Influence of Facebook on Asia’s election season

Influence of Facebook on Asia’s election season

Various Asian nations are set to hold critical elections later on this year. And there are serious concerns over the effect Facebook and other social media platforms can have on election campaigns in terms of fake news and bots. Although Facebook themselves have claimed they are combatting this issue head on there remains doubt over the tech company’s ability to tackle such a significant problem.

Asia’s experience of Facebook’s political influence

Previous experiences of having to deal with Facebook’s presence and its utility for electorates to express and spread political views, positive or negative, true or false, have been less than smooth. Facebook’s performance during Myanmar’s Rakhine state crisis highlighted, in particular, the seriousness of certain groups being able to spread discriminative propaganda using the social network’s platform. In this case, Myanmar military leaders utilised Facebook to distribute anti-Rohingya content to show legitimacy in their actions. This had significant effects on opinions both within the country but also internationally, and ultimately, induced more violence.

India’s experience of fake news and rumour spreading using Facebook has led to hate speech and local outbreaks of violence. It has included issues pertaining to an array of social and religious issues, including attacks on suspecting beef traders from Hindu cow protection vigilantes. Indonesia also has experienced the spreading of ethnically and religiously charged fake news, even from political leaders and campaigners themselves running smear campaigns against opponents. As was the case in 2014, where Mr Widodo was accused of being anti-Islam and Chinese from supporters of his opponent, Mr Subianto. 2017 even saw the eventual arrest of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama after a gubernatorial election characterised by discriminatory false accusations and fake news.

Facebook reforms to improve performance

After the company came under severe scrutiny back in 2016 following the US presidential election and accusations that Russia had infiltrated the process by using Facebook as a tool to spread misinformation, Zuckerberg has initiated several efforts to improve the company’s election integrity. This is primarily being done through targeting fake accounts, supressing viral misinformation which in the past has contributed to the outbreak of violence. There will also be a greater focus on the transparency and verification of advertisements by holding advertisers to account.

In reality, this has meant that the tech giant has had to reinforce its teams concentrating on safety and security. Tripling the department’s staff to 30,000 in 2017 alone, but also setting up special election teams in Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. These election teams are to manage and prepare Facebook and coordinate with other news outlets over how to deal with actors spreading disinformation. Understanding and using native languages and local dialects work to improve Facebook’s ability to comprehend the cultural context and nuances of specific elections. Subsequently, improving digital literacy – educating people on what they are seeing when online – is also imperative in the attempt to counter the effects of the fake news phenomenon.

Zuckerberg has also taken longer-term precautions by setting up the Independent Election Research Commission which is designed to conduct research focussing on Facebook’s actions throughout election processes. This is to ensure that Facebook themselves are held accountable for their actions or inaction but also for them to better understand their role played in such political procedures and how they can better engage and manage with political and social affairs.

Key upcoming elections

Indonesia is holding a presidential election in April, in which Widodo and Subianto are running against each other. Several predictions have anticipated that Widodo will retain his leadership and enter a second term in office. The main concerns are centred upon the potential for ethnic and religious tensions being exploited by extremist groups and activists. They will most likely look to use such social media platforms as Facebook and Whatsapp. Indonesia’s relatively young population is also cause for some concern as the majority own and are frequent users of smartphones, subsequently allowing them to be more susceptible to fake news and disinformation.

India have parliamentary elections scheduled for April/May, which will ultimately decide if Narendra Modi will stay on as Prime Minister for a second term. It is important to note that India is Facebook’s biggest national market outside of the US and is, therefore, a key target of theirs. This makes the audience of fake news very large and therefore can have a serious impact on the opinions the electorate hold, let alone increasing the risk of violence.

Thailand holds its general election later this month but there is speculation it may be pushed back a month. For a country that has been prone to political instability it will go to vote since the junta military regime took over in 2014, supposedly returning the country to a civilian government. The potential influence of Facebook is unknown, but the use of smartphones has risen dramatically, especially amongst the youth, and may play a more significant role in this election.

The Philippines will hold their midterm elections in May, marking the halfway point in President Duterte’s term. Facebook had a critical influence in his election in 2016 where various fake news accounts spread disinformation aiding his efforts to get elected to office, there are fears this may happen again. However, the Commission on Elections has implemented a series of new laws requiring candidates and parties to be more transparent in disclosing their social media accounts and monitoring the content that they distribute. Many criticised Facebook of the speed in which they acted against such groups and pages in the 2016 election, claiming that the company have decided to act far too late. Facebook will look to be far more proactive this time around.

Outlook on Facebook’s future role in political processes

It becomes apparent that tech giants and leaders of online news distribution have become far more aware of their role in political processes and their responsibility to either prevent or mitigate malign actors getting involved and influencing democratic processes. There are certain limitations, however, on the efforts taken to counter electoral manipulation. Actions taken against fake news are reactionary in nature and are therefore limiting the effect the fake news has is dependent on the speed of which social media companies can crack down on perpetrators.

With a long-term outlook beyond 2019, it is necessary to appreciate that the relationship between technology, elections and democracy will only develop further. The rise of foreign interference and cyber-attacks from coordinated groups are now a serious and known threat for governments to contend with. Consequently, tech giants such as Facebook will have to cooperate with both other tech firms and governments themselves, whilst maintaining their investment into countermeasures, in order to uphold the integrity of elections worldwide.

About Author

Charles Williams

Charles Williams is from the UK and graduated from Loughborough University with a BA in International Relations and has just completed his MA in International Political Economy from King’s College London. He is a keen traveller and having studied and travelled in China and Taiwan specialises in China’s international relations with a particular focus on the Belt and Road Initiative.