Facebook Comes to Ashoka
By Zainab Firdausi
(Note: This is one of our older pieces published on Jan 29, 2018 that previously lacked visibility on our website due to a technical glitch)
Facebook’s mammoth stake in the political arena cannot be ignored or revoked. The question that remains is that of what the future holds.
On 23 January, the Trivedi Centre for Political Data hosted a talk by Katie Harbath, the Global Politics and Government Outreach Director of Facebook at Ashoka University. As of when this article was written, Facebook is funding TCPD’s project on the Profiling of Women Politicians. In her talk which lasted about an hour long, Ms. Harbath spoke about the operations which come under the ambit of her team and co-workers.
Today, with Facebook’s pervasive influence and constant presence on how we consume personal information, news,and popular culture phenomena, it might be tough to imagine a scenario in which political information and discourse is not disseminated via the website as a medium. Ms. Harbath actually spoke of the initial resistance the Government Outreach team faced in the United States, and the efforts it took on their part to convince American leaders to join Facebook and commence discussion through it. She began by speaking of her team’s minimal reach in 2008 because MySpace was still widely used for communication, and additionally, Google and YouTube were the main battlegrounds for election information and partisan discussions online. Ms. Harbath mentioned that President Obama was one of the few leaders back then who began the tradition of communication to supporters via Facebook.
Recognising their own potential, Ms. Harbath said that the team set the 2016 American presidential election as their goal to shift all political discourse on to Facebook, while also working on other major elections prior to 2014 (US midterm election, Indian general election, Brexit to name a few).
Promotional poster for Ms. Harbath’s talk
The realisation of their goal was witnessed in the massive partisan discussions that took place on Facebook throughout the 2016 election cycle, and the heavy use of the site as a medium to news pieces. The unfortunate outcome of this was the boost given to “fake” or false news propagated by yellow journalistic media sites. The magnitude of the reception of false news can only be understood in comparison to the reception of news by legitimate media outlets.
Buzzfeed News’ Craig Silverman, in an interview to ABC News, said “the top 20 fake news stories from the election cycle received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 election stories by 19 major media outlets.”
The allegations that Facebook abetted the rise of fake news seemed to have an effect on the company because CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a statement in the aftermath of the election stating “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic”. Ms. Harbath seemed to echo his words in her talk by iterating Facebook’s commitment to eradicate fake news on the site. She revealed plans in which the company shall attempt to increase the transparency of their political engagements by displaying the demographic of the recipients, the ad budgets of political actors, etc.
Notwithstanding, Facebook’s contributions to connecting to increasing connectivity between not only people but also users and institutions or political leaders has been immense. Also, the access provided by Facebook to media agencies on its website keeps news at the fingertips of users.
Although it has made the access to news easier, one must delve into the cost of it:print media has suffered greatly due to the access provided by the internet to media agencies, and Facebook’s feature of accessing news on its website has affected the digital revenue models of these media agencies which have adapted to the growing needs of a digital world. These apprehensions found voice in the questions directed at Ms. Harbath.
While, the Director confirmed that Facebook is “ethically, and not legally,” bound to be apolitical, the questions directed at her proved to be uncomfortable since they did not allow Facebook’s for-profit motives to be forgotten: queries regarding their revenue model for election campaigns pointed to the subtle ways in which candidates and parties with simply greater purchasing powers will hold greater politico-digital clout. Ms. Harbath justified this service as“community engagement products”which are provided by the website to anyone who can afford it. While allegations of influencing elections through fake news and ads may seem over-exaggerated, the importance of the relationship between Facebook and politicians is not something that should be downplayed because of the tools and easy access provided by Facebook.
A prickly question about pro-Kashmir posts and pages such as Humans of Hindutva, which criticise the incumbent, being taken down briefly pointed toward the association the site may have with elected governments, which Ms. Harbath’s team surely must have connections to even if they only provide instruction on how to use their tools and not strategy. The un-implied was whether Facebook entertains censorship requests from the candidates it helps after the latter gets voted into the government. Another question brought up a split within Harbath’s team: Elizabeth Linder of the Europe and Middle East bureau resigned in 2016, citing her discomfort with the team’s proximity to election campaigns. Questions with regard to Ms. Linder’s resignation were brushed over as ideological differences.
After the talk, Ms. Harbath flew to Raipur, Chhattisgarh to help Chief Minister Raman Singh launch 7000+ Facebook pages for Common Service Centers throughout the state. Facebook’s interest in Indian politics is hard to miss since India has proven to be its largest market with its greatest number of users on from India, Prime Minister Modi having the highest number of followers among politicians, and their interest in funding data collection projects as carried out by the TCPD.
The social media giant’s mammoth stake in the political arena cannot be ignored or revoked. The question that remains is of what the future holds for India, especially with the lack of political fact checkers, a point even acknowledged by Ms. Harbath.
Who knows what the Indian digital playground has in store for 2019.
On 25 January, Ms. Harbath collected an award jointly given by the President of India and the Election Commission as a recognition of Facebook’s contributions to voter education in India.
Pictured: Ms. Harbath receiving an award from President Kovind at Manekshaw Centre, Delhi Cantt (Source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10107806030938307&set=a.10100702242721837.3003695.8629630&type=3&theater)
For further information on Facebook, democracy, and elections, read: https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/01/hard-questions-democracy/