Old political games in new social media playing fields

15 July 2020 12:05 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Can you get my Facebook profile reactivated?   
 
This was the request that election officials from Kandy received, repeatedly, from a candidate. He is contesting from a new party. But that is not the reason why he wanted the intervention of the election officials.   
His name has been linked to the riots that engulfed the Central Province in 2018. He even spent some time in remand custody. His Facebook profiles have been blocked by the platform ever since. He told the election officials that his name had been highlighted to Facebook by the office of the then President Maithripala Sirisena. His request to the election officials is to communicate to Facebook that he is no-longer considered a ‘terror’ threat and an instigator of hate. As a citizen who is contesting the elections he is entitled to all civic rights as other candidates and the use of Facebook is among them.   
 
It was not really clear what election officials can do in this instance. There is no precedent to take a cue from and any action on the part of officials who could set a far-reaching precedent on its own.   
The candidate is of the opinion that he cannot make an appeal. For sure, he does not want to but is seeking state intervention because he says that it was the state that got his profiles blocked in the first instance.   
What this peculiar request clearly sets out is that at this election social media in general and Facebook, in particular, are playing defining roles. A role that finds them below the influence exerted by electronic media but probably above that of print.   
In a span of one and half months political ads to the tune $115,000 had been placed on Facebook. That is a minuscule figure compared to what is spent in other countries but taken within the Sri Lankan context it’s a major development.   
But it is not only the ads that are being used, most certainly not only ads placed on the platform through Facebook. There are ads that are on Facebook but are not placed through Facebook the company.   
 
"There is the issue of ads that are masquerading as posts on the wide wild world of gossip pages"
 
There is the issue of ads that are masquerading as posts on the wide wild world of gossip pages. Then there are other ingenious measures.   
Facebook page admins have begun hosting live talk shows and other such engagements. Some are placing the adverts within these streams. What this does is that the ad is not placed, promoted and distributed through the Facebook interface, but among the viewers of the live event and potentially those who follow the page.   
Last week I saw a rate card that was distributed by a Facebook-based regional news operation catering to the East. The charges ranged from Rs 300 per 30sec slot, made at the rate of 100 slots. The same page operators were also charging sums between Rs 10,000 to Rs 5,000 to promote political talks shows and live meetings on the page.   
The page has around 93,000 followers. The last political talk show posted by the page had been viewed over 9,600 times and shared 155 times. This is a page that has a regional following. There are others that have far larger followings, the largest in Sri Lanka is a gossip page with over 2.2 m followers.   
 
Last time around when the country went to Presidential elections, Facebook organised several interactions, some of them with national journalists. There was also a working setup with the Election Commission to debunk fakes.   
However, Facebook made sure that no details from the interactions with the journalists were made public. The ground rules determined that all exchanges unless otherwise stated were off the record.   
Similarly, neither Facebook nor the Election Commission has made details of the working arrangements or the results of the same, like the number of posts that were taken down.   
Facebook recently held a remote engagement with Sri Lanka journalists. The workshop had been pushed back due to COVID-19. It was held with the organisational assistance of a local journalism development organisation.   
 
"In a span of one and half months political ads to the tune $115,000 had been placed on Facebook. That is a minuscule figure compared to what is spent in other countries but taken within the Sri Lankan context it’s a major development"
 
The workshop was frame worked as a training of trainers and there was an interesting caveat. All participants were asked to sign a document stating that they would use the content only for training purposes.   
I have raised the issue of lack of transparency on the part of Facebook and its local interlocutors and so have others. We all have explained why giving a free forum to Facebook, in fact, worsens the situation.   
At least this time around the local organisers who seem to be quite supplicant in playing by Facebook’s rule book should take a serious look at what we really don’t know and 
should know.   
  • The number of local language moderators employed by Facebook on posts related to Sri Lanka?   
  • The number of posts that were taken down during the run-up to Presidential elections and number of complaints?   
  • Details of the working arrangement with the Election Commission during the last Presidential election and whether it is still active   
Given the close working relationships these local groups enjoy with Facebook, my suggestion has been to organise a live event where Facebook officials can answer these questions or tell us why the company chooses not to.   
 
The writer is a Post-grad Researcher at CQUniversity, Melbourne focusing on online journalism and trauma
Twitter - @amanthap
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