Governments, authorities, and political parties decide if elections are “free and fair”, not tech firms such as Facebook: Facebook’s EMEA vice president for public policy

While tech giants such as Facebook want to do what is necessary using the tools they have engineered in order to contribute to a democratic and just election process in the age of online disinformation surrounding politics, Facebook’s vice president for public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa Richard Allan said that ultimately the governments and political parties of nations will determine if the elections will be “free and fair”.

Speaking in the House of Commons in Parliament in London on 27 Nov, Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament and one of the members of Singapore’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods Mr Pritam Singh queried Mr Allan in the name of “public interest” and “public policy” as to how Facebook’s “heightened vigilance and monitoring of anonymous users” is implemented, particularly in relation to the mushrooming of new accounts and posts during “periods leading up to elections and during elections post-nominations.”

Mr Allan replied that the social media platform makes it compulsory for users to sign up “using their real name and their real identity,” as “that is core to our service”.

Citing the “nature” of Facebook, Mr Allan said that the platform is designed to help users connect with their “real family and friends.”

“If you’re sharing photos of your kids, you want to know who that person is … So we maintain very strongly the policy that there should not be, therefore, anonymous users,” he added.

Facebook, added Mr Allan, has a mechanism in which the platform filters and scans accounts that have been flagged as inauthentic.

“When people report it to us, and it looks like the account is not real, we will put them in what we technically call a checkpoint … the next time they’ll try to log on it’ll say, “Hey, we need some more information for you to prove your identity”.

“So that’s the design philosophy we have, which is that nobody should be on there anonymously, whether for political purposes or otherwise, and we’ve built systems to try and detect that and to prevent them.”

When asked by Mr Singh if there are “any other initiatives” set up by the social media giant “in light of what has been happening” surrounding the spread of disinformation and following “the conversations that are happening among legislators around the world about fake news,” on top of dealing with “prospects of elections” being “tampered with,” Mr Allen noted that Facebook creates a taskforce “for every significant election that comes up”.

The taskforce, he elaborated, “consists of security specialists, policy specialists, legal specialists, operational specialists,” and its role entails understanding “the specific risks of that election, working with outside bodies often in the country, and then deploying whatever tools and technologies we need to do with those risks.”

When asked if “significant elections” referred to “countries which have a small footprint vis-à-vis Facebook’s 2.2 billion users”, Mr Allen replied that while “in an ideal world,” it would encompass “every election, everywhere, all of the time,” Facebook’s “current resourcing” allows the company to look at “all national elections”.

“In Singapore, for example, that would be covered. The area that we’re looking at now is, well, when you’ve got a significant regional election in the country – can we also cover that?

“So we’re building it up … We have a similar taskforce around the Latvian election … So, we’re looking at every election whether it’s big or small at the national level … and then, the question is: Can we also expand that into regional and local [levels]?” said Mr Allan.

Mr Singh also raised the question as to whether Facebook would consider “working actively” with local election authorities – and even political party representatives – to remove a flagged post that would “compromise the political process”, and subsequently, the decision-making process of voters, to which Mr Allan responded that not only would Facebook be willing to do so, but that in fact it is “essential” for the platform to do so.

“The people who decide if an election is free and fair are you [parliamentarians and governments as a whole], and your authorities, and the political parties … We want to do whatever is necessary in order for everyone to have the confidence that the elections are free and fair … and we can’t do that on our own.

“We can make tools, we can work with you, but ultimately, we need to engage with you in order to meet that shared objective: that we contribute to it positively rather than negatively – to the election in your country,” concluded Mr Allan.

Parliamentarians from other countries including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, and Latvia, as well as members of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee were also present at the inquiry on disinformation and fake news on Tuesday.

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