With India’s general elections coming up next year, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have joined hands with the country’s Election Commission (EC) to persist against the spread of fake news. From what we’ve been observing during the past two years, the question remains whether these corporate giants can be trusted with this responsibility.
Indian elections 2019
The general elections of 2019 will arguably be one of the most closely watched, bitterly-fought elections in Indian history. While on one side there is the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which proclaims itself nationalist, there is a conglomeration of parties on the other side that seek to oust BJP from power and ensure that incumbent Prime Minister Modi does not get elected for a second term.
Given that it would be a hard-fought election, the EC wants social media websites to monitor and censor spread of all fake news and propaganda. Facebook, Google, and Twitter will carry out their own monitoring activities voluntarily, without any oversight or control by the Election Commission. In the 12 to 14-day campaign window, social media websites will flag any inappropriate content to the EC. However, during the last 48 hours before polling, all kinds of political advertisements and posts will be strictly prohibited.
“EC’s interactions with the three social media companies are complete and they have agreed to monitor all political advertisements during the campaign. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Whatsapp will have posts that involve healthy campaigning, while negative/personal campaigns or fake news will be blocked. The action shall be completely voluntary and not enforced by EC,” Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat says in an interview with The Times of India.
Social media websites will display all sponsored political content with the tag “sponsored,” together with the name of the sponsor and the amount that has been paid for the advert. This is done to let social media users know that what they are reading or watching is a political advertisement and not a non-partisan post.
Fighting fake news across the world
In April 2018, the European Union asked social media companies to explain their plans for combating the spread of fake news. If the firms were to fail in implementing strong measures to curb the menace, the EU would set up strict regulations. Stirred by the warning, social media companies are investing in technologies that will help them detect and remove false news.
“Under the new plan, the companies have agreed to invest in efforts and technologies that would help European citizens stay alert about hoaxes and prioritize authentic information in search rankings and news feeds. The companies have agreed to support and develop indicators of trustworthiness in collaboration with news organizations,” says an article at Market Realist.
However, the move to control fake news also raises concerns about the threat to free speech. In Taiwan, activists have pointed to the possibility that a system to weed out fake news might end up being used by the government to remove opposing views.
“It should not be for the government to determine whether a report is real or not — otherwise, the government could use this as a tool to put a stop to dissenting voices,” Su Herng, a journalism professor at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, says in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
Given such concerns, social media companies will have to find a way to weed out the fake news while ensuring that they do not become a pawn in the hands of ruling governments, which might try to control the freedom of speech of their citizens.
Safekeeping with the burglar
Google, with its DragonFly project, is purportedly on its way to launch a censored Chinese search engine catered to the likes of the Communist Party of China. Facebook and Twitter have been accused of posting thousands of fake political ads focused on race and immigration by Russian operatives during the U.S. presidential election, and more recently, shadow banning and suppressing conservative posts.
So the question remains, how can these corporate entities be given authority to ensure freedom of speech and curbing of fake news when they themselves do not value such principles, and actively seek to curb the spread of news that does not align with their ideologies?