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Facebook changes ahead of B.C. election not enough: UBC prof

Last Updated Oct 15, 2020 at 4:20 pm PDT

FILE - This May 16, 2012 file photo shows the Facebook app logo on a mobile device. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Facebook Canada’s head of public policy, Kevin Chan, says the social media platform has implemented a series of new policies that will help protect the integrity of the Oct. 24 election in B.C.

But the company still has a long way to go to have a more positive effect on our democracy, according to at least one expert.

On Monday, Chan said during a briefing call with reporters his company was addressing potential misinformation, advertising transparency, hacking and foreign influence with several relatively new digital tools.

Facebook has come under fire in recent years for its role in spreading false information, as well as providing a vector for election interference and data breaches such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

‘We’re getting quite good’: Facebook

“I think we’re getting quite good at being quick and proactive,” Chan said.

He said content that violates Facebook’s community standards – including voter suppression and hate speech – is removed, while potential misinformation is fact-checked by Agence France-Presse and Radio-Canada.

Farming the content analysis out to news agencies allows Facebook to “remain neutral,” he said.

“What we do do is we have the partnership with the fact-checkers, but they are completely independent in terms of what they fact-check, how much they fact-check and, obviously, what their conclusions are.”

Chan would not disclose whether any posts containing false information relating to the B.C. election had been flagged, checked, or removed.

He also touted the platform’s Ad Library, which allows the public to search paid advertisements from political parties and advocacy groups. In order to run a political ad, people or organizations must first confirm their identity, he said.

Platform can do ‘a lot more’: professor

Heidi Tworek, UBC professor of history and public policy, said Facebook has made “lots of strides” in recent years, but still has far to go.

She said she was forced to turn to Twitter for a recent study of online harassment of politicians because Facebook wasn’t transparent enough to facilitate deep analysis. This lack of access prevents academics from better understanding the effect social media platforms are having on elections, she said.

“It’s a really good start,” Tworek said of the recent changes at Facebook, “but there’s a lot more that researchers would need to investigate some of these key questions.”

Chan said Facebook hasn’t detected any attempts of foreign influence in the B.C. election akin to those detected in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“We haven’t found anything ourselves and we haven’t heard from authorities that that is of concern,” he said.

That may be because foreign influence is happening undetected, Tworek said, or it could be because B.C. is a relatively small jurisdiction with few political issues of interest to foreign powers and because the unscheduled snap election didn’t allow for bad actors to prepare.

Whether it’s regulating advertisements, cracking down on false information, or protecting people from abuse, Facebook can and should do more, she said.

“The question is how do we protect the integrity of elections and the integrity of elections is a core democratic principle, regardless of whether the ad or that communication has an effect or not,” Tworek said.