Friction over fiction on Facebook

Some governments are starting to push back against an onslaught of online misinformation that has had disastrous real-world impact

Facebook rumours force a well-known politician to publish proof of his heritage. Fake images show a prominent female leader in a hangman's noose. A politician's aide decries violent crime with a Facebook photo of a girl's corpse - an image that turns out to come from another country.

Another day on social media for US President Barack Obama, Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump? Think again.

Those incidents took place in Indonesia and the Philippines, where social media's outsize place in politics is widely acknowledged, even as that role is coming under sharper criticism in the United States.

Well before the US election results threw Facebook's status as a digital-era news source into the spotlight, leaders, advocacy groups and minorities worldwide have contended with an onslaught of online misinformation and abuse that have had real-world political repercussions. And for years, the social network did little to clamp down on the false news.

Now Facebook, Google and others have begun to take steps to curb the trend, but some outside the US say the move is too late.

"They should have done this way earlier," said Mr Richard Heydarian, a political analyst in the Philippines, one of Facebook's fastest- growing markets. "We saw the warning signs of this years ago."


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Last Thursday, Mr Obama, speaking in Berlin and standing alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticised Facebook and other social media for disseminating fake news. He became so impassioned that at one point he lost track of the question he was answering.

"If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won't know what to protect," Mr Obama said.

The impact of Facebook and other social media platforms on international elections is difficult to quantify. But Facebook's global reach - roughly a quarter of the world's population now has an account - is difficult to deny, political experts and academics say.

Some governments are pushing back, sometimes with undemocratic effects. Dr Merkel has said she is considering plans to force social networks to make public how they rank news online. Some African countries have banned the use of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter before elections. Indonesia's government has closed sites that it says promote fake news, though experts say some portals were also targeted for political reasons.

Facebook last Thursday said the social network was a place for people to stay informed and that what people saw in their news feed was overwhelmingly authentic. The Silicon Valley company previously denied that it failed to deal with misinformation and said it continues to monitor the social network so that it meets existing standards.

"I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way - I think is a pretty crazy idea," Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive, told a tech conference days after the US presidential election. "Voters make decisions based on their lived experience."

Facebook's power is often stronger overseas than it is in the US. In many developing countries with populations new to both democracy and social media, experts said, fake stories can be more widely believed. And in some of these countries, Facebook even offers free smartphone data connections to basic public online services, some news sites and Facebook itself - but limits access to broader sources that could help debunk fake news.

One such place is the Philippines, where a spokesman for populist President Rodrigo Duterte shared on Facebook an image of a corpse of a young girl believed to have been raped and killed by a drug dealer. Fact checkers later revealed that the photo was from Brazil. Despite the debunking, proponents of Mr Duterte's bloody crackdown on reported drug dealers and addicts still cite the image in his defence, according to political analysts.

Tens of thousands of Philippine Facebook users also recently shared a story claiming that Nasa had voted Mr Duterte "the best president in the solar system". While many commenters on the Facebook post took it as a joke, some appeared to take it seriously. And an image of Ms Leila de Lima, a local lawmaker and a critic of Mr Duterte, depicted her facing a hangman's noose.

"Facebook hasn't led to empowerment of the average citizen, but empowerment of professional propagandists, fringe elements and conspiracy theorists," said Mr Heydarian. "Voices that were lurking in the shadows are now at the centre of the public discourse."

In Indonesia, where Facebook is so popular that some people confuse it with the broader Internet, the service has considerable sway.

When Mr Joko Widodo was running for the presidency in 2014, he was accused through social media of being a Chinese Christian and a communist - severe criticism in the deeply Islamic country. The Indonesian politician released his marriage certificate to prove he wasn't Chinese and made a pilgrimage to Mecca just before voting.

"The fake news had a very big impact in our campaign," said Mr Tubagus Ramadhan, who helped Mr Joko run his social media campaign during the election.

The online misinformation has not been limited to elections. In Colombia, Facebook users widely shared a crudely altered photo of a pop singer, Juanes, wearing a T-shirt suggesting he opposed a peace deal with the country's largest rebel group. On Twitter, Juanes denied it. Colombia's voters narrowly rejected the deal in a referendum last month.

While Facebook has won plaudits for letting people in disaster zones tell friends and families they are safe, it has also been a conduit for dangerous rumours in those situations. At the height of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a false message widely distributed in Sierra Leone on Facebook and WhatsApp, which is owned by the social network, said bathing in hot water with salt would cure and prevent the spread of the virus.

Even in long-established democracies such as Germany, Spain and Italy, false news reports and hate speech on social media have whipped up grassroots populist movements, which have often targeted the recent influx of Middle Eastern refugees, to garner wider electoral support.

Now, many European politicians are questioning what role social media has had in deciding what voters can and cannot see. They have forced social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google to sign up for voluntary - so far - standards to police hate speech online.

In Germany, Dr Merkel's push to require US social network companies to publish how they rank news is intended to give voters greater control over what they read online.

"Algorithms must be more transparent," Dr Merkel has said, "so that interested citizens are also aware of what actually happens with their own media behaviour and that of others."

Other politicians, often in more recently established democracies, are going a step further.

In some African countries, including Chad and Uganda, officials cite uncorroborated security threats and fears that false polling results could be shared online as reasons for shutting down social media before elections.

Mr Christian Echle, director of the sub-Sahara Africa media programme at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation, said such actions were heavy-handed and that social media had played a role in helping voters - many located far from urban centres - to gain access to much- needed information and interact with political candidates.

But, he added, a growing amount of news shared through social media was either false or biased, making it difficult for people in these often fledgling democracies to know which news outlets to trust.

"There's a big, big threat - that social media will deepen existing gaps in these societies," said Mr Echle, who is based in Johannesburg. "People are still learning how to use social media, so many can easily fall for hoaxes."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Friction over fiction on Facebook'. Print Edition | Subscribe