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article imageOp-Ed: WhatsApp undermines Facebook's war on election interference

By Ken Hanly     Oct 20, 2018 in Internet
Menlo Park - There is a conference room inside of Facebook's headquarters that is devoted to fighting election interference. Casey Newton a reporter with the Verge visited what is called the war room and wrote a recent article about the visit.
Newton visits the Facebook war room
After an introductory briefing, Newton got to visit the actual room. The room MPK 20 is just one of many conference rooms in the headquarters in Menlo Park, Palo Alto as shown in the appended image. There were desks for 24 people and the room is ringed by seventeen screens. Each screen highlights a stream of information that Facebook is monitoring.
Employees watch for suspicious spikes in spam and hate speech. In some cases they use special software to do this. They are looking for activity such as voter suppression. For example there may be posts saying that an election has been delayed because of long lineups. The team recently uncovered a hoax claiming that the Brazilian election had been delayed a day because of protests. The offending posts were quickly removed.
Newton was unfortunate in that nothing dramatic happened while she was there.
Facebook's war room is fighting a war in the Brazil election
Newton notes that the room was festooned with both US and Brazilian flags. The war room is waging war against fake news not only in US elections but those in Brazil as well. Surely, this might be considered interfering in the Brazilian election. Even if this is done in the name of stopping fake news, it could be considered interfering in the Brazil election. If Bolsonaro wins then Facebook could very well find itself banned in Brazil because its actions meant that he probably had less votes than otherwise.
It seems that a report by Folha on the scheme to use WhatsApp for fake news was timed to coincide with the reporters visit as it appeared while they were there. Buzzfeed notes: "The report was released the same day that WhatsApp's new CEO, Chris Daniels, published a piece in Folha, writing, "We have a responsibility to amplify the good and mitigate the bad." Thursday morning, also, appears to have been the time when Facebook allowed access stories from American journalists such as CNN covering Facebook's new "election war room" to publish. The timing of the embargo — an agreement between news organizations to publish news provided by a source at the same time — the investigation by Folha, and Daniels' op-ed throw into question exactly how Facebook intends to monitor fake news and hyperpartisan misinformation, especially in a WhatsApp-dominated country like Brazil."
In other words the timing was intended to ensure that the stories would point out the failings of WhatsApp. Newton uses Buzzfeed to explain what happened.
How the scheme worked
Media firms that support the right-wing front runner Jair Bolsanaro used his supporter database along with third party databases of phone numbers. Some agencies even broke down data on the basis of income level and location. They then used a service called mass shooting to send thousands of messages.
The Folha investigation alleges that the firms bought contracts worth up to $3.2 million dollars. This is not only an abuse of WhatsApp, its illegal in Brazil where companies are banned from donating to political campaigns and are not allowed to access a candidate's database.
The scheme may not show up on any Facebook screen
The media companies' scheme is most insidious in that it is not evident that any of the many screens in the Facebook war room can capture the malign activity. The fake news is spread virally using a platform that almost no one can see inside.
How the damage might be limited
Several Brazilian researchers have suggested three ways the WhatsApp propaganda could be limited. The number of times a message can be forwarded could be reduced from 20 to 5. Facebook already does this in India. Secondly, Facebook could lower substantially the number of people that a person can send a single message to from the present very large 256. Finally, the company could limit the size of new groups in the hope that this could limit the formation of misinformation mobs. As to the last technique, surely this would be easy to avoid by just forming many clones of smaller groups and having them work in concert.
Newton concludes that it would be best to not allow an app to have both end-to-end encryption and viral sharing mechanics just one or the other. This would allow the mobs to be in plain sight. It would be interesting to see what WhatApp would have to say about Newton's complaints and suggestions.
Are those helping to filter fake news neutral?
One should always be suspicious when giant corporations decide to protect us from fake news and misinformation. Obviously political figures such as Donald Trump and many other politicians make announcements that are lies and they are dutifully reported by the mass media ad nauseam often without comment since to comment is not straight objective reporting. Now this is not regarded as fake news but it has the same effect especially if the politician is regarded as truthful by many of his or her followers. No one suggests banning those reports. People are left to determine themselves whether what important figures say is true or false. Other reports may show these are lies or claim they are but such reports do not ban the original statements.
Among those helping Facebook to filter the news is the Atlantic Council. Rania Khalek an independent journalist said in a tweet: “This is alarming. The Atlantic Council — which is funded by gulf monarchies, western governments, NATO, oil and weapons companies, etc. — will now assist Facebook in suppressing what they decide is disinformation." In Facebook's statement which announced the partnership it said that the company will use the Atlantic Council's Digital Research Unit Monitoring Missions during elections and other highly sensitive moments.
Adam Johnson, a contributor at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said in response to Facebook's announcement: “Monopoly social media corporations teaming up with [the] pro-U.S. NatSec blob to determine truth was always the logical end of ‘fake news’ panic.”
While Facebook will naturally try to ensure that it does not place itself in a position where it breaks the laws of a country where it operates it would be wise not to hold itself otherwise responsible for filtering what appears on its platform. Leave it to the authorities to warn them when posts are against the law and to prosecute those who break the law as happened in Brazil. The companies using WhatsApp in Brazil broke the law and there is evidence for it. The way to stop them is to prosecute them not to complain about WhatsApp.
As the appended video shows Facebook even banned a video by well known Guardian columnist George Monbiot.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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