Facebook is bracing itself for an onslaught of fake news in India

It’s coming.
It’s coming.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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Facebook is ramping up its efforts to fight fake news ahead of India’s general elections, which are expected this spring. The social network expects to soon appoint “key personnel” to the India office, The Economic Times reported in an interview with Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director.

Harbath claimed Facebook has been working on the Indian elections since October 2017, adding that both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg “remain very involved” in election integrity efforts in the country.

Other steps the social network is taking in India include increasing transparency in political advertising and “implementing its learnings from the recently concluded elections in Brazil, the US (Congress and Senate midterms), Bangladesh, and India (state elections),” Harbath said. Brazil’s election, hit badly by misinformation on Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp, would be able to teach India key lessons about language-related challenges, she claimed.

While Facebook has not yet seen any coordinated campaigns to spread misinformation in India, it expects a spurt in such behaviour closer to elections.

Just a few weeks ago, Facebook and Twitter announced the removal of accounts that spread coordinated misinformation for the Bangladesh government. Some of the content was India-related.

Facebook announced its initiative to bring about greater transparency for political ads in India last December. Whether Facebook’s political ad transparency measures will prove effective, in India or elsewhere, remains to be seen. An Atlantic investigation from last year showed that some advertisers could simply use surrogate buyers to remain opaque.

Harbath said that when it comes to political advertising in India, the company is currently negotiating how to balance individual privacy with the public’s right to information.

This is a quandary the social networking platform often faces. For instance, when Facebook announced the misinformation campaign in Bangladesh, it did not disclose why it believed that the campaign was linked to the country’s government. “As a general practice we don’t name individuals associated with takedowns that we conduct, to protect their privacy and avoid putting them at risk,” a Facebook representative had told Quartz.

Facebook has also expanded its fact-checking initiatives in India, partnering up with the news agency AFP in November. It had first launched its India-based fact-checking initiative by partnering with Mumbai-based fact-checking organisation BoomLive. This initiative received some critical attention after Huffpost India reported that over the month-long campaign ahead of the Karnataka state election, it only debunked 30 pieces of fake news.

In October, Facebook announced it had hired a BBC veteran to head its anti-misinformation efforts in India. The previous month, it announced it had roped in Ajit Mohan, former CEO of video streaming platform Hotstar, to be its vice president and India head. Mohan reportedly officially joined Facebook just two days ago.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.