Facebook bans foreign political ads ahead of Indonesia elections

As scrutiny grows, the social media giant says its move is aimed at safeguarding 'election integrity' on its platform.

    Facebook bans foreign political ads ahead of Indonesia elections
    Facebook has been accused of not doing enough to stop the misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections [Aytac Unal/Anadolu]

    To allay concerns that its platform is being used to manipulate voting behaviour, Facebook has banned political advertisements from outside Indonesia as the world's third-largest democracy heads to its presidential and legislative elections.

    The announcement is a part of the social media giant's efforts to safeguard "election integrity on our platform" and will be effective from Tuesday.

    "We want to make it harder to interfere with elections on the platform, and easier for people to make their voices legitimately heard in the political process," Facebook said in its statement.

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    Indonesians will vote in presidential and legislative polls on April 17. The presidential campaign has pitted incumbent Joko Widodo against ultranationalist former General Prabowo Subianto, who was narrowly defeated by Widodo in 2014.

    Indonesia is battling its own wave of online hate speech, as conservative groups exploit social media to spread lies and target minorities.

    Authorities are worried inflammatory material posted online could crack open social and religious fault lines in the world's largest Muslim-majority country ahead of the polls.

    Facebook said in February it removed hundreds of accounts and pages linked to the Indonesian cyber group Saracen that was accused of spreading hate speech and fake news.

    Al Jazeera probe on fake news

    In the run-up to the Nigeria election, an Al Jazeera investigation found that Facebook's automated system could be tricked to allow advertisements and fake news to be shared with millions of users. 

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    The advertisements Al Jazeera was able to get Facebook to approve included a false claim that armed group Boko Haram would take part in the Nigerian election.

    Other claims included US President Donald Trump voicing his support for opposition leader Atiku Abubakar, the deadline for collection of personal voter cards in Nigeria being extended by a week, and thousands of Nigerian refugees getting a voting extension after the February 16 voting date.

    All four claims were false but Facebook still approved the advertisements after Al Jazeera made slight changes in them to overcome the social media platform's initial rejections, effectively tricking its approval system.

    Increased social media scrutiny

    Facebook and other internet companies are facing increased scrutiny over how they handle private user data and have been accused of not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections.

    Critics say foreign interests, and Russia in particular, used Facebook to harvest private data and disseminate paid advertisements that may have influenced the outcomes of the 2016 United States presidential election and the United Kingdom's referendum on leaving the European Union.

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    The announcement also came just weeks after Facebook was heavily criticised by the EU for not doing enough to counter election meddling.

    The social media company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp and has about 2.3 billion users for its Facebook site alone, said it is using a mix of automated and human intervention to identify foreign-funded election advertisements.

    It said the restriction applies to any advertisement coming from an advertiser based outside of the country "if it references politicians or political parties or attempts to encourage or suppress voting".

    The company said it also prohibited foreign-funded advertisements for last month's election in Nigeria and plans to do the same in Ukraine, which votes later this month

    For upcoming elections for the European Parliament and India, Facebook said advertisers will need to be authorised to buy political advertisements and a new tool will provide information about budget, the number of people it reached and demographics on who saw the advertisements, including age, gender and location.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies