Doubts over Facebook’s pledge to tackle fake news and hate during elections in Bhutan

ECB says it has the power to shut down Facebook if things get out of hand during the election period

There was much excitement over the visit of team from Facebook India to Bhutan in early July, and their commitment to the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) to tackle fake news and malicious posts by anonymous accounts during the election period.

However, the real nature and context of their visit and also the lack of follow up on this pledge by Facebook is raising some serious doubts on their commitments to the ECB.

Facebook took 2 to 3 years to respond to invite

An official in the Ministry of Information and Communication told this paper that the invitation for facebook to come and visit Bhutan had been sent two to three years ago and followed up on, but the visit did not happen for a while.

The official admitted that there was a ‘lack of interest and response’ from facebook’s side to this official invitation.

The Director General of Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT), Jigme Thinlye Namgyal said that he joined as the DG around one year and half ago and he had also been following up on the invitation to facebook India since then.

When the facebook team did finally come to Bhutan in July 2018, it was mainly to promote the commercial aspects of facebook like online advertisement and promotion and using its programs- all of which are the main source of revenue for this multi-billion-dollar company.

“Honestly and frankly, the main priority of the facebook team’s visit was commercial and economic as there are five million people doing business on facebook. We wanted to see if that can be used for small and medium enterprises in Bhutan to do and promote their businesses and also generate employment,” said the DG.

He said that the facebook held seminars for two days with the first day being for corporate and business executives. This seminar looked at enhancing office efficiency using certain facebook programs, creating verified accounts and other aspects.

The second day seminar given to the small and medium enterprises was was to do with using facebook to enhance and promote their businesses.

The issue of anonymous accounts and defamatory and fake news content came up only due to the question asked by some of the participants. The facebook officials gave the standard reply of reporting fake accounts and content that violated community standards using the facebook reporting system available to every user.

The DG said that once facebook had confirmed it was coming he informed ECB and scheduled a meeting with the Commission on the first day. By all accounts the meeting lasted for around 45 minutes or so.

Both ECB and the DITT confirmed that apart from verbal assurances and nomination of DITT as the focal authority to report election issues to Facebook India, there was no agreement or MoU signed.

No contact details

The Bhutanese has found that apart from a couple of personal business cards the facebook team did not even leave any set of contact information for DITT to officially report any content or accounts on behalf of the ECB.

As of 17th August 2018 the only available contact with DITT was an email address and mobile number with DITT given through a business card.

When The Bhutanese called the number it was switched off on 15th, 16th and 17th August. Questions sent to the email address on 15th August including the official facebook messenger address elicited no acknowledgement or response even by the evening of 17th August.

The same mail was forwarded to another email address with the ECB by 15th August and that too did not elicit any response.

The ground reality, therefore, is that with the general elections on the doorstep and despite the request of the ECB and DITT, Facebook India has neither nominated any focal person or agency from its side nor given any official contact details to deal with any potential complaints by the ECB via DITT.

Facebook India has also not followed up with either DITT and ECB on its pledges made in July 2018 to ensure that fake accounts and fake news does not impact a free and fair 2018 race.

The ECB from its side has already officially appointed DITT as its channel to contact Facebook India.

Facebook promises to ECB yet to bear fruit

The ECB spokesperson and head of the department of election, Sonam Tobgyal, said that in the meeting with the facebook officials, the ECB conveyed that while social media has a positive side and is a good tool of communication in a landlocked country -there are also concerns.

The ECB told the facebook team that looking at the international, South Asian and the local context, everybody is concerned how the use of social media might influence elections.

The ECB particularly expressed concerns on anonymous accounts resorting to hate speech and mudslinging.

Sonam said that the facebook team asked the ECB to come through DITT as the focal agency to which ECB agreed.

Facebook also asked for a certain time period to prepare, but the ECB said that the elections is time bound period of three months and so facebook agreed to help.

Sonam said that in the discussions between the two sides facebook said it needed to be conversant with local laws to be able to take action effectively. Sonam said that he pointed to the 48 hours’ blackout section.

However, despite facebook’s pronouncement that it needed to be familiar with local laws to take action, neither its July team nor any later communication asked for the election laws of Bhutan.

Sonam, however, said that one thing that facebook has already done based on a request by the ECB, is to verify the accounts of the four political parties giving them a blue tick.

However, it is anyhow facebook’s job to verify institutions, political parties, and others. In the case of Bhutan this track record of verification has been very poor.

The facebook team in Bhutan later arranged for a Bhutanese election team already undergoing some election training in India to visit the facebook head office in Delhi.

Karma, an ECB official who went for the training, said that they visited the facebook office and got a presentation very similar to what the facebook team already gave in Bhutan. It talked about using inbuilt facebook features to report accounts or posts.

However, despite the presence of ECB officials there Facebook India did not shed any additional light on whom to forward complaints to or how it would be handled.

In response to a question, Karma said that during the visit there was no contact details given to them on whom to contact for ECB’s complaints through DITT.

In response to another question, Sonam Tobgyal said that ECB’s main mandate is to ensure free and fair elections and if any social media like facebook is affecting that in a serious manner then the ECB under section 36(f) Act has the power to shut down facebook in Bhutan for the election period.

Sonam, however, clarified that such a power may only be used if matters really get out of hand and the the social media platforms like facebook are not responsive to ECB’s concerns. He said that this could be done after consulting relevant stakeholders should such a situation arise.

Section 36 (f) says, “The Election Commission shall have the power to:   Enforce or require any other act to be done as authorized under this Act or any other law in force.”

Bhutan’s biggest social media platform

Sonam said that ECB had focused on facebook given its large presence in Bhutan compared to all other social media platforms.

According to the website internetworldstats.com Bhutan had around 350,000 facebook accounts by December 2017.

As of 17th August 2018 the estimated total number of facebook accounts in Bhutan is around 400,000 based on the estimated commercial reach in Bhutan shown by facebook to its advertisers.

Of this 400,000 around 344,000 accounts are those of 18 and above while 58,000 are accounts for the ages between 13 and 17.

Of the 400,000 accounts around 230,000 are men while 170,000 are women.

The large number of 400,000 accounts shown by Facebook to advertisers may be a cause of concern given that Bhutan’s total population is only 735,553 according to the 2017 Population and Housing Census of Bhutan. A certain percentage of the 400,000 accounts could very well be fake accounts.

In terms of the overall social media, facebook dwarfs other social media outlets in Bhutan. According to the site gs.statcounter.com 80.96 percent of social media users in Bhutan use facebook followed by 8.03 percent using pin interest, 6.54 percent using YouTube, 2.26 percent using Linked in, 0.98 percent on twitter and 0.7 percent on Instagram.

WeChat is another popular social media platform, popular mainly in rural areas but there are no stats to show the number of users.

Facebook’s bad behavior in Bhutan and other countries

In addition to the above situation what has not been encouraging is the behavior of facebook both in Bhutan and internationally.

While the facebook team in its visit to Bhutan encouraged people to report fake accounts and posts that violated community standards, its action on these have been very poor when reports are actually filed.

The best example of this lack of action is the BHUTANESE News and Forum which is Bhutan’s largest facebook forum with around 150,000 members created by a fake account with three fake admins. This forum is dominated by fake accounts, posts and comments that violate community standards with everything ranging from death threats to fake news.

However, many conscious and real users have found that despite reporting fake accounts and posts there is no action taken by facebook which in fact certifies the fake accounts as being real.

The result of the lack of action on such issues is leading to facebook in Bhutan increasingly being dominated by fake accounts and posts.

At the international level facebook has come under a lot of scrutiny after Russian trolls and bots influenced the outcome of the US Presidential elections.

It also came under scrutiny after a political consultancy Cambridge Analytica stole the data of around 50 mn facebook users and used it to build psychological profiles and accordingly created fake news and spread it back using facebook.

Facebook has come under increasing international criticism in recent times with investigation after investigation showing how it is now the main agent of spreading fake news, hate speech, promoting extremism and even causing real clashes, crimes and death on the ground in many countries.

Facebook has been energetic in responding to western governments and powerful governments where its offices and sources of revenue are based or where it can come under regulatory sanction.

However, it has not been responsive to issues brewing in several poor and developing countries across the world, including in Bhutan.

In neighboring Sri Lanka, for example, facebook accounts fanning communal and ethnic hatred and fake news had lead to communal clashes and riots between communities and groups and deaths.

Despite requests by the Sri Lankan authorities and government no action was taken until Sri Lanka was forced to shut down facebook for a while just to get facebook’s attention.

A New York Times investigation in April 2018 found that though civil society groups and and government officials repeatedly asked facebook to establish direct lines, the company had insisted the reporting tool on facebook would be sufficient. However, nearly every report on explosive communal and hate messages and videos got the same response that the content did not violate facebook’s standards.

It seems that Facebook India not giving any official contacts or reporting channel to Bhutan, so far, and stressing on reporting through the facebook features maybe a replication of their earlier response to similar requests from Sri Lanka.

The New York Times in its investigative piece on facebook’s role in fanning violence and fake news said, “In developing countries, Facebook is often perceived as synonymous with the internet and reputable sources are scarce, allowing emotionally charged rumors to run rampant. Shared among trusted friends and family members, they can become conventional wisdom.”

“And where people do not feel they can rely on the police or courts to keep them safe, research shows, panic over a perceived threat can lead some to take matters into their own hands — to lynch.”

Facebook has also been accused of fanning and facilitating attacks on Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Facebook and its other app WhatsApp has been held guilty of fueling rumors in developing countries leading to actual lynchings and deaths.

In India alone fake WhatsApp rumors on child lifting led to 22 people being lynched and killed all over the country.

Facebook has so far escaped the same accountability for its content as media houses by saying that it is not a publishing house or a media house but a neutral tech platform putting the accountability for content on its users. This is why even BICMA in Bhutan does not look at regulating facebook posts or handling complaints related to it.

However, recently in the early July 2018 in a court case in the USA, facebook’s lawyers contrary to its public pronouncements said facebook is a publishing house that makes editorial decisions and should be protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution that protects press freedom.

With around 400,000 facebook users in Bhutan dwarfing any other social media platform, Bhutan now clearly has a facebook problem on its hand not only for the upcoming general elections but even beyond that. However, the publishers and owners of facebook will not only not enforce their own rules, but are failing to live up to their commitments made to legal authorities in Bhutan.

About Tenzing Lamsang

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