Facebook's role in polls under scrutiny

A voter arrives at a polling station in London, Britain June 8, 2017.
A voter arrives at a polling station in London, Britain June 8, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Groups in Europe creating ways to monitor political ads and misinformation on social media

LONDON • Mr Lawrence Dodd lives in one of Britain's most fiercely fought voting districts, and he has been peppered almost daily with advertisements from the country's major political parties on Facebook. About a month ago, he tried to find out why.

Mr Dodd, a maker of musical instruments in northern England, joined an experiment. He and around 10,000 others volunteered their data, allowing researchers to monitor in real time which political ads were showing up in their Facebook news feeds as Britain's election approached.

Their goal: to shed more light on how political campaigns are using Facebook and other digital services - technologies that are quickly reshaping the democratic process, but which often offer few details about their outsized roles in elections worldwide.

"These political ads aren't regulated; nobody knows what is being said on Facebook," said Mr Dodd, 26, who had planned to vote for the Labour Party in yesterday's elections, but who continued to be bombarded with online messages from the ruling Conservatives.

"Wherever politics is concerned, there needs to more transparency."

Facebook provides little information on how political parties use ads to reach undecided voters on the site. And concern has been growing since the United States presidential election last year about the company's role in campaigns, including about how politically charged "fake news" is spread online.

Now, as voters head to the polls across Europe, groups in Britain, Germany and elsewhere are fighting back, creating new ways to track and monitor digital political ads and misinformation on the social network and on other digital services like Twitter and Google.

The political ads shown to Mr Dodd are being tallied by WhoTargetsMe?, a non-political group that designed a digital tool to monitor Facebook's role before the British election.

Costing less than US$1,000 (S$1,830) to build, the technology, which works as a plug-in on desktop Web browsers and anonymises users' personal information, was created because the social network does not share information on political ads shown to its more than 36 million users in Britain, roughly half the country's population.

That lack of information has raised hackles about the activities of both Facebook and politicians in a country where campaigns are highly regulated and political financing is tightly capped.

"Political advertising is fundamentally different; there's a lot of concern about what's being seen on Facebook," said WhoTargetsMe? co-founder Sam Jeffers, a former digital media strategist.

"The people deserve some sense of what's going on."

The number of ads seen by WhoTargetsMe? volunteers roughly doubled in the last month, though political messages still represented 2 per cent of ads displayed in Facebook feeds, the group's analysis showed.

"It's a fundamental conversation to have about how we regulate this," said Dr Nick Anstead, a media and communications expert at the London School of Economics.

"Facebook has a responsibility to tell its users who is buying advertising that is targeting their votes."

In response, the network said its roughly two billion users worldwide have complete control over which ads they are shown, and that it is the responsibility of individual political parties to comply with their countries' electoral laws.

"Facebook's goal is to make it easier for people to get the information they need to vote," said Mr Andy Stone, a company spokesman, in a statement. "We encourage any and all candidates, groups and voters to use our platform to engage in the elections."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2017, with the headline 'Facebook's role in polls under scrutiny'. Print Edition | Subscribe