IMAGE: Jorge Antonio Miranda — CC BY SA

Facebook and Spain’s upcoming elections

With four elections underway in the coming months (general, EU, regional and municipal), and where Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are very popular, Spain has a lot of to worry, especially bearing in mind recent events in the United States and Brazil.

National and international directors of Facebook have met with representatives of the main political parties, who said they “they were worried, confused”, and did not know what to do about the elections. If that sounds worrying, it’s because it is. On Tuesday, Facebook announced the launch of its external data verification program, using reputable fact checkers such as AFP, Newtral and, in an attempt to reassure public opinion and institutions concerned about that once again, the social network and its assorted applications will be used to spread fake news by some parties and even foreign powers.

The government, in conjunction with the European Union, says it is setting up a unit to tackle fake news and cyberterrorism (link in Spanish), but which runs the risk of the government itself taking on the role of judge over what is or is not fake news.

This is an extremely important issue, but the precedents so far do not invite optimism: the ability to manipulate elections is constantly being improved, and critics say Facebook is ill-equipped to do much about it, particularly in the face of populist or authoritarian governments. What’s more, it’s clear that Facebook doesn’t take fact checking seriously: well-regarded verifiers such as Snopes or AP say they have had numerous problems with Facebook around the world and that the company was uninterested in tackling the problem. In fact, Facebook has made it more difficult to check the veracity of stories by changing its policy and giving certain groups more visibility, which some analysts say has to do with the sudden popularity of some leaders or phenomena such as the gilets jaunes in France.

This is not as simple an issue as Facebook accepting responsibility for all content on its platform, and instead is about preventing activities specifically designed to prevent free and fair elections through the use of rumors, fake news and inflammatory material designed to polarize the electorate. If content for or against a particular party or candidate goes viral and circulates spontaneously, there isn’t much it can do, unless it is clearly defamatory, patently false, etc.

But it’s often a fine line between spontaneous virality and an orchestrated campaign on a particular issue: what happens, for example, when groups support a rumor by using fake profiles? I would argue that the only answer is to use machine learning algorithms and close monitoring of all viral diffusion processes to determine their level of spontaneity and the players involved, which is hard work, but at this rate, is the only solution. The only way to differentiate a human from a bot is by using another bot, in an escalation that leads us into Blade Runner territory. Social networks are obviously better-placed to monitor such processes, but they must have the will to do it.

The problem is that to a large extent, Facebook is out of control and few politicians know what to do about it. When a social network doesn’t know how many of its accounts belong to real people and cannot or will not prevent organizations from creating and managing false accounts to simulate activity around a specific topic, the solution is not to say that this is a problem its rivals also face, but instead to take decisive measures.

There was hope that the acquisition of Confirm in January 2018 would mean the company, which has always said it believes in “one user, one account”, would come up with some type of verification process, but has yet to do so. Meanwhile, things get worse.

What will happen in Spain in the coming months as the country goes to the polls in four sets of elections? I have serious doubts that Facebook is losing much sleep over the matter.

(En español, aquí)