Facebook says it's limiting false stories for India election

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold cutouts of party president Amit Shah with the party symbol during a public rally in Ahmadabad, India, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. India's national election will be held in seven phases between April 11 and May 19. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
A woman checks the Facebook page of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Facebook says it is preparing for Indian elections by working to limit false stories, videos and photos on its platform. Indian politicians increasingly are using social media to run campaign advertisements, share political songs and interact with young voters. Polling in the general election is to take place in seven stages from April 11 to May 19. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI — Facebook is taking steps to reduce the spread of false information on its platforms ahead of India's general election, company officials said Monday.

Facebook listed a variety of measures it is taking, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organizations, through the campaign and voting, with polling scheduled to take place in stages from April 11 to May 19.

Calling the Indian elections a "top priority," Samidh Chakrabarti, director of Facebook's Product Management for Civic Integrity division, said the company has put in a "tremendous amount of efforts over the last two years" to prepare for the polls.

He said Facebook has partnered with Indian media organizations to check and flag false stories in English, Hindi and some other regional Indian languages.

After a fact-checker flags a story as containing false information, Facebook reduces the number of times it appears in any individual user's newsfeed by about 80 percent, Chakrabarti said.

The social media giant came under immense scrutiny after it failed to prevent the spread of false information during the 2016 U.S. elections, when allegations of outside interference resulted in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testifying in the U.S. Senate.

Facebook-owned messaging applications such as WhatsApp have been repeatedly scrutinized by the Indian government and security agencies, and asked to prevent the spread of false information and rumors that have been linked to mob killings.

In 2018, at least 20 people were killed in India, mostly in rural villages, in attacks by mobs that were inflamed by social media.

In response, WhatsApp restricted the forwarding of messages to five recipients at a time, instead of the 256 previously allowed.

Although the move was India-specific, it was applied globally earlier this year, WhatsApp announced in January.

But social media have also become a critical tool for Indian political campaigns. Ahead of elections in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party used social media extensively for political advertisements and to interact with young voters.

The Election Commission of India is trying to rein in social media giants such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to prevent the release of user data and to curb the spread of politically motivated manipulative information.

Social media companies have presented a "Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Elections 2019" to the election monitoring body, a new requirement this year.

"We are working hard to prevent bad actors from interfering with elections on Facebook," Chakrabarti said, adding that Facebook has tripled the number of people working on safety and security to 30,000.

India reportedly has the highest number of Facebook users in the world, with more than 300 million. That is about a third of the 900 million people eligible to vote in 2019.

The elections will be held in seven phases to ensure proper security and manageable logistics across the country of 1.3 billion people. Counting of votes is to be conducted on May 23, with results expected the same day.

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