Facebook’s action in India laudable, but too late

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Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

NEW YORK – Facebook’s targeted action earlier this week to remove hundreds of accounts in India and Pakistan that engaged in ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior,’ manipulating public opinion, is laudable.

The belated move, however, may have come too late, with India’s national elections only days away. The damage has been done. Perception and uneasiness will remain – like the ghost that still hangs over the 2016 US Presidential elections – that one political party or the other, or individuals, benefited by the emanation of fake news and churning of spurious data via social media.

In Pakistan, the company said it had removed 103 pages, groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram that it traced to the Pakistani military’s communications wing, Inter-Services Public Relations, or ISPR, reported the Los Angeles Times.

The users created fake accounts to run military fan pages, news pages, and pages aimed at Kashmir, the report noted.

Facebook also took down 687 pages and accounts it traced to the Congress party’s cyber branch. Those accounts were followed by 206,000 users, the company said.

The account holders advertising theses accounts roughly spent $39,000 on Facebook adverts, which was paid in Indian rupees. The first advert was pushed out in 2014 while the last went out just last month, reported Computer Business Review.

A Facebook spokesperson told Reuters the company did not remove the Pakistani accounts because of Indian government pressure, but because people behind them coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves.

The Economic Times reported Facebook’s move also affected “a large number” of right leaning pages in India. These pages had an estimated reach “of at least 200 million” and, in some cases, were digital businesses. These pages dealt in content that were largely pro-BJP but they did not carry any official affiliation with the ruling party, Times noted.

The problem has not been erased, however. Like the Lernean Hydra, it’s going to rear up its ugly head again, sooner than later.

Take the example of Pakistani social media campaigner Hanzala Tayyab, who leads about 300 ultra-nationalist cyber warriors fighting an internet war with arch-foe India, in a battle that is increasingly sucking in global tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook, reported Reuters this week.

Tayyab, 24, spends his days on Facebook and encrypted WhatsApp chatrooms organizing members of his Pakistan Cyber Force group to promote anti-India content and make it go viral, including on Twitter where he has more than 50,000 followers.

Portraying himself as an online combatant defending Pakistan from India’s attempts to destabilize his country, Tayyab plans to continue playing his role in the broader information war being fought between the nuclear-armed foes, the report said.

“We are countering the Indian narrative through social media, we are countering the enemies of Pakistan,” Tayyab told Reuters in Islamabad.

Four Facebook and more than 20 Twitter accounts belonging to members of the Pakistan Cyber Force have been shuttered in the past two months, according to Tayyab, who is still angry at Twitter for shutting down his previous personal account in 2016.

It’s not just the US elections which was a red flag for Facebook. Over the years, it has been buffeted by controversies across the globe, including Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and for not acting to stamp out hate speech on its platform that was fueling ethnic violence in Myanmar, reported Reuters, in a separate report.

And like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter too have come under fire for biased content that has fueled violence and hatred, especially in India. Public lynching in India by mobs have been attributed to the effect of WhatsApp messages. The communication app has more than 200 million users in India.

The larger question, however, is if this action in India by Facebook comes too late on the eve of the general elections. Public opinion shaped over the last few years in NDA’s first term, for supporters and opposition alike, is not likely to change because of the takedown of some Facebook pages.

Facebook has started its ‘cleansing’ in other parts of the world too.

Last week, it also introduced rules requiring advertisers buying political ads ahead of upcoming European Union elections to prove they are located in the country whose users they are targeting, a move the company said would help prevent foreign interference, reported the Los Angeles Times.

While consumption data is hard to get in India, on the effect of social media, it’s more defined in the US.

Though a fierce debate rages over social media influence in the last elections, Americans are beginning to get more of their news online, than ever before. The repercussions could be damning, especially when disseminated to immature and young readers.

Overall, nearly nine-in-ten Americans (89%) currently get at least some local news digitally (through news websites, apps or social media) and 41% do so often, according to new research findings released by the Pew Research Center, this week. Looking separately at websites and apps compared with social media, roughly equal portions often get news from each (26% and 25%, respectively), it noted.

At the same time, television-oriented local news consumers may have a stronger attachment to local news than those with digital preferences. US adults who prefer getting local news online are less likely to follow local news very closely (21%, compared with 40% among those who prefer TV).

Digital local news consumption is being done more through mobile devices than desktop or laptop computers, noted Pew.

Perhaps this is where consumption of fake news, inadvertently also begins, through social media, but is likely unstoppable.

Roughly half of those who get local news online (51%) primarily do so through a mobile device, about twice that who primarily do so on a desktop/laptop computer (27%); 19% get news on both types of devices equally, according to Pew.

The digital era is making its mark on local news. Nearly as many Americans today say they prefer to get their local news online as say they prefer to do so through the television set, according to the survey of 34,897 U.S. adults conducted b Pew from October 15-November 8, 2018, on the Center’s American Trends Panel and Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel.

The 41% of Americans who say they prefer getting their local news via TV and the 37% who prefer it online far outpace those who prefer a printed newspaper or the radio (13% and 8%, respectively).

Even as the preference for digital delivery creeps up on that for news via TV, local television stations retain a strong hold in the local news ecosystem.

They top the list of nine types of local news providers, with 38% of US, Pew noted adults saying they often get news from a local television station. That is followed by 20% who often turn to local radio stations and 17% who rely on local daily newspapers.

Next come a range of less traditional sources such as online forums or discussion groups (12%), local organizations such as school groups or churches (8%), and community newsletters or listservs (8%), according to the report.

While individually these less traditional sources garner far smaller audiences than the big three (local TV, daily papers and radio stations), together they add up: 28% of the public often gets news from at least one of the six less traditional providers asked about.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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