Current News

/

ArcaMax

In just 21 days, Facebook led new India user to gore, fake news

Saritha Rai, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

In February 2019, Facebook Inc. set up a test account in India to determine how its own algorithms affect what people see in one of its fastest growing and most important overseas markets. The results stunned the company’s own staff.

Within three weeks, the new user’s feed turned into a maelstrom of fake news and incendiary images. There were graphic photos of beheadings, doctored images of India air strikes against Pakistan and jingoistic scenes of violence. One group for “things that make you laugh” included fake news of 300 terrorists who died in a bombing in Pakistan.

“I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past 3 weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life total,” one staffer wrote, according to a 46-page research note that’s among the trove of documents released by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

The test proved telling because it was designed to focus exclusively on Facebook’s role in recommending content. The trial account used the profile of a 21-year-old woman living in the western India city of Jaipur and hailing from Hyderabad. The user only followed pages or groups recommended by Facebook or encountered through those recommendations. The experience was termed an “integrity nightmare,” by the author of the research note.

While Haugen’s disclosures have painted a damning picture of Facebook’s role in spreading harmful content in the U.S., the India experiment suggests that the company’s influence globally could be even worse. Most of the money Facebook spends on content moderation is focused on English-language media in countries like the U.S.

But the company’s growth largely comes from countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil, where it has struggled to hire people with the language skills to impose even basic oversight. The challenge is particularly acute in India, a country of 1.3 billion people with 22 official languages. Facebook has tended to outsource oversight for content on its platform to contractors from companies like Accenture.

 

"We’ve invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali,” a Facebook spokeswoman said. “As a result, we’ve reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half this year. Today, it’s down to 0.05 percent. Hate speech against marginalized groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online."

The new user test account was created on Feb. 4, 2019 during a research team’s trip to India, according to the report. Facebook is a “pretty empty place” without friends, the researchers wrote, with only the company’s Watch and Live tabs suggesting things to look at.

“The quality of this content is... not ideal,” the report said. When the video service Watch doesn’t know what a user wants, “it seems to recommend a bunch of softcore porn,” followed by a frowning emoticon.

The experiment began to turn dark on Feb. 11, as the test user started to explore content recommended by Facebook, including posts that were popular across the social network. She began with benign sites, including the official page of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and BBC News India.

...continued

swipe to next page
©2021 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.