Fears over Facebook’s Role in Election Campaign

A screenshot of the Ad Library’s results for one of the ads posted by the Facebook page of “9alb Tounes” (Heart of Tunisia), the political party linked to presidential candidate Nabil Karoui. Screenshot taken by Meshkal news team on Septemer 2, 2019.

With the official launch of the presidential election campaign on Monday September, 2, digital rights activists are concerned about the role social media might play.

“Certainly Facebook will play a decisive role in the upcoming elections,” Emna Mizouni, a digital rights activist said at a conference on the topic of Tech and Digitalization in Tunis held on the sidelines of RightsCon on June 11, 2019. Mizouni joined the board of directors of Access Now, an international digital rights group in July 2019.

The centrality of Facebook to Tunisia’s media environment is hard to miss. Official state institutions in Tunisia often have much more active Facebook pages than ordinary websites, and many official statements by state institutions or politicians are only published and available on Facebook.

More than that, Tunisians are highly reliant on Facebook for information. According to a poll carried out by the news and research website Barr al Aman, 41 percent of respondents said their first source of news for municipal election campaign in 2018 was Facebook, with television a distant second at 19 percent.

As in many countries, there is a state regulator for television and radio, the High Independent Commission for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA by its French initials). However, there is no equivalent regulatory body for social media—something several activists said was generally a good thing as too strong regulation in this field could negatively impact freedom of speech. Yet many still believe more should be done to regulate potentially toxic online speech surrounding the elections specifically.

On Monday, the same day the election campaign officially kicked off, Access Now and 14 Tunisian civil society organizations penned an open letter to Facebook calling on it “to implement effective measures for transparency and accountability towards your users in the context of the upcoming Tunisian elections.”

The letter called for six specific measures, all of them relating to making public and accessible information on campaign ads, the money used on those ads, and the identities of those behind them.

Facebook Publishes Some Ad Details

The effects of disinformation and propaganda campaigns—so-called “fake news”—distributed on Facebook during the 2016 US election have made international headlines. The details of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of millions of people were harvested without their knowledge and which was linked to the Trump presidential campaign, came to light in 2018. After the scandal and amidst greater scrutiny by governments, Facebook launched an “Ad Library” in March of this year.

According to Facebook, its Ad Library is specifically designed to respond to concerns about election interference.

“Transparency is a priority for us to help prevent interference in elections,” reads a statement posted on Facebook’s help page. The statement continues: “so the Ad Library also shows you additional information about ads about issue [sic], electoral and political ads, including who funded the ad, range of how much they spent, and the reach of the ad across multiple demographics. We store these ads for seven years.”

But until recently, Facebook’s Ad Library wasn’t active in Tunisia, and rollout has only been done in select countries. According to Aly Mhenni, civil society officer at Democracy Reporting International in Tunisia, digital activists were surprised to see more details suddenly appear on August 27—less than a week before the campaign began—on Facebook’s Ad Library about the “9alb Tounes” (Heart of Tunisia) Facebook page. “9alb Tounes” is the political party linked to presidential candidate Nabil Karoui.

Activists believe that Facebook is cooperating with the High Independent Election Authority (ISIE by its French initials.) An email request for comment on whether Facebook is working with ISIE sent by Meshkal to a Facebook employee responsible for “Public Policy North Africa” received no response as this article went to publication. Meshkal also received no response from Facebook on whether it would respond to the letter penned by Access Now.

Meshkal also sent a request to ISIE’s communication team asking for confirmation on whether ISIE had signed an accord with Facebook and details on the issue if an accord had been signed, as reported by some press outlets. As of publication Meshkal had received no response.

A search of several political parties’ Facebook pages on Ad Library by Meshkal on September 5 found that some pages provided extensive details on ads, money spent on them and demographics reached by the ads. This included the page of 9alb Tounes (screenshot above in main photo of this article). However, an Ad Library search of the Facebook page of Tahya Tounes, the party linked to Prime Minister and presidential candidate Youssef Chahed did not provide such extensive details. This apparent discrepancy between information provided on different pages may explain why Access Now demanded the additional transparency in its open letter.

A screenshot of the details provided by a Facebook Ad Library search of the Facebook page of Tahya Tounes, the political party of Prime Minister and presidential candidate Youssef Chahed. Screenshot taken by Meshkal news team on September 5, 2019.

“We would be happier if every single political ad appeared with those details.  [We want] more expansive details on all the ads – like it is in France, the UK, and especially the US,” Mhenni told Meshkal.

Even if ordinary citizens don’t make use of transparency tools, activists will have a powerful weapon in their arsenal. If Facebook’s Ad Library shows political campaigns are spending more on political ads on Facebook than the strict limits set out according to law for the whole campaign, they can bring it to the attention of authorities. The penalties for campaign financing violations were updated in 2014 to be a multiple of what was spent, far more costly than the fixed penalty fee in place during the 2011 election, according to Mhenni.

But while campaign financing is a concern, perhaps a bigger worry for some activists is that hate speech and defamation could be employed. Mizouni, for example, points to female candidates, especially in the upcoming legislative elections, as potential targets for hate speech and misogyny.

Democracy Reporting International has partnered up with the Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections (ATIDE by its French initials) to do social media election monitoring. So far, Mhenni says they haven’t seen serious violations of hate speech, but he says they have found vitriolic language being used on Facebook that relates to regional discrimination, i.e. discriminatory comments from Tunisians living in one region against Tunisians living in another.

Earlier in June, at the digitalization conference, Mhenni had noted that Tunisia’s election body ISIE had at that time conceded it would be impossible to monitor social media in the campaign, and so civil society was going to try and make up the gap where authorities could not. Since then, ISIE has asked political parties to delete problematic Facebook posts, but there is no indication that they will be compelled to do so.

