During the first of his two Congressional hearings on data privacy and disinformation concerns regarding the popular social media platform, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg assured United States Senators that he is working with his team to ensure the integrity of important general elections scheduled this year around the world, including in Pakistan.
The hearings came in the wake of reports about Facebook’s lax data privacy standards that enabled Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy that managed Republican Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016, gain access to personal information of around 87 million Americans.
Even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was broken by various media outlets in the US, Facebook was already under criticism for fake news widely circulated on its platform apparently by accounts run from Russia that damaged Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and bolstered Trump’s chances.
During the five-hour long session with the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday, Zuckerberg repeatedly apologized for his company’s oversights in the past and assured the senators that he and his team were working to fix the issues.
Read more: Social Media and Big Data in Politics
In response to a query about Facebook’s efforts to prevent foreign interference in future elections in the US, he said he regretted that the company was slow in identifying the Russian information operations in 2016. “We expected them to do a number of more traditional cyber attacks, which we did identify and notify the campaigns that they were trying to hack into them. But we were slow at identifying the type of — of new information operations.”
He said his team learnt about these new information operations ‘right around the time of the 2016 election’ and was since working to counter them. “2018 is an incredibly important year for elections. Not just in the US, with the midterms, but around the world, there are important elections in India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Hungary. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections.”
Regarding steps taken since 2016, Zuckerberg mentioned that the company had deployed new Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools that do a better job of identifying fake accounts that may be trying to interfere in elections or spread misinformation. He said tens of thousands of accounts had been proactively removed before they could do any significant harm.
Zuckerberg said that just last week his team’s investigations were able to track various fake accounts to 272 Russian media organizations. All of these accounts were taken down, he said.
He told the committee that at the end of 2018, Facebook would have more than 20,000 people working on security and content review.
According to statistics provided by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 30 million Pakistanis were registered with Facebook by November 2016. Though electoral rigging has been an important public policy concern in the country in recent years, telecommunications and election regulators in Pakistan have yet to take notice of possible manipulations of election outcomes through social media.