. (AP)
Updated 08 April 2019
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Facebook makes headway against online abuses ahead of India election

  • India, where Facebook has more users than in any other country, is shaping up as a major test
  • Facebook has partnered with seven fact-checkers in India

MENLO PARK, California: Facebook has said it has made strides in its efforts to prevent online abuses in the Indian national election that starts this week but acknowledged that gaps remain in its “election integrity” efforts.
During a media tour of the company’s election operations center at its Menlo Park headquarters in California on Friday, company officials touted new fact-checking efforts for suppressing misinformation and technological advances such as the ability to detect when videos had been doctored.
But Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, said measures including a better system for verifying the buyers of political advertisements remained imperfect and called for more government regulation of ad-spending disclosures.
Excoriated for failing to stop Russian manipulation in the 2016 US presidential vote, Facebook has ramped up efforts to prevent abuses in subsequent elections, including the 2018 American midterms and the recent Brazilian and Mexican contests. Governments in many countries, including India and the UK, are contemplating strict new regulations for social media companies.
India, where Facebook has more users than in any other country, is shaping up as a major test. On April 1, the company said it had removed more than 500 accounts and 138 pages linked to India’s opposition Congress party for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Facebook’s term for the use of fake accounts and other deceptive methods to promote a message.
It also took down a page with 2 million followers which, according to Facebook’s review partner Atlantic Council think tank, was “pro-BJP” (India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) and a supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Harbath said the company can now quickly detect viral, politically sensitive stories and refer them for fact-checking by outside organizations. The officials also touted heavy investment in technology for detecting doctored videos and text inside pictures, but acknowledged that that they have been unable to stop some duplicates of videos that have been identified as spurious.
Facebook has partnered with seven fact-checkers in India. If a post is found to be untrue, the company says it reduces the circulation of such fake posts by more than 80 percent, but slightly modified versions of the same images, video or text can escape detection and spread further.
Reuters earlier this month found instances of edited posts circulating on Facebook which the company’s own fact-checkers had said were false.
Deceptive political advertising has become another hot-button problem for the company. Facebook has toughened the rules in India and political ads now include “published by” and “paid by” disclaimers. Users can also access a library that allows them to search and find out more about political advertisements.
Harbath said political ad purchases in India now require either a certificate from the Election Commission or a physical address in India, as well as a phone number and group name of the entity purchasing the ad.
While Facebook will check that the address and phone number are legitimate, the company agreed that the same person could make up multiple entities at the same address, without any available record of the original source of money.
“This is a great example, we think, of where there needs to be more regulation,” Harbath said.


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 21 May 2019
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".