Facebook (FB) could be facing more trouble for its handling of elections, this time in India, the world's most populous democracy.
Facebook stock jumped off to a positive start Monday after an op-ed from CEO Mark Zuckerberg encouraged regulation, rather than self-governance, in a sort of mea culpa for his company's consistent shortcomings.
However, the positive move may also be motivated by Facebook's need to create a distraction as it faces mounting criticism in India, one of its key markets for future growth.
"We were not surprised by the content or timing of this open letter since his commentary echoes the evolution of his position on these issues at a crucial time when data breaches and harmful content continue to permeate the internet unabated," SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Youseff Squali said. "This position is also being expressed during a period of heated electoral politics when regulators from the U.S. to India are sounding the alarm on the power Facebook wields over speech, and are calling for more oversight."
Perhaps overlooked by many U.S. investors is the company's role in disinformation campaigns in India and Pakistan that are creating quite a stir in these massive markets for the social media giant.
In a statement released Monday, Facebook announced it had removed over one thousand pages in the subcontinent in relation to violations of policies on spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior ahead of India's general election on April 11. Many of the pages removed had amassed millions of followers.
"The operations we found to be engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior were two distinct sets of activity in India and one network in Pakistan. We didn't find any links between the campaigns we've removed today, but they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing," said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy for Facebook.
Gleicher's statement and detailed report of the actions display the company's intent to stave off a similar issue to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that wreaked havoc on Facebook's stock price as investigations and complaints piled up. The lack of transparency surrounding the partnership was cited as among the most problematic feature of the affair.
"We're taking down these pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted," Gleicher clarified. "In each case detailed below, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action."
He noted Facebook will hire more staff and work more closely with security experts and politicians to provide more thorough checks on potential election tampering.
"We routinely remove accounts and pages that engage in this type of harmful, often financially-motivated, behavior - like ads for fraudulent products or fake weight loss remedies," Gleicher explained. "The people behind the activity also post the same clickbait posts in dozens of Facebook groups, often hundreds of times in a short period, to drum up traffic for their websites. And they often use their fake accounts to generate fake likes and shares. This artificially inflates engagement for their inauthentic pages and the posts they share, misleading people about their popularity and improving their ranking in news feed."
The removal of the pages has sparked corollaries to Cambridge Analytica among India's political commentators and raised questions about Facebook's claim to be a good governor of content.
The campaigns have also come under fire for their notable slant toward Narendra Modi's ruling conservative Bharatiya Janata Party over the Indian National Congress.
Thread on #India takedown.April 1, 2019
The issue with false pages on the platform also extended to Pakistan, which often sought to stir the bubbling tensions on the subcontinent with pro-military pages.
Thread on #Pakistan takedown. Some of this was actually pretty funny - covert pages which Facebook attributed to "employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military." https://t.co/zB1seQUIUq— Ben Nimmo (@benimmo) April 1, 2019
In this context, at the crossroads of the combustible relationship between Pakistan and India in the midst of the largest democratic action in history, it might have been shrewd of Zuckerberg to deflect attention.
Considering the uproar in India, many more skeptical speculators will be anxiously watching elections as they unfold.
No statements have yet been issued by competing platforms, such as Twitter (TWTR) , about potential disinformation campaigns that may have also taken root on their platform.
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