Menlo Park, California:
Under intense scrutiny for influencing everything from election outcomes to fanning mob violence, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram – some of the world’s most-used of apps – have been forced to pay a lot of attention to towards fighting the menace of fake news in the past 18 months.
NDTV visited the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California to find out how the Mark Zuckerberg-founded company had geared up for the Indian elections spread over seven phases starting Thursday.
30,000 People, 40 Teams, 3 Cities
It’s a story of 40 teams with hundreds of employees directly involved, spread over three operation centres in three different cities, acting as watchdogs for who will remove fake news as soon as they see it on any of the three platforms. In addition to this, 30,000 people from Facebook’s global safety and security team will be available to be tapped into if needed. In just the past year-and-a-half, Facebook has tripled its strength of people working on safety and security from 10,000 to 30,000.
This is in addition to the seven third party fact checkers that Facebook has partnered with.
NDTV was at the main “war room” at MPK 21, one of the newer buildings of Facebook and also where Mark Zuckerberg’s office is. The other two operation centres are in Dublin, Ireland and Singapore. The main purpose of having three operation centres is to have a 24-hour watch on India’s election which will also be assisted by Facebook’s New Delhi office.
Bigger Than Brazil, US Polls
Facebook set up this type of a physical monitoring centres for the Brazil and US mid-term elections too but the centre for India’s elections is much bigger in scale with at least 10,000 more people, at least a dozen more experts, two more operations centres, advancements at using AI, and automated translations of 16 new Indian languages.
Facebook’s Indian origin Engineering Manager for Civic Integrity, Kaushik Iyer told NDTV that “one of the things that we realised very early on and we’ve invested in since then (18 months) is the linguistic diversity of India is so considerable and so our main investments have been in machine learning, in better translation systems, better detection systems so that we can ensure that we help protect India’s elections. That investment then cumulates into what you see today, which is that we have teams across data science, threat intelligence, engineers, folks on operations and policy working together, to ensure that we have real time monitoring that we can investigate issues as they come up, and that we can respond to them rapidly so that we can make the important decisions that are needed as a new crisis arises.”
At the India Election operations centre, news outlets including NDTV were being closely monitored by the 40-member strong team.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Push
The apparent importance Facebook has given fighting fake news during India’s Election was spurred after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, India’s Parliament committee demanding action against misinformation, and the Election Commission seeking voluntary coordination to remove misinformation in the coming elections within a period of three hours of it being notified.
While Facebook and WhatsApp make it clear that they are separate entities, the operations centre to fight misinformation is coordinated
Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Public Policy Director for Global Elections who will be based in New Delhi to assist the three operation centres during India’s election explained how Mark Zuckerberg and the top leadership was closely monitoring Facebook’s intent to fight fake news.
“Our political ad transparency where for the first time people can now see the advertisements that political parties and candidates might be putting on the platform this has been of utmost importance to the leadership and Mark himself has said that the work investment that we are putting into this is going to hit our bottom line and it actually has,” said Katie to NDTV.
Will India’s Elections Be Fake News Free?
While Facebook and WhatsApp make it clear that they are separate entities, the operations centre to fight misinformation is coordinated. The challenge is going to be removing the false news before the damage is done; which is why not only do they have a 24-hour open channel with the Election Commission, but they also will ensure decision makers on both policy and legality are available to act at sensitive times 24/7. But no, it doesn’t look like this will completely block India’s election from misinformation. All it is – is a new digitally battle-ready army which will be up against politically motivated bad actors that will adapt to this new coordinated deterrent.
Kaushik Iyer Facebook’s Engineering Manager for Civic Integrity answered NDTV’s question on whether India’s election will be fake news free saying, “I think we are prepared. The work that we have done, builds on top of the research we have done over the past few months It builds on the investments on technical expertise that were made to make sure that we have the right detection systems. As well as the investments made so that we can make decisions quickly when needed. But one thing I just want to make sure we call out is that this work is complex, it is always evolving, we worked around the state elections in India November and December and from each of those we learnt new areas where we needed to invest. There are seven phases, so we are going to work to ensure that we can understand what went well where and if we need to improve”.
WhatsApp, A Tougher Fight
More than Facebook, the glare will be on WhatsApp due to its end-to-end encryption that prevents messages from being traced and blocked at origin. The operations centre is monitoring live spam reports that the system is receiving. So if you report a fake forward, the system analyses it and takes a decision within three hours from either one of the three operations centre.
This is in line with the Election Commission’s request to remove flagged information within three hours. Kaushik also told NDTV that “Facebook has invested in making sure that we have staffing across the world so that as India enters the most critical periods, we have the ability to respond in Singapore, Dublin and California. One of the things we have done, is that we have built a partnership with the Election Commission so that as they flag issues to us, we have the ability to respond quickly we also have built the ability to make adjustments as needed in this room, so we have folks from policy in this room, I’ll give you an example just to help, in Brazil last year, of course there were elections, and we had a similar operations centre, we saw new spikes of behaviour and rapidly realised that they required us to work on adjusting how our policies are defined on hate speech. And then what we were able to do was within a couple of hours recognise that this was a problem, get the right people involved, make a decision and then figure out how to take that content down, so we keep people in that part of Brazil safe that kind of ability to respond quickly is the core reason why we have invested in this.”
How Much Is Facebook Spending On This?
Facebook’s investment into fake news was a key part of their briefing to NDTV but we did not get a clear answer on the total expenditure on the election centres set up for India’s election. The company said it was similar to what had been spent on the election centre for the Brazil and USA mid-term elections.
(Disclosure: The journalist’s travel and stay for this story was sponsored by Facebook)
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