Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

Facebook’s year of woe over election meddling claims

Social media giant has been slated over failure to control fake news and data misuse during a turbulent 2018

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before Congress in April. AFP
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before Congress in April. AFP

Facebook and Twitter have removed fake news pages linked to supporters of Bangladesh’s government to counter the latest attempt to manipulate national elections via the social media giants.

Nine Facebook pages that mimicked genuine news sites, including the BBC and a Bangladeshi online newspaper, were taken down after they criticised the opposition in the run-up to polling day on December 30.

The pages falsely claimed splits in opposition ranks and sackings as Premier Sheikh Hasina’s party seeks to win a third consecutive term in power. Twitter said it had also identified and suspended 15 accounts originating from Bangladesh for “engaging in coordinated platform manipulation”.

The case is just the latest apparent attempt to exploit social media for political purposes following Russian meddling in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. The issue has dogged Facebook and other social media companies throughout 2018.

Facebook has faced accusations that it has failed to weed out fake news on its networks and been further pummelled over how it allowed the polling firm Cambridge Analytica to use the data of millions of unwitting users before the 2016 US election.

The scandals have led to calls for the social network to face regulation and sparked a battle of wills between parliaments and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who has refused to appear before a number of inquiries.

British MPs said Facebook should be held liable for transmitting harmful and misleading material and that similar firms should have to pay a levy so they could be regulated.

The problems have contributed to a woeful year for Facebook. The company, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has seen its value plunge by some $126 billion (Dh463bn) to about $410bn in 2018 after years of free-wheeling growth.

Facebook has borne the brunt of criticism after the platform was used to incite violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar earlier this year.

The criticism reached its height over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The British firm, which worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was closed down after further revelations about its possible role in meddling with elections overseas.

Mr Zuckerberg gave evidence before US Congress and said that one of his “greatest regrets” was the failure of the company to swiftly identify the Russian fake news operation in 2016. He also appeared before the European parliament, but the session – carefully choreographed with the agreement of Facebook officials – failed to satisfy the company’s many critics.

He refused to appear before other parliaments – including in the UK and Canada – leading to a group of MPs from nine countries arranging a special session in London to allow Mr Zuckerberg to address them all. Mr Zuckerberg declined to turn up.

The MPs made great play of his failure to attend the November hearing.

“The sense of corporate social responsibility, particularly in light of the immense power and profit of Facebook, has been as empty as the chair beside you,” Canadian MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told Mr Zuckerberg’s stand-in Richard Allen, the company’s vice president for policy solutions.

Although Facebook has stepped up fact-checking, it still faces criticism that it is too slow to close rogue accounts. The company had disabled 754 million fake accounts globally in the third quarter of this year, up from 583 million in the first quarter in 2018.

It is not just Facebook. Some 30 deaths have been linked to rumours circulated through WhatsApp in India, according to The Guardian newspaper. It said eight people were killed in June 2018 after rumours spread through the app about alleged child kidnappers.

The focus of MPs’ concerns has, however, been the 2016 US election. In February 2018, the inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller into alleged Russian meddling in the election highlighted how a notorious Russian troll farm sought to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to stoke tensions before the vote.

Research by cybersecurity companies highlighted how Iranian trolls later used tactics similar to the Russians to spread discord in the US and Britain.

“It looks like the Iranian operation learned lessons from observing the Russian operation,” said Ben Nimmo a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who examined the data.

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Commercial as well as political pressure have played a key role in Facebook’s misfortune. After it warned in July of the cost of improving privacy controls after a series of data breaches and slowing advertising revenue, its share price dropped by 20 per cent.

Unlike Facebook and Alphabet – owner of Google and YouTube – Twitter has seen its market value rise in 2018. It has been linked to the proliferation of fake news but has made data available to researchers to analyse the company’s significance.

Facebook faced further bad publicity when the New York Times reported in November that the company had worked with a public relations firm to undermine anti-Facebook groups by linking them with the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

The campaign against Mr Soros, born in Hungary but living in the US, was seen as being particularly toxic after he had been targeted by the anti-Muslim, anti-migrant Hungarian government as a "puppet master" of a pro-migrant campaign.

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Updated: December 24, 2018 03:32 PM

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