October 20, 2018

An open-letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, ahead of General Elections in Pakistan, asking them to rise up to the challenge of countering online misinformation

Dear Mark and Jack,

Excuse the informality – we might not know you well, but you know us pretty intimately, don’t you?

You know who we are, where we live, where we go, who our friends are, our favorite hangouts. You know our moods. You know our relations. And you know our political preferences. Yes, we choose to share all this with you and your teams willingly (mostly). Only some of us know the real cost of being a part of your free communities. Your communities are amazing, we don’t question that for a second. After all, Mark, a less than amazing community would not have amassed 2.20 billion users. (There are quite a few countries in the world with way smaller populations than that). And you, Jack, 336 million monthly active users and a constant upward growth trend is no small feat indeed.

Your services might be free but your communities have paid you well! Mark, good going with 15.9 billion USD in 2017 that made Facebook the top most social media company in terms of revenue.  Since you depend on ads for the majority of revenue generation, elections obviously serve you well. We know you made a killing in the 2016 US Election. Good for you. And yet, as you yourself admitted, you also failed to protect your community from the onslaught of fake news and misinformation. Over 126 million Americans were exposed to Russia backed propaganda and misinformation in the run-up to the 2016 election. Consequently, your failure resulted in the manipulation of the democratic process.

Jack, Twitter has had it easier. With Facebook to take the brunt of the reaction, we guess, you have managed to avoid the worst of the public reaction. And yet, your role in the spread of disinformation around elections has been no less detrimental. More than 50,000 Russian trolls active during the US Elections, that you have now removed, must have done an incredible amount of damage. We appreciate that you are now warning users who might have been targeted by this misinformation. But, how many of the 1.4 million people who will now be notified were influenced during the election campaign? Especially when this misinformation was spread further by Trump’s senior advisors ahead of the elections. 

Shall we say that your failure to protect the very communities that have earned you billions and made you key influencers in global politics has triggered something that has quite literally put the whole world at risk?

The American elections are over of course and damage control can only help so much. But the elections and the revelations afterward have demonstrated an urgent need to do much, much better. We appreciate some of the moves to counter the spread of misinformation that you two have taken – the fact-checking during Karnataka elections showed a pro-active approach, for example.

But, you do understand why we have to ask you to do more as we move towards general elections in Pakistan. Especially you. Jack – Twitter can’t be let be off the hook simply because its executives say that it “is not the arbiter of truth”.  We do not agree with your approach to simply wash your hands off an issue that does have a direct impact on democratic participation.

We agree with you on one principle, though: As your executive Pickles stated, technology companies should not be deciding during an election what is true and what is not true. But does that mean the decision doesn’t have to be made at all?  Does that mean you simply let your platform be overrun by trolls, propagandists, and bots committed to spread misinformation and affect political and electoral processes?

When your platform comes to affect millions you do owe them a responsibility – it is a responsibility to ensure that their basic rights are protected. You have a responsibility to ensure that their democratic progress is not hampered and manipulated by the rich, the powerful, and the influential. Don’t turn away from this responsibility.

We see your actions demonstrate an acknowledgment of this responsibility, Facebook, and appreciate it, but we ask for more. 

Pakistan is a struggling democracy. We have had decades of dictatorship and our democratic periods are rife with dictatorial attitudes. We are no strangers to censorship and propaganda. And, due to a low rate of literacy and [an even lower rate of] digital literacy, we are highly susceptible to misinformationOur political leaders and parties make great use of social media. The leaders of our three main political parties – Imran Khan, Maryam Nawaz, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – have 11.35 million followers on Twitter among the three of them.From political leaders to other state institutions, Twitter and Facebook have been used effectively for political mobilization in Pakistan.

We want you to recognize your role and your influence, and to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with it.

As Pakistan moves towards general elections 2018, we ask you for:

  1. Concrete policies to discourage and counter the spread of misinformation and help users identify fake content and clearly laid out strong strategies for operationalization of these policies
  2. Complete transparency about revenue sources of political ads advertisements and sponsored content, as these can directly influence political decisions of users.
  3. Complete transparency about evidence of attempts at information manipulation, including the issuance of notifications to affected users and the inclusion of details about such in periodic transparency reports.
  4. Developing a better understanding of local contexts that can enable you to develop localized solutions, like usage of local languages in related consumer outreach, for countering misinformation during highly sensitive periods like general elections.
  5. Commitment towards parity of service, independent human rights audits, sustained transparency around mechanisms of policy development and their implementation.
  6. Investment into digital literacy of your community so as to ensure that they are not vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation by bad actors using your platform.

We hope you will take your responsibilities seriously. These are, after all, incredible times and your platforms have incredible potential. Allowing this potential to be manipulated by anyone would be unfortunate; allowing it to be manipulated by anti-democratic, regressive hate mongers would be detrimental.

Fighting information manipulation is a huge challenge, more so in the information economy. We look forward to seeing you rise up to this challenge.

Wishing you the best for this fight.

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