Facebook says social media's benefits for democracy are not guaranteed; admits it was slow to respond to 2016 US election crisis

“I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can‘t,” Samidh Chakrabarti, a Facebook product manager

Facebook Inc warned on Monday that it could offer no assurance that social media was on balance good for democracy, but the company said it was trying what it could to stop alleged meddling in elections by Russia or anyone else.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

The sharing of false or misleading headlines on social media has become a global issue, after accusations that Russia tried to influence votes in the United States, Britain and France. Moscow denies the allegations.

Facebook, the largest social network with more than 2 billion users, addressed social media’s role in democracy in blog posts from a Harvard University professor, Cass Sunstein, and from an employee working on the subject.

Addressing the elephants in the room

“I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can‘t,” Samidh Chakrabarti, a Facebook product manager, wrote in his post. Speaking about the 'elephant in the room', Chakrabarti admitted that Facebook was slow to respond to the crisis that was presented by the Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections. He says that Russian propaganda machinery used social media as an information weapon to spread fake news and cause political polarisation.

"Although we didn’t know it at the time, we discovered that these Russian actors created 80,000 posts that reached around 126 million people in the US over a two-year period. This kind of activity goes against everything we stand for," said Chakrabarti. While he maintains that this was an unprecedented use of social media which Facebook could not predict, it should have done better.

Facebook, he added, has a “moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.”

This is pertinent as, by Facebook's own admission, around 87 governments across the world have a presence on Facebook. There have also been stories like these where some governments have actually allegedly abused Facebook to ensure they dictate the narrative.

According to Chakrabarti, Facebook is going to make politics on the platform more transparent. "We’ll soon also require organisations running election-related ads to confirm their identities so we can show viewers of their ads who exactly paid for them. Finally, we’ll archive electoral ads and make them searchable to enhance accountability," said Chakrabarti. He also said that this could cut both ways, especially with human rights organisations who can be in trouble with the wrong kind of transparency settings.

Chakrabarti has stated on record that Facebook would not be participating in filtering out misinformation on its own, but will take the help of third-party fact-checkers and will rely on user reports, to ensure such stories are ranked lower in the News Feed. "We’ve chosen not to do that because we don’t want to be the arbiters of truth, nor do we imagine this is a role the world would want for us," said Chakrabarti.

To prevent the formation of echo chambers, Facebook aims to present its users with the right context and also allow them to see 'Related Articles', which may offer different takes on the same news. "Research shows that some obvious ideas — like showing people an article from an opposing perspective — could actually make us dig in even more," said Chakrabarti. Instead 'Related Articles' feature will focus on presenting multiple viewpoints, not just the opposing views.

What Facebook is doing on the ground

Contrite Facebook executives were already fanning out across Europe this week to address the company’s slow response to abuses on its platform, such as hate speech and foreign influence campaigns.

US lawmakers have held hearings on the role of social media in elections, and this month Facebook widened an investigation into the run-up to Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership.

Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google and YouTube have announced similar attempts at self-regulation.

Chakrabarti said Facebook had helped democracy in ways, such as getting more Americans to register to vote.

Sunstein, a law professor and Facebook consultant who also worked in the administration of former US President Barack Obama, said in a blog post that social media was a work in progress and that companies would need to experiment with changes to improve.

Another test of social media’s role in elections lies ahead in March when Italy votes in a national election already marked by claims of fake news spreading on Facebook.

With inputs from Reuters

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