Facebook’s policy on fake news is like the reign of Leopold II of Belgium in the period between 1885-1909; he governed a democratic system in Belgium and at the same time ruled over a bloody dictatorship in the Congo. Similarly, Facebook bows down to legislative pressure from the EU and the US, but takes it lightly in the Middle East and North Africa, a region soaked with popular discontent and protests.
The reason behind this double standard is that the EU Commission has called for “platform regulation” and the US Congress drafted a bill to set up a “national commission” to study how the platform can be weaponized, all while repressive regimes in other parts of the world take full advantage of the under-regulated platform.
To answer the growing concerns, Facebook has struck several partnerships with international fact-checking firms; starting in the US and then other parts of the world. But, surprisingly, the whole region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has only one French-owned fact-checking organization – Agence France-Presse (AFP), based in Beirut. Though the firm did not respond to requests for more information about their cooperation with Facebook, through research, it appears they rely on just three journalists to debunk fake news in the region.
It’s noteworthy that there are over 164 million Facebook users in the Middle East alone, and most of them are young.
Facebook’s lack of action on the problem of misinformation in the Middle East and North Africa is not only carelessness, but discrimination against a region struggling to reach democracy. It’s noteworthy that there are over 164 million Facebook users in the Middle East alone, and most of them are young.
Yet, it’s not only about numbers.
Facebook is one of the most influential platforms for people to express themselves in the MENA region. It was a considerable factor in the Arab Spring and the ongoing movements in Lebanon and Iraq. Freedom of speech in the region is always violated, either through harsh measures like prison sentences or online propaganda to intimidate activists and independent journalists.
The latest controversial Facebook policy to exonerate political ads from being fact-checked is a blow to any effort against misinformation; fake news is by nature political. In an attempt to defend his new position, Zuckenberg bluntly stated that “people should be able to judge for themselves the character of politicians.”
Lying is prohibited on Facebook, but for political ads it’s okay.
It is an about-face from its previous commitment to fight fake news as the latest policy sends a clear message: lying is prohibited on Facebook, but for political ads it’s okay.
Allowing political ads is not about the money, according to Zuckerberg. He claims that is about “principle,” to protect “democracy” and “freedom of speech.” And although political ads make up less than 1% of ad earnings as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, claims – it’s still a lot of money. Facebook is projected to bring in $350 million dollars from the ads in 2020 while protecting its “principles.”
Since the 2016 US presidential elections, Facebook has worked with fact-checkers all over the world to reduce fake news. The system, in theory, works as follows when users report content as false: Facebook passes it on to independent fact-checkers for further verification, and if the content is judged false, Facebook’s algorithm limits sharing of the content to prevent it from spreading in the network.
The idea – a combination of human expertise and the power of algorithms to limit misinformation – seems brilliant, but, is it working?
The main obstacle to answering this question is the lack of transparency from Facebook itself. There is no official data to know the scale of their work. How many posts are being flagged as false? How many are being checked? To what extent is the process effective? Even fact-checkers have complained about the opaque nature of the program.
Still, many independent research studies have demonstrated that this policy might be working to reduce the overall flow of misinformation. Despite the methodological challenges and the various definitions of what is meant by fake news, a data tracking study by content marketing firm BuzzSumo, discovered a 50 percent drop in articles from “fake news” sites since the 2016 US presidential election.
The decision to exonerate political ads from being fact-checked is a move that makes any claim of fighting fake news simply absurd.
However, all evidence of the possible impact of Facebook’s efforts to reduce misinformation can be disregarded due to the latest changes in the policy. The decision to exonerate political ads from being fact-checked is a move that makes any claim of fighting fake news simply absurd.
Since news broke that Facebook sold data from 87 million user profiles to a British firm to target political ads, in a crisis known as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg has become a target of growing scrutiny from legislators in the US and the EU. Misinformation and foreign interference in elections have become a daily topic for debate in the West, and presidential candidates in the US are taking sides on the issue.
In the MENA region, however, the issue is still underrepresented. The label of “fake news” has been used as another fancy tactic to attack free media in different countries in the region. The good news for Facebook is there is no pressure to do anything.
Facebook used to be a liberating platform, where citizens throughout the MENA region could express themselves, but not anymore. Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, releases a yearly report about the freedom of the net, and for the ninth year, it has concluded that repressive regimes are taking advantage of the unregulated social networks to disseminate false or inflammatory content.
Repressive regimes are taking advantage of the unregulated social networks to disseminate false or inflammatory content.
Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news, even with their fact-checking partnerships and algorithms, is no more than a PR attempt to provide answers for the growing threats against its business model. For a big company like Facebook, a tangible plan against misinformation and foreign interference would require extensive strategizing. Hence, its current attempts certainly aren’t sufficient, but are just enough to advance the claim that they are doing something about the issue.
It’s nonsense to play the “tech company” card whenever there are calls for more regulation to protect democracy. If Facebook truly values freedom of speech, it should crackdown on misinformation in the MENA region as part of its global responsibility.
Facebook can still be an engine for positive change, by forging serious partnerships with local independent newspapers in MENA and elsewhere to combat propaganda and protect developing democracies. Tech giants such as Facebook are in many ways the new gatekeepers of free speech and can no longer be careless with their influence.