As India prepares to vote for its general elections, starting April 11, Facebook has identified and removed several pages, groups, and accounts that were engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior, spreading fake news and hate speech. These pages either supported the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC). Simultaneously, Facebook also took down a set of pages linked to Pakistan that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior after the Pulwama attacks.
Facebook: Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior and Spam
Facebook announced take-downs of coordinated manipulation by the two biggest Indian political parties as well as by Pakistan’s military. In a blog post, Facebook explained the actions it took:
- We removed 103 Pages, Groups and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a network that originated in Pakistan.
- We removed 687 Facebook Pages and accounts — the majority of which had already been detected and suspended by our automated systems — that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior in India and were linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress (INC).
- We removed 15 Facebook Pages, Groups and accounts that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior in India and were linked to individuals associated with an Indian IT firm, Silver Touch.
- We removed 321 Facebook Pages and accounts in India that have broken our rules against spam. Unlike the first three actions, this last activity does not represent a single or coordinated operation — instead, there are multiple sets of Pages and accounts that behaved similarly and violated our policies.
The story behind, ‘The Indian Eye’
The company took down a pro-BJP page from Facebook and Instagram called the “Indian eye” which had over 2 million followers. Altnews, a fact-checking outlet which unearthed information about this page. The page vocally supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was a critic of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
The related website to this page called theindiaeye.com was hosted on Silver Touch servers, which was connected to an Indian IT company called Silver Touch Technologies Ltd, responsible for creating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official app. Moreover, domain names ‘theindiaeye.com’, listed on the Facebook page, and ‘theindiaeye.in’, were registered to Himanshu Jain, who was the director of Silver Touch technologies and was also managing several government projects via his company.
The page Indian eye was created in 2016. It is disconcerting is to see that Facebook not taking any actions even after several regional media outlets reported that the page was spreading false information related to Indian politics. The engagements on the posts kept increasing, with a significant uptick from June 2018 onward. At the time, when Altnews published its discovery, the page had over 1.7 million following and its posts were liked and shared by thousands on a daily basis.
Even after getting reported for spreading fake news, the page garnered significant engagement. More worrisome the page had massive share numbers: pic.twitter.com/8tBsbvffFW
— Kanishk Karan (@KaranKanishk) April 1, 2019
India, an interesting battleground for internet regulation
Indian political parties and their supporters have been increasingly using social media (Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram) for spreading their propaganda. Often, they are accused of running deceptive social-media accounts that run disinformation and fake news campaigns. Often this partisan content is in regional languages, thus failing to be captured in Facebook’s automated screening software and its human moderators, both of which are built largely around English. Often fake news is spread via WhatsApp, where messages are e2e encrypted reducing visibility into what is being shared.
In India, especially it is extremely prevalent and has often spurred mobs that have led to killings, initiated by nothing more than rumors sent over WhatsApp. Also, India’s many misinformation campaigns are developed and run by political parties themselves. Their main targets – political opponents, religious minorities and disagreeing individuals.
“India’s elections present a unique set of issues, including a large number of languages and an extended time period for voting,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy head for global elections. She said the company had been planning for the election for more than a year. “India is a strong battleground to test Facebook’s services. It will also help Facebook get the US 2020 elections right.” Per New York Times, “Facebook’s performance will be a prelude for how it navigates a likely onslaught of propaganda, false information, and foreign meddling during the 2020 presidential election in the United States.”
Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook also tweeted about his views on the take-downs of coordinated manipulation by Facebook.
Enforcing authenticity rules against foreign operators, such as Pakistan's Inter-Service Public Relations organization is an easy call. It is a lot harder to provide attribution and control the speech of political parties who will end up regulating you after the election.
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) April 1, 2019
This would be enhanced by an industry-wide group that can perform attribution based upon evidence from multiple companies and spread the potential pain. The fact that most companies are quietly taking down these operations with no announcement or public analysis is worrying.
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) April 1, 2019
Is fact checking by Facebook a mere PR stunt?
For the past year, Facebook was relying on two organizations that assist them in flag checking fake news in India, Boom and Agence France-Presse, for posts written in English. After Facebook’s algorithms flag potentially fake posts, these fact-checkers decide which ones to investigate. In preparation for the upcoming National elections, Facebook also added five more organizations covering seven languages in February.
However, some of Facebook’s media partners, two large publishing houses, India Today Group, and Jagran Media Network had repeatedly published false information related to the Kashmir attack. This was recently found by Alt News. Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News, said Facebook did not seem to view false news as a serious problem. “The whole thing is a P.R. effort,” he said.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder of Equality Labs, a human rights group in the United States, said her organization recently studied more than 1,000 Facebook posts that attacked caste and religious minorities. It found that 80 percent of the posts stayed on the social network after they were reported as hate speech, and nearly half of the posts that were initially removed were up again several months later.
Indian National Elections begin this month and containing fake news will be one of the biggest challenges the country will face. And it is going to be a lot harder for Facebook to provide attribution and control the speech of political parties, considering these political parties will be the ones regulating Facebook after the elections.