US elections vs Bihar polls: Are all social media users created equal ?
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen
The 2020 United States elections are now over, as is the 2020 Bihar Legislative Assembly election. To protect the integrity of the US elections, the big platform companies announced a range of initiatives. How many of these initiatives have also been in place in Bihar, where voters went to the polls at the same time ? We don’t know, but some of the publicly announced initiatives seem to have been targeted only or primarily at the United States.
If voters in Bihar do not enjoy the same protections as voters in California, at least they are not alone. November is not an election month only in the United States (population 329 million) and Bihar (population 99 million), but also in Brazil (population 211 million), where municipal elections are coming up.
Will people there benefit from the same initiatives as American voters ?
Brazil and Bihar alone has a population almost as large as the entire United States. In December, Ghana, Niger, and Indonesia will hold elections at various levels. Their combined population too is about the same as the United States.
Will social media users there be protected the way their peers in the United States are?
Judging from initiatives meant to protect election integrity, it is not always clear that these billions of users are treated the way American users are.
Protections for US elections
Take just two of the biggest platforms, Facebook and the Google-owned YouTube, who approached the US elections very differently, but both took a range of initiatives to protect them.
Facebook, used on a weekly basis by 63% of America internet users, and under intense media and political scrutiny, announced a wide range of new initiatives and policy updates, all the way up to and after election day in the US.
The company, among other things, has had teams searching for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by accounts that work in concert to spread false information. It maintains an ad library so users can see at least some information about what political ads are being bought and by whom. It limited the purchase of new political ads in the final days of the US elections, created a new “voter information hub” with data on when, how and where to register to vote, and promised swift action against posts that try to dissuade people from voting.
Facebook also maintained a so-called “war room” on Election Day to identify efforts to undermine the integrity of the election, and promised action against candidates who prematurely and inaccurately declared victory (a policy the company enforced against Donald Trump, provoking renewed charges of censorship from some conservatives).
In parallel, YouTube, used on a weekly basis by 61% of American internet users, but subject to much less intense media and political scrutiny, announced a more limited number of initiatives, taking a less hands-on approach than Facebook.
It too maintains a team that monitors information operations and operates a political ad archive. It limited political advertising after the polls closed, provided links to information about how and where to vote on its home page, and said it would not allow videos that mislead voters about how to vote or about the eligibility of a candidate, or that incite people to interfere with the voting process.
YouTube also started displaying fact-check information panels above election-related search results as well as links to real-time results on Google with data from the Associated Press and reiterated that its rules prohibit false claims that could materially discourage voting. (But many controversial videos remain up, including a video uploaded on November 5 to the official Donald J Trump YouTube Channel with the President asserting, without evidence, “if you count the legal votes, I easily win”. On November 7, YouTube added a label to the video noting that the AP has called the Presidential race for Joe Biden.)
From Bihar to Brazil
Some of the election integrity initiatives were also in place in Bihar, including Facebook’s ad library. But for example the Voter Information Hub was from the outset described by Facebook as a US-specific initiative. Will something similar be available later this month in Brazil for their municipal elections?
YouTube currently also provides fact-checks for search results in Brazil and India. Will they be in place for users in Indonesia in time for local elections in December ? Will these two companies, or for that matter their various smaller competitors such as TikTok and Twitter, invest in real-time monitoring of attempts to use their services to spread false information in a coordinated fashion during the upcoming elections in Ghana and Niger?
Will all these measures – or similar ones tailored to local circumstances – be in place for the next round of Indian legislative Assembly elections in early 2021? Will Indian politicians be sanctioned in near-real time by US companies if they lie and try to mislead the public, or use hate speech to rile up their base?
Maybe not. The world is full of injustice and inequality–election integrity initiatives cost money and the revenue per user in many countries is paltry compared to Europe and North America. Private companies going above and beyond their legal obligations in moderating political speech, while welcome in some quarters, also often generate political controversy and allegations of partisan bias from elected officials and others subject to sanctions. And perhaps US-based companies would just argue that a US Presidential Election is special.
But at least all users should have a right to know whether or not the same initiatives are in place to protect them and their elections.
And if Silicon Valley is serious about its global ambitions, and about being “user-centric”, surely it is in platform companies’ own long-term self-interest to proactively show users in Bihar and elsewhere that they matter as much as those back home in California ?
If they do not, platform companies risk ending up joining the long list of Western companies who treat people in other countries as second-class citizens.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. Full disclosure: Both Facebook and Google are supporting research at the institute. More about our funding here.