It remains unclear what measures ISIE can or will take to prevent hate speech or defamation in the election campaign. In contrast, however, hate speech and defamation against high officials is still very quickly investigated and punished by authorities.

“That’s something else. That’s not monitoring social media in the elections campaign, and that’s the controversy,” Mhenni told Meshkal back in June. “If you insult the prime minister or president you can be jailed in five days. But when you talk about someone else…”

The Ad Model vs. Alternative Media

The issue of ads and money on Facebook wasn’t always such a big issue. Even just a few years ago, the social media platform was not as saturated with political ads and the ensuing disinformation and propaganda campaigns. As established media organizations lost some of their audience to Facebook, they began to migrate to Facebook themselves according to Thameur Mekki, editor-in-chief of Nawaat, the media platform and reporting outlet that had been blocked in Tunisia before the 2011 revolution.

“The algorithms have changed over time, to the point where, at Nawaat – for example in 2016 we had a certain visibility, and this visibility on Facebook has fallen. The reach of our publication [on Facebook] has fallen by two thirds,” Mekki said on a panel at the June digitalization conference.

Emna Mizouni (L), Aly Mhenni, and Thameur Mekki (R) on a panel discussing the topic of “Shaping the upcoming Tunisian elections: The role of social media in influencing the elections,” on the sideline of RightsCon in Tunis June 11, 2019. Photo by Meshkal news team.

Mekki explained that Nawaat had dominated the local social media environment in the early days of the platform partly because the platform had carved out spaces for alternative media.

“The perception of Facebook at the beginning in Tunisia, before revolution – they used to think of it as an alternative space. It was an alternative space in the sense that it was a space that proposes an alternative, an alternative mode of expression, in which there was a minority that brings up alternative subjects,” Mekki said.

In recent years, however, Mekki says he’s seen the platform go through a “mainstreaming” process, where traditional media outlets like TV and radio established their presence on the platform while a pay-to-play model saw a few elite media outlets carve out privileged status.

As it becomes clearer how Facebook is shaping media and politics, some see its model as incompatible with journalism and news reporting.

“We don’t really want the billionaires at Facebook and Google deciding what’s newsworthy or not,” Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at the organization Free Press said at a RightsCon panel in Tunis this June on the topic of “Big Tech and the Future of Journalism.”

Karr’s co-panelist and senior research analyst at Ranking Digital Rights Nathalie Maréchal, explained that big tech companies make money from the “digital exhaust” of users and nonusers alike, and that while they don’t make news, they do make money out of it.

Their “business model is based on non-consensual mass-surveillance,” Maréchal told those gathered at the conference in early June.

While the issue of Facebook’s role in election campaigns and the compatibility of the network with journalism may seem like separate issues, the specialists on the panel insisted that policymakers were focusing on the problem of regulating social media content—such as “fake news” and hate speech—instead of the market forces shaping the content.

In regulating content, governments are subcontracting that out to the social media companies themselves, which won’t solve the problem, according to Mira Milosevic, the panel moderator and executive director at the Global Forum for Media Development.

“We’re almost going in the wrong direction focusing on content rather than looking at market framework,” Milosevic said.

Social Media as Vector for Violence?

While hate speech and disinformation have so far been relatively limited on Tunisia’s social media networks ahead of elections, others say Facebook has been a vector for violence and even a tool for war criminals. For example, a United Nations fact-finding mission to Myanmar last year investigating violence, war crimes and genocide allegations found in its report that “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where, for most users, Facebook is the Internet.” Facebook’s own commissioned report into its role in Myanmar found that it wasn’t “doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”

“We are trying to hold the existing platforms in our country [accountable, platforms] that a lot of people are using that have been weaponized,” a digital rights activist from Myanmar said in June at a RightsCon panel in Tunis on the topic of Organizing a Global South Led Movement for Platform Accountability with the Next Billion Coalition.

While some activists are trying to keep Facebook honest, others think such a task is impossible and the only solution is to create public alternatives to Facebook. Earlier this year, Timothy Karr and Craig Aaron published a policy paper entitled “Beyond Fixing Facebook” in which they argue for a tax on Facebook and other social media platforms’ targeted ads.

Karr and Aaron argue in the paper that a 2 percent tax on Facebook in the United States could yield two billion US dollars a year, which they advocate for using to fund a “Public Interest Media Endowment to support independent, community-based and investigative journalism, among other innovations.”

Karr explains that with the invention of TV and radio, public broadcasters were set-up for the sake of public interest journalism and to keep the private TV and radio stations honest. Now that a new medium has arrived with such popularity, i.e. social media platforms, public policymakers need to consider investing in a public model for this medium as well.

Karr says he’s calling for “alternative distribution platforms that are not build upon surveillance capitalism as a business model”

“The model I put forth works in any country in which Facebook has a presence and generates revenue, because the way they track their ad revenue is by country so if for example if lawmakers in Tunisia were to consider some sort of digital services tax to apply to online advertisers like Facebook and Google and others, there is a paper trail there that they can follow in order to levy that tax and hopefully generate some local revenue for hopefully better purposes,” Karr told Meshkal in a phone interview on June 20, 2019.

But others believe the idea of holding Facebook to account fiscally is already difficult enough in the United States let alone in Global South countries that are more dependent on the platform and which have even less power vis-a-vis multinational businesses.

Instead of taxing the giant to invest in an alternative platform to Facebook, Tunisian policymakers “should start with the universities. Teach people what they need to break up these giants, don’t just give them the tools to go and work for Facebook,” Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a political analyst, told Meshkal. “There are so many other policy solutions that are practical and feasible. You could create another Facebook and you would have the same content because people would still think in the same way.”