Indian elections top priority for Zuckerberg and Facebook: Katie Harbath
In an interaction with ET, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director, said that the company was close to appointing an election integrity head, a position it was trying to fill for the last three months. She also said for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg Indian polls are “top priority” and “they remain very involved in Facebook’s election integrity plans”. Edited excerpts:
As we get closer to the elections, how is Facebook strategizing the same? What has changed in the last few months?
We've had a handful of elections with the biggest ones being in Brazil and the United States (midterms), as well as the state elections in India last fall. We have learnings from every single election, in terms of looking at the different ways which people might be trying to exploit the platform and the ways in which we can mitigate the risks. So, in Bangladesh we had taken down pages and accounts for co-ordinated, inauthentic behaviour. One of the real learnings that came out of Brazil and the US for that was how important the strong partnerships we had with the governments, the civil societies, with third-party groups, and with vendors such as FireEye or Graphica, the Atlantic Council for those type of things.
In October, Vice wrote a story where they bought ads with varying ‘Paid for’ label. While Facebook has launched an ad transparency effort in India, how does the company navigate this issue?
In all of this, we think about, how can we better verify the entities that people are putting in the disclaimer process, and also where do require more information as part of that? We've been exploring a variety of different options, and what the best ways are to execute on that, and some of the things are we are trying to work through, for instance is, how to we balance people's privacy and providing a name, which can also cause problems for people versus the public's right to know who's behind these ads - an individual behind the ad, who might be funding it etc. We're trying to think about how can you do entity verification in a scaled way. We already have that in the authorisation piece, where we require them to give their ID and prove their real location.
People know what the BJP is and people know what the Congress is, but people might create “Indians for India”, “Americans for America.” In the US, we're doing both political and issue ads, and there's different rules, where you have to register with the IRS and at the state level, if you are a business, and you are a LOC, there's not a centralised database for us to necessarily ping up against. Even if you, just do the federal election commission, even there, they have somebody registered as Vladimir Putin in their database, so it’s not a fool proof system.
So we are looking, country by country right now, what the different options could be, for us to make it more clear for people, who the disclaimers are, and also ensure that the ones like the Vice article, can't get through our approval system.
What about issue ads or proxy ads? For instance, the Ram Mandir in India is associated with the ruling party. Ads in support or against the issue can be paid for by proxies? How does Facebook mitigate it?
We have grappled with a lot in terms of what does it mean to influence the political discourse, and who should be required, and what should be transparent in that. And, this is an area that the law has not caught up on, in terms of that, there are different viewpoints, a lot of people have different viewpoints in terms of what that should.
This is still something that we are very much in the beginning stages. We've learnt a ton, but there's still a lot we need to do about thinking about how to do this, how to do this at scale. So the first thing I want to say is we still have the view all ads feature. So you can go to any page on Facebook and see the ads they're currently running. And, you can go there and see those, and that's going to be an opportunity, whether it is yourselves, or watchdog groups, or academics, or others, in which to be able to look and be shedding light, on the types of ads that different entities and organisations might be doing. We also have the additional page transparency, so you can see when the page was created, any name changes that may have gone through and all of that.
That's still more transparency than what existed on Facebook in 2014, when those elections took place. Now, in terms of the political ad transparency, first on the issue ads. Determining what or what is not an issue ad, has been something that has been a constant struggle for us in the United States. Because, I could show an ad to five different people, and each of them might have a different interpretation, on whether it should be considered an issue ad or not. We've been overly broad in the US in terms of what we count as an issue ad. Entertainment houses (for instance, those producing movies on Dick Cheney – “Vice”) are also falling underneath this, in terms of having to provide that transparency. We are still working through and we're still using the US in this, working with different third-party orgs because society has yet to figure out, because, in the world of who's influencing political discourse, who is influencing them, and what transparency should be required on them. And not everybody agrees, on what that should be.
That's why we did that view all ads thing first. So that at least people could see ads that any page is running. We have a lot of work that we need to keep doing, on trying to determine what issue ads may or may not work. Right now, we're doing just the electoral ads.
But what about news organisations? We have seen outlets like the Dainik Bharat, run out of Bihar, which is alleged to publish fake news in Hindi. How does Facebook tackle that?
Defining what is or is not a news organisation, is not an easy task. And one that people would draw the lines, at different places. In the United Kingdom, we have announced that we are not requiring news organisations to do that. We are looking at how we may be able to do that in other countries, and who are the external groups that we can talk to, and what are the criteria that we might use. We are still exploring for India. Still figuring out what resources there might be out there, to help us to think about what we would include as a news organisation. Easy to say ET, not as easy, when you start to get to other news organisations. Potentially with similar names. In the US, the Wisconsin Gazette for example. That sounds like a news organisation, which might exist only on FB, or may have a website too. But there's a lot of news organisations, that are only digital.
We have learnt a lot in each country we've rolled these out in and we've got a lot of feedback from different people of what this should mean, and this is also. Mark last year in leadership had said that there are areas we think we need to be regulated, and there needs to be regulation. Political communication is one of those. We need and there are areas where its going to make more sense, for regulators to be making the determinations of what is an issue ad, what types of transparency is required etc. So at least there's consistency, not just at Facebook, but Google, Twitter, other online platforms.
What about the post for the election integrity lead, which is still active on your careers’ page?
We have done across the company in lot of different locations in terms of all of our election integrity work and the fact that we are still hiring people should not take away from the fact that we have been working on Indian elections since October 2017. That's when we first started pulling together teams and started thinking about 2019 elections and the state elections in between. We have had people in my team myself, others who have been leading this effort throughout that and then we are adding additional ones. So given the fact that we are still working on hiring we are going to, like right up through the elections because there are going to be issues after the elections. And then you have state elections.
So I don't want it to seem like just because we are still hiring people doesn’t mean we have had key people focussed on this. India's one of the top elections we are working on as a company and we have had all of our top people working on the strategy for it.
Have you had any page takedowns or blatantly fake stories? Have you seen any of that activity in India in the last 3 months?
We have not seen anything in terns of coordinated behaviour in India. If we do we will announce that. Its still very early. Lot of this activity you don't really start seeing till you get close to the elections.
Is there a “war room”?
We have a task force going for a long period of time. We did learn a lot in the state elections. But the things we deal with in national elections will be obviously much bigger than in state elections.
This is a top priority for the company, Mark and Sheryl remain very involved in it. I ma very involved in it. Our product leader is very involved. That's why I am spending a week here. We are going to learn a lot here in the next 3 months.