Nigeria: Facebook's Preemptive Control of Election Ads in Nigeria

21 January 2019

It's common knowledge that Facebook has been under pressure to proactively address the issue of the use of the social media to spread misinformation and manipulate people for the purpose of causing discord and division among people. The use of the social media to sway election results is also quite fresh in our memory, with the United States (US) 2016 presidential election being the most notable. In that event, the Russians were allegedly blamed for using Facebook to sway the election in favor of the current president of the US. Similar election manipulations using Facebook in numerous countries have also been reported. Election happens all the time in one part of the world or another. This will keep Facebook busy.

It brings some relief that Facebook seems to be working hard to address these issues, at least on the surface, and hopefully genuinely so. A few successes have been reported in the past week. In one instance, Facebook has been able to identify two disinformation campaigns originating from Russia, including one that is tied to an agency controlled by the Kremlin that targeted users in Europe and Central Asia. Facebook reported last week Thursday that it had deleted nearly 500 pages and accounts originating from Russia that posted the misleading messages. Many of the pages were discovered to be linked to employees of Sputnik, an agency controlled by the Russian government that was established to spread reports and information sympathetic to Russia. The culprits reportedly used independent news pages on topics like weather, travel, and sports to mask their efforts. Facebook suggested that the misleading content was aimed at influencing people in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In a related, positive, move by Facebook, the company is launching some of its 'election security' initiatives in more markets in the coming months, ahead of several major votes in countries around the world. The 16 February 2019 presidential election in Nigeria is in Facebook's radar, and the company seems to be working hard to prevent the use of its platform to sway election results. It is starting with some control on political advertisements.

Beginning from 16 January 2019, or a month before the presidential election in Nigeria, Facebook will not accept election-related, foreign-funded advertisements from Nigeria in its platform. That is, the measure will require those running political ads to be located in the country. The same rule is being applied to Ukraine, where presidential elections will be held on 31 March 2019.

Facebook's plans are clearly stated (15 January 2019) on the company's website: "As we prepare for major elections around the world this year, we're continuing our focus on preventing foreign interference and giving people more information about the ads they see across our platforms. Our work this year builds on our political ad transparency efforts that we launched in the US, the UK, and Brazil. Political advertisers in these countries must confirm their identity and location before they can run ads, and their ads are housed in a public, searchable Ad Library for up to seven years. In the coming months, we'll be rolling out additional protections ahead of upcoming elections." The objective is clear: "By shining a light on political ads, news organizations, regulators, watchdog groups and people anywhere in the world can hold advertisers and us more accountable."

Facebook is also actively preparing for the India general elections which are due to be held in April and May 2019. The company's ad rules in India are different from those for Nigeria and Ukraine. In the former, "... anyone who wants to run an ad in India related to politics will need to first confirm their identity and location, and give more details about who placed the ad." Moreover, also in the case of India, Facebook will show a disclaimer on all political ads that provides more information about who's placing the ad, and an online searchable Ad Library for anyone to access. "This is a library of all ads related to politics from a particular advertiser as well as information like the budget associated with an individual ad, a range of impressions, as well as the demographics of who saw the ad." By authorizing advertisers and bringing more transparency to ads, Facebook hopes to better defend against foreign interference in India's elections. Note that Facebook has already launched searchable political ad archives in the U.S., Brazil, and the U.K.

Facebook is also planning ahead for the European Union (EU), who will be going to the polls in May to elect MEPs for the European Parliament. The company will launch a version of its Indian authorization and transparency system ahead of the EU vote. As expected - based on its rather strict personal data protection rules - the European Commission has increased the pressure on social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) over election security, with a plan in place to monitor the efforts of platforms towards ensuring tamper-free elections.

The Facebook election-security initiative is crucial for Nigeria, in light of the relative discipline and a sense of direction that this country seems to have enjoyed in the past couple of years.

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