This year's Asian election season marks a profound test for the world's social media giants. More than a billion people are eligible to vote in national polls in Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines over the next two months, creating huge opportunities for the creation of divisive online content.
Tempers run high at election time, and the risks that social media can exacerbate existing political tensions is now abundantly clear. Given its scandal-prone record, Facebook, in particular, will be lucky to escape without further damage to its image. But now there is a further danger, given that any further missteps risk a new round of regulatory retaliation, at a time when a backlash against foreign "big tech" companies is brewing around Asia.
Facebook is of course hardly alone. Its social media rivals, including Google and Twitter, are also under intense pressure to show they are beginning to reverse the relentless tide of fake news and malicious posts that have marred polls in the U.S., Brazil and elsewhere. But Facebook, along with its sister messenger service WhatsApp, has endured particularly severe scrutiny since revelations last year that the group shared data on millions of users with Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting company. In Asia, its platforms stand accused of everything from spreading online disinformation and facilitating lynchings in India to fomenting ethnic violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Worries about the electoral influence of social media are driven partly by media consumption patterns, which have changed drastically since India and Indonesia, by far the largest countries now voting, last held national elections in 2014. More than half a billion Indians are now online. Both Facebook and WhatsApp boast well over 200 million users in the country, with 115 million more for Facebook in Indonesia. The platforms are especially important for burgeoning groups of younger voters.
Self-evidently there are plenty of things that could go wrong. Political parties in both countries are increasingly adept at online skulduggery, as are civic and religious groups. Foreign interference cannot be ruled out. Last week, Indonesia complained of election meddling by both China and Russia. Relatively weak institutions, both in terms of old-fashioned broadcast media and the country's electoral bodies, provide few safeguards.
The big social media groups are only too aware of these threats. Google says it has tightened up rules to restrict who can advertise on its platforms. Facebook is setting up election "war rooms" in Singapore and Dublin, while also beefing the number of staff employed to monitor problematic content. A Facebook spokesperson said its preparations for India and Indonesia included "setting a new standard for ads transparency, cracking down on fake accounts, working with third-party fact checkers [and] taking down coordinated inauthentic networks."
In truth, though, the platforms face a quandary. Elections require free speech. Platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube are where much of that speech now happens. Restrictions on content sharing and advertisements are likely to limit legitimate communication too. Even so, the sheer volume of malicious material spread over their services are likely to overwhelm even these new attempts to respond.
Facebook favors automated systems to detect and remove problems. The approach works reasonably well in areas like pornography or fake accounts, hundreds of millions of which are automatically deactivated each quarter. Yet last week's tragic events in New Zealand showed how hard it is to stop even totally unacceptable content, as Facebook, YouTube and others struggled to remove violent video footage as its spread across their networks.
Political speech is even more complicated. It is hard to judge in advance which posts are malicious or intentionally inaccurate, or which cross a line into hate speech. Managing content in myriad local languages -- India officially has 22 -- is also tricky.
Facebook's systems for managing these issues remain reactive, meaning they respond by reviewing complaints. The results often appear slow and under-resourced. A recent report claimed its outsourced content moderators were paid on average $28,000 a year, compared to the roughly $240,000 Facebook says it gave its median employee in 2017.
Ultimately Facebook and its rivals are struggling to overcome a tension built into their businesses, which are custom-designed to spread content and sell advertising. Facebook has so far taken minor steps to limit political adverts from foreign-funded or anonymous groups. But, it and other social media groups still hope to make tidy sums over the coming months selling ads that bounce off excitement about Asia's various polls.
The most promising recent sign that these social media groups are beginning to grapple seriously with these tensions came via WhatsApp. In January, the message service unveiled new global rules stopping users forwarding messages to more than five people or groups at a time -- a limit it first introduced in India in 2018 following a clamor of concern about the unchecked forwarding of incendiary content. Whatsapp's move dramatically cut the "virality" of messages on its platform, restricting fake news in the process.
This kind of far-reaching voluntary self-restriction by social media platforms remains rare, however. The upcoming elections also come at a bad time for the companies politically. In India, there is a growing protectionist turn against foreign tech giants, as domestic entrepreneurs worry that their country has failed to create domestic national champions in the vein of China's Alibaba and Tencent. India, Indonesia and Vietnam are pushing restrictive new data localization laws too.
All this marks a growing business threat. Facebook and Google remain barred from China, so their hopes for future growth rely on Asia's other emerging giants. At its most recent results, Facebook said India, Indonesia and the Philippines were now the most important engines of growth for its 1.5 billion daily users.
If Facebook and its rivals are perceived to stumble in Asia's upcoming polls they now face a double risk: new restrictions targeting their role in politics, as well as other nationalist-inspired measures aimed at their limiting their businesses more generally. If they don't act firmly to reign in their algorithms, Asia's lawmakers are ever-more likely to do it for them.This article was first published in Nikkei Asian Review on 20 March 2019.