If you want to bombard a targeted group with propaganda, false information, and hate speech, Facebook is your place. The major social media company kept coming in the headlines throughout the world last week.
Recently, Democrat Joseph Biden asked Facebook to remove a Trump campaign advertisement that made false claims. The company refused to do so because their new policy, which has been in effect since September 2018, does not review the facts in the political ads that they run on the platform.
This means political campaigns and advertisements do not go through Facebook's fact-checking system, and thus can be abused worldwide. Ordinary users who spread lies online, especially in a coordinated manner, face a range of penalties that include a direct ban on the platform.
According to Facebook, politicians, however, do not and will not suffer anything like that. So, the next time you see a video stating some political agenda or information, try checking its authenticity first.
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg defended the political advertisement policy last Wednesday during the congress hearing. According to him, people should see for themselves what politicians are saying. He added that political speech is already scrutinised and Facebook does not want to police it.
Last week in Bhola, an anti-Islam Facebook post provoked clashes, leaving four people dead. The incident highlighted a significant problem in the country where social media is used to incite religious violence. The amount and nature of political clashes escalate before the elections almost every time, leaving hundreds of people dead and injuring even more.
We have seen disinformation and propaganda spreading through Facebook that lead to violence and death. From the Ramu incident in 2012 to the latest one in Bhola, the list gets longer.
While misinformation is the act of sharing information without realising that it is wrong, disinformation is more dangerous. It is more politically motivated and deliberately circulated. It is the deliberate creation of false information to mislead a particular group of citizens.
Disinformation that is properly operated and spread can corrode democratic stability very easily. Facebook's new policy will make disinformation a profitable business for the company. It is not hard to comprehend that every political party of every democracy will invest heavily in social media campaigns, especially in the time of elections. So, if a politician runs a campaign showing some false endorsement of the opposition or fake date and place of a local election, Facebook will allow the ad to run.
Throughout the world, elections are often sensitive and critical moment for oppressive behaviour from governments. Before the 2018 national elections in Bangladesh, Facebook took down nine pages and six accounts. According to the company, those pages were linked to people associated with the government.
It said the pages were "designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition contents."In the name of strict surveillance by the government agencies, many authorities are accused of silencing the dissidents. With the loose ends in policy, anybody with a political affiliation can target a group of people, use money to promote lies, and create instability.
The social media has faced mounting pressure to combat misinformation, hate speech, and other offensive contents throughout the world. In the US, 47 states have come together this week to join the antitrust investigation of Facebook. People are criticising the morale of its business, calling it a 'disinformation-for-profit' company. Still, it is the most engaging and active social media platform that, in many cases, forms public opinion leading to policy changes.
Facebook declared freedom of expression as the founding principle of the company, and it declined to censor or stifle political discourse. Providing a check on disinformation and allowing freedom of expression will be a tough fight for Facebook in the coming days.
Personally, I would like to watch the right and wrong political discussions run in the public arena rather than Facebook curating every statement for us. The question remains whether our citizens want to sort the fact from fiction by themselves. Are they ready yet to gather information from the actual press, and decide the right and wrong?
The answer is clear. For the most part, they are not.