Avatar Centre for Policy Alternatives on 7 November, 2019

Letter to Facebook: Urgent need for rollout of platform affordances for greater oversight of campaign spending

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7 November 2019, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is releasing a letter sent to Mr Senura Abeywardene, the Country Representative for Sri Lanka at Facebook, on 30 September 2019, with specific asks around ads oversight in relation to the 2019 Presidential Election.

Download the letter as a PDF here. It is also reproduced in full below. Download letter in Sinhala here.

Emails following up the letter were sent to Mr Abeywardene on 9th October and again on 25th October. Neither Mr Abeywardene nor any representative from Facebook have responded in any official capacity to the original letter or either of the two follow-up emails, to date.

In addition to the substance of the letter to Facebook, the emails, with increasing urgency, flagged the role, reach and relevance of Facebook as the single-most important platform for political communications on social media in Sri Lanka, especially leading up to the Presidential Election. Arising from this, Facebook was implored to provide election monitors, the Elections Commission as well as citizens the tools – available in other regions and countries, including India – required for rigorous oversight of campaign spending across Pages and Groups affiliated to or acting as proxies of presidential candidates.

The letter to Mr Abeywardene on 25th October followed the first study of official campaign spending on Facebook across the official pages of three leading presidential candidates. CPA is releasing this letter in light of research, publicly posted, conducted by CPA Senior Researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa clearly flagging the seed, scale and spread of political content on Facebook, as well as work by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), which pegs campaign spending by just the two leading candidates to be in the region of one billion rupees, just between 14 to 31 October 2019.

A chief concern of CPA is that Facebook’s oversight mechanisms for Sri Lanka’s consequential Presidential Election fall far short of what was rolled out even in India. Calls for the company to introduce the same tools and platforms for Sri Lanka have, for whatever reason, not resulted in any official response or rollout. Ironically, Facebook itself and social media writ large is rife with reports on the extremely problematic nature of political content in the campaigns, including but not limited to disinformation stoking communal tensions and more recently, attacks against members of the Election Commission, all run as ads on Facebook Pages.

The email on 9th October to Mr Abeywardene urged the company to be on the right side of history in enabling or activating tools to help stem the toxicity, disinformation and spread of false or misleading content over key Facebook products in the campaign(s) leading up to the Presidential Election, and beyond.

We are still awaiting a response on this score.

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30 September 2019

Urgent need for rollout of platform affordances for greater oversight of campaign spending

Dear Senura,

Thank you for taking the time, with colleagues from Facebook in Delhi, to debrief me in detail around what Facebook has planned around the up-coming Presidential Election in Sri Lanka. I am glad that work with the Elections Commissions is proceeding apace, and trust that Facebook will also consult CPA and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) with regard to voter education and other measures to strengthen electoral integrity.

As noted on the call, CMEV and CPA, along with others in Sri Lanka like Transparency International, have for years done a lot of work towards greater accountability around campaign financing. Details to this effect are on CMEV’s as well as CPA’s website, and a Google search away. Yet, tellingly, asset declarations as well as greater transparency around online campaign spending, including on Facebook, remain elusive. I have also passed on details around how one campaign, through an official Facebook page, has boosted content that was already debunked by Facebook’s own 3rd party fact-checker, AFP. This content served to incite violence and hate against the Muslim community through thinly veiled racism. Highlighting this example on Twitter led to many expressing concern that the platform needs to do more to stop this sort of content from being monetised, in violation of community guidelines as well as ad oversight guidelines. This ad is a harbinger of much more to come, and for Facebook, an urgent reminder of how much more scrutiny and oversight needs to go into the authorisation of ads.

Again, as noted on the call, Facebook also needs to more clearly and carefully define what it terms as a ‘political ad’ or ‘political content’ especially in the context of an electoral campaign, and ads that will taken out in Sri Lanka at this time.

I also wanted to reiterate the need to, on an urgent basis, make available in Sri Lanka, the Ads Library Report, https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/report/. This is available for India, and has led to important articles like https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/lok- sabha/india/political-ad-spend-on-facebook-crosses-rs-10-cr-bjp-supporters-continue-to- lead/articleshow/68761641.cms?from=mdr to be published. On the call, a colleague from Facebook noted that the only roll-out planned at present is the release of the Facebook Ad Library, https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/?active_status=all&ad_type=political_and_issue_ads&country =ALL.

This is, however, is both entirely inadequate and unhelpful.

I see no valid reason for Facebook to treat Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election any differently than the Indian Lok Sabha election, and thus, make available in Sri Lanka the same oversight and resources that were rapidly iterated for India. As noted on the call, the fundamental difference between the two platforms is that while the Ad Library gives details about a specific public page or ad, the Ads Library Report gives a snapshot of spending by parties, politicians and sectors, at a glance, with exact amounts spent. This is urgently required for Sri Lanka, and will both vastly and concrete aid the work of journalists and civil society in the country, even without enabling legislation, to keep tabs on Facebook campaign spending – and for the first time in the country’s electoral history.

Without a more public, careful definition of what for the company ‘political content’ means, the greater oversight of boosted and monetised content and the availability of the Ads Library Report, Facebook risks the weaponisation of platform in the lead up to and after the Presidential Election in a manner that civil society cannot scrutinise, election monitors cannot study and the Elections Commission cannot oversee.

I trust the company will urgently look into these recommendations, informed by key insights from the doctoral study into Facebook weaponisation and content dynamics at scale, as well as the experience of working with CMEV / CPA on elections violence monitoring for over a decade.

Best regards,

Sanjana Hattotuwa
Senior Researcher
Founding Editor, Groundviews.org

CC: Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)