Facebook says it shouldn't be the arbiters of truth when it comes to political advertising

Also says 1.5 billion fake accounts were removed during the quarter of the 2019 Australian federal election.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Journalist on

Facebook representatives have told a House of Representatives Committee that the company wants to be treated like other media platforms in Australia when it comes to political advertising on its site, explaining that this would allow it to stay neutral and let the democratic process do its thing.

During the quarter when the 2019 Australian federal election was held, Facebook vice president of public policy Simon Milner said the company removed around 1.5 billion fake accounts from its platform.

"These fake accounts are the things that people try to use to share harmful content," Milner said on Wednesday.

"Almost 100% of that was removed because of our actions, using artificial intelligence to find these accounts and get rid of them.

"We spend a lot of effort trying to protect our platform from fake accounts."

There are around 17 million Australians that use Facebook every month. During the 2019 election period, there were approximately 10 million unique people involved in 45 million interactions related to the election.

17 individual pieces of information during this period were fact-checked.

See also: Countering foreign interference and social media misinformation in Australia

"Once a post has been found, we use artificial intelligence to apply the same treatment to similar posts that make the same claim … the ultimate number of posts that would have received fact treatment would be a number much higher, in the thousands," Facebook's Australia and New Zealand public policy manager Joshua Machin added.

Facebook currently has 70 fact-checking partnerships globally, but in general, Milner said the company does not fact check political advertising "because we believe it's important for the debate to play out".

"I would say Facebook does the same as any media platform, if you see a billboard ... an ad for a campaign … because that person is trying to target that constituency -- an opponent might think that that ad contains false information and they have an opportunity to respond to that, beat that with an ad further down the road," he said.

"There's no expectation that the company that enabled you to put that ad on that billboard had to put something on it saying, 'hey , this information has been marked as false', so we apply exactly the same approach on our service when it comes to political advertising.

"We don't think it's right that we should be the arbiters of truth."

Milner said he wasn't aware of any media platform where that kind of facility is provided, or expected, as it would interfere in the democratic process.

In its attempt to not interfere with the democratic process, Milner said that's where the likes of Australia's "vibrant" media could help to potentially debunk any misleading claims.

But with Facebook threatening to pull news from its platform if Australia's News Media Bargaining Code becomes law, news articles that fact-check politician's claims would be unable to be shared on the social media site.

"This is not something we want to do … this is a last resort after trying to support a more informed and balanced [outcome]," Milner said.

"With a really heavy heart, if the legislative framework that is set out roughly a month ago, if that's carried forward, it will simply be uneconomic for us to carry news on our platform.

"We want news publishers to be able to adapt to current approaches to how they share news online in a world where they're not able to do that on our services and hopefully they'll be able to do that in a way in which people will still be able to access news, mainly apps, websites -- they'll have to just adapt them."

See also: Labor logic: Newspapers screwed up online classifieds so tech giants should pay up

While what is seen in Australia, and what actions Facebook takes to stop the spread of misinformation in Australia, is much the same as overseas, the pair said compulsory voting removes some of the issues experienced in the US during the lead up to their elections.

They also refused to outright answer if information shared on Facebook has an influence on the outcome of elections. Instead, they said when bad actors try to spread information on the platform, they "get to it" and "deal with it appropriately", particularly during election campaigns.

In addition to measures that are globally in place regarding blocking misinformation from being shared on its platform, Milner said where the 2019 election was concerned, it took some particular steps in Australia, such as banning all foreign ads related to political or electoral matters.

As the committee is looking into all aspects of the 2019 election in the hopes of informing further policy for future elections, it asked the Zuckerberg representatives if they had any recommendations.

"One of the things we've called for is regulation," Milner said. "We'd like to see this whole area more thoroughly regulated, so it's not a case of us as a technology company headquartered in the US making decisions, like the one we did saying we're going to ban foreign ads."

He said Facebook didn't make that call due to regulation but rather, it simply thought it was the right thing to do.

"We'd very much welcome new regulations around how -- what can happen during election campaigns," he said.

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