Facebook woos Indian users and government ahead of elections, but why?

In a bid to expand beyond saturated American and West European markets, Facebook has overhauled its business structure to create a parallel six-member board for India that will be at par with the one at its Menlo Park headquarters. Furthermore, to recoup its image in the aftermath of the discovery that Russia used Facebook and Twitter to influence American voters during the 2016 presidential elections, and the intense scrutiny it faced globally, the company is also working round the clock to safeguard the upcoming Indian general elections from a similar manipulation.

Qriustakes a closer look at the two developments.

So what’s so new about the new India board of Facebook?

The six-member board will directly report to the one in Menlo Park. This is an attempt to delink India’s operations from Facebook’s Asia Pacific operations. As a result, the functional heads for public policy, global marketing solutions, communications, and the newly formed verticals of partnership, and strategy and operations will report to Facebook’s India managing director Ajit Mohan, and not to their respective regional heads in Asia Pacific, as per a report in the Economic Times.

LiveMint reported that Mohan, who joined Facebook from Hotstar earlier this month, will report to David Fischer, who is part of Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s core team and oversees business and marketing partnerships globally.

Thus, unlike other companies and even Facebook in the past, India has been recognised as a separate region.

What’s the big deal?

It is a big deal because no other nation in the world has been accorded a separate board, or a parallel organisational structure, if you will, to govern its operations. All other nations are part of region-based teams and don’t have an individual board of members devoted to them.

Why would Facebook decentralise it operations this way?

Two main reasons — to grow as a company; and to appease the Indian government.

Facebook has saturated the American and West European markets because of which user acquisition has largely plateaued and is even in an active decline in some countries. Moreover, Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which forms the crux of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia collusion, has been PR damnation for the company. 87 million users’ information was given to a researcher who then sold it to the now-defunct company.

Expanding in developing nations is thus Facebook’s best bet to survive. India is Facebook’s largest single-nation market outside USA.

LiveMint reported that it “is also a reaction to tightening regulations on foreign internet companies in India following a spurt in the spread of deadly rumours on social media”. One of the requirements for such companies was to incorporate a local entity.

Late in 2018, another Facebook-owned platform, WhatsApp, appointed Abhijit Bose to head its India operations. He is responsible for developing WhatsApp’s first full country team outside California, and the India team will be based in Gurugram. The aim even then was to work with the Indian government and combat the malaise of fake news.

But wait! Is fake news even that big a deal in India? Isn’t that a first world problem?

Umm, NO! Have you already forgotten about mob lynchings in India that were a result of WhatsApp rumours? The ones that led to needless deaths of innocent people found guilty by WhatsApp trials?

Fake news is a prevalent problem in India, especially on one-to-one messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. In fact, a BBC report found that people tend to believe messages spread on WhatsApp and do not verify the source because they are usually sent by friends and family.

The same BBC report also found that a lack of trust in mainstream media and a rise in nationalism, that borders on jingoism, is the cause behind this turn to social media for news.

Cambridge Analytica, Russia meddling, WhatsApp lynchings — there’s a pattern there, but what?

Yep! There is a pattern. Given Facebook’s weak privacy guidelines and a business model that earns money by monetising users’ data, Facebook has had a pretty bad history of putting its own business interests ahead of business ethics. As a result, the platform becomes vulnerable to exploitation by agents and organisations who want to influence elections, both within their countries and outside.

Exploiting the filter bubble created by Facebook’s algorithms, nefarious agents (ab)use the platform to influence people’s minds in ways that lay users don’t easily identify or comprehend.

Fake news is in fact a problem in at least 50 nations!

Oh moy! What’s Facebook doing to safeguard Lok Sabha elections then?

Well, it is attempting to do a lot. The aim is to prevents individuals and/or organisations from manipulating its platforms — Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. In 2019, as 50 national elections are scheduled to take place around the world, Facebook is in dire need of an effective strategy.

In India, LiveMint reported that Facebook will “focus on eliminating fake accounts, stopping the spread of fake news, increasing transparency in advertisements, and monitoring online abuse”.

For policy makers, politicians, candidates and their staff, Facebook has created a training module to help them boost cyber security. I personally would love be a fly on the wall and see P. Chidambaram and L.K. Advani attending one such training module. Their questions would probably echo American senators’ during the senate hearing of Mark Zuckerberg and later, of Sundar Pichai. “So how many characters do I have? 144? 280?” “No, Sir. That’s Twitter, a different platform. I can show you how to work that, but Facbook doesn’t own it.”

LiveMint also reported that the company created a “Facebook Cyber Security Guide for Politicians and Political Parties” to protect and safeguard the integrity of the electoral process in India by ensuring that people have access to reliable information and diverse perspectives.

The guide was shared with policy makers, which included all Indian parliamentarians, chief ministers, and all the chief electoral officers appointed by Election Commission of India, LiveMint’s source said.

What about rules about advertising? Isn’t that the main tool used by meddlers?

Oh yes! Facebook has come up with a policy to combat govern those too. Times of India reported that in India, Facebook will place elecotrla ads in a searchable online library next month onwards. Rob Leathern, a director product management at the company, said that the company believes that holding the ads in a library for seven years is a key part of fighting interference.

This library will resemble archives brough to the US, UK and Brazil last year. It will contain information for some ad buyers or their official regulatory certificates. To ensure that actual living people, and not bots, place ads, Facebook said that it would ensure that their listed name matched the one on their government-issued documents.

These steps will follow the moves it implemented in Nigeria on Wednesday. In Nigeria, to prepare for the upcoming presidential election on February 16, the company echoed its policy from the Irish referendum last year, Facebook will only allow electoral ads from advertisers located within the country. The same policy will take effect in Ukraine in February as the country elects its president on March 31.

On the face of it, Facebook seems committed to India, and to preserving democracy globally. However, the company has had a chequered past when it comes to fulfilling its commitments. Often it seems that Facebook has created Frankenstein’s monster and has no clue about what it is capable of how or how to control it. Only time will tell if any of these steps that Facebook has taken will prove to be effective.

Aditi Agrawal is a senior sub editor at Qrius

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