Social media code of ethics unlikely to tame fake news, say analysts
Companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, WhatsApp and ShareChat agreed on Wednesday to adhere to a code of ethics ahead of the general elections.
The code of ethics is also unlikely to tame fake news on WhatsApp, considering the absence of traceability on the platform, they said.
Companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, WhatsApp and ShareChat agreed on Wednesday to adhere to a code of ethics ahead of the general elections. Among other things, the code includes taking down objectionable posts within three hours during the 48-hour silent period ahead of elections, and bringing transparency in political advertising.
“It takes about 60 minutes for a negative post to enter the ‘viral’ category driven by rapid sharing and comments from followers. For very disturbing events and graphic content such as the recent shootout at a mosque in New Zealand, it only took about 12-15 minutes before a large community of people started watching the live stream. Commercial news outlets often latch on to breaking news within the hour. Informal sharing of news via non-traceable channels such as messaging apps is even faster,” said Sandeep Pandey, president of product and strategy at media, content and tech firm Wavemaker India, a GroupM agency.
“A 180-minute window is an eternity in this age and any objectionable content posted to a social media platform would have been seen, shared and commented upon thousands of times and the damage would have been done by the time it is taken down,” he added.
Jency Jacob, managing editor of BOOM, a website which works in partnership with Facebook to fact check stories and tags specific posts spreading misinformation on the platform, said it is very unclear what the modalities were going to be to decide whether a news is objectionable or not.
“A lot of the stuff that most of these political pages put out is not always in black and white. There is always a nuance to it. Some could be partly true or partly false. There are various gradations of these. So, I’m not sure when the Election Commission calls up the platforms and asks them to take down objectionable content, whether the platforms are going to take it at face value and do it or will they push back and say we don’t know if it is completely false. So many things are unclear,” he added.
In a response to ET’s queries on how it plans to adhere to the deadline, Facebook shared the code of ethics announcement, its ad library and ad archive report and previous announcements increasing ad transparency. The company said it is removing millions of fake accounts daily to limit the spread of misinformation. Twitter, said it is a signatory to the Voluntary Code of Ethics for general elections 2019 and will accordingly comply with the requirements. Google said it is investing heavily to surface credible information sources on its platforms, and that it is committed to enforcing the statutory silence period, as well as to expeditiously process content reported by the ECI.
"As soon as ECI asks us to take down content that is unlawful we will work on removing it expeditiously and hope to respond to those requests in much less than three hours," said Berges Y Malu, head of public policy at ShareChat.
“People rely on WhatsApp for all kinds of sensitive conversations, including with their doctors, banks and families. The police also use WhatsApp to discuss investigations and report crimes. Attributing messages on WhatsApp would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp creating the potential for serious misuse. Our focus is on improving WhatsApp and working closer with others in society to help keep people safe," a WhatsApp spokesperson said.
Some feel the code of ethics has come too late.
“This has not been deployed in the past and its implementation straightaway in the elections of the biggest democracy of the world may be difficult. The three-hour timeline also seems difficult to maintain,” said Palash Goorha, business head of social media analytics firm Konnect Insights.
Concurred Alt News founder Pratik Sinha. “Talking about social media guidelines a few days before the elections doesn’t work. You need to draw a policy two years in advance and figure out and work on it. There were so many state elections. I do not think this will be effective,” he said. “Also, how do they define objectionable content. That has not been elaborated upon. At the level of the Election Commission, it has to be very specific. That makes it tricky for social media platforms to gauge what is objectionable without any guidelines. It is not limited to one account,” Sinha added.
“WhatsApp is the biggest propagator and WhatsApp can’t take down anything. There are so many unofficial pages. Unofficial accounts can continue to do their propaganda,” he said.
Kapil Gupta, chief executive of OMLogic Consulting, which has worked on campaigns for the Congress, BJP, Lok Dal and the Akali Dal in the past, said more effort was needed to draft the code of ethics.
“The three-hour timeframe is not clear. Those coming up with the guidelines have not done enough research on how it works on social media. Also, the platforms have been told to take out the content that EC says is objectionable,” Gupta said. “But do they take out the content on the specific link that EC shared or do they take it out from the entire universe in whatever modified form it has been circulated within the three-hour period is not clarified? These aspects will not be possible to implement at least in these elections.”