Facebook takes steps to reduce spread of false stories during India election

Facebook is taking steps to reduce the spread of false information on its platforms ahead of India’s general election, company officials said.

The social media company listed a variety of measures it is taking, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organisations, through the campaign and voting.

Polling is scheduled to take place in stages from April 11 to May 19.

Samidh Chakrabarti, director of Facebook’s Product Management for Civic Integrity division, called the Indian elections a “top priority” and said the company has put in a “tremendous amount of effort over the last two years” to prepare for the polls.

A supporter of Telangana Rashtra Samithi, a regional political party, sprays colour at an election campaign rally in Hyderabad (Mahesh Kumar A/AP)

He said Facebook has partnered with Indian media organisations to check and flag false stories in English, Hindi and some other regional Indian languages.

After a fact-checker flags a story as containing false information, Facebook reduces the number of times it appears in any individual user’s newsfeed by about 80%, Mr Chakrabarti said.

The social media giant came under immense scrutiny after it failed to prevent the spread of false information during the 2016 US elections, when allegations of outside interference resulted in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testifying in the US Senate.

Facebook-owned messaging applications such as WhatsApp have been repeatedly scrutinised by the Indian government and security agencies, and asked to prevent the spread of false information and rumours that have been linked to mob killings.

In 2018, at least 20 people were killed in India, mostly in rural villages, in attacks by mobs that were inflamed by social media.

In response, WhatsApp restricted the forwarding of messages to five recipients at a time, instead of the 256 previously allowed.

Although the move was India-specific, it was applied globally earlier this year, WhatsApp announced in January.

But social media has also become a critical tool for Indian political campaigns.

Bharatiya Janata Party workers prepare to distribute election campaign material in Jammu (Channi Anand/AP)

Ahead of elections in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party used social media extensively for political advertisements and to interact with young voters.

The Election Commission of India is trying to rein in social media giants such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to prevent the release of user data and to curb the spread of politically motivated manipulative information.

Social media companies have presented a Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Elections 2019 to the election monitoring body, a new requirement this year.

“We are working hard to prevent bad actors from interfering with elections on Facebook,” Mr Chakrabarti said, adding that Facebook has tripled the number of people working on safety and security to 30,000.

India reportedly has the highest number of Facebook users in the world, with more than 300 million.

That is about a third of the 900 million people eligible to vote in 2019.

The Indian elections begin on April 11, with polling scheduled to be held across 543 constituencies in seven phases.

Counting of votes is to be conducted on May 23, with results expected the same day.

- Press Association

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