The surfacing in March of Cambridge Analytica’s social media breaches, with a whistleblower claiming that that over 50 million Facebook profiles were used to manipulate polls including the 2016 U.S. elections, meant that similar concerns have shrouded upcoming elections elsewhere this year. Among these are the general elections in Pakistan, scheduled to be held this summer.
On April 6, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced two steps that would be introduced to address these apprehensions.
“From now on, every advertiser who wants to run political or issue ads will need to be verified. To get verified, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location,” he wrote on Facebook. “Second, we will also require people who manage large pages to be verified as well. This will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way.”
While testifying before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees, Zuckerberg said his company was introducing the latest new artificial intelligence tools to target fake accounts.
However, digital analysts and rights activists warn that while these actions would help protect data henceforth, Facebook can’t do much to undo the damage that might’ve already been done owing to the data leaks from the past.
“There is no way of undoing a particular case of data theft. Short of deleting or destroying the database, no other action would be useful, and it’s nearly impossible since as they say ‘the data has left the building’,” says Asad Baig, the founder and executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, while speaking with The Diplomat.
“The fact of the matter is, [Cambridge Analytica] has Facebook user data, including the users from Pakistan and if someone wants to exploit it for profiling, and use it for political gains to fine-tune their messages for a local public nothing much can be done about it, and the parties who exploit this data will have an undue advantage in their political campaigns.”
CEO and founder of Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad, agrees that previous damage can’t be undone, but adds that Facebook needs to completely rethink its model to serve users.
“What Facebook can certainly do is to ensure that it takes strict measures to protect the data of its users in the future. This can only be done by strong privacy policies and their implementation that serve the users instead of the corporation itself,” she told The Diplomat.
While fake news has impacted voting patterns the world over, it has become especially problematic in Pakistan with all leading political parties asking their social media teams to create fake profiles as part of their social media strategy.
Talking to The Diplomat off the record, social media managers from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and the two main opposition parties Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), confirmed that creation of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to propagate their narratives was the official policy of each party.
“Everyone’s running fake Facebook accounts and Twitter bots, so we’re just keeping pace with what others are doing,” a social media executive of the PML-N who requested anonymity told The Diplomat. “It was the PTI that started this trend. So we’re just countering propaganda with propaganda,” they added, citing the fact that one of the rumours that the PML-N social media team has had to counter in recent weeks was the false report that the party has hired Cambridge Analytica’s services for the upcoming elections.
Kaleem Hafeez, a member of the PTI social media team, told The Diplomat that his party isn’t ruling out the possibility of the PML-N purchasing data to manipulate elections, considering the party’s control over the IT ministry.
“Our data analysts are monitoring what other parties are doing, and the undemocratic tools and methods being used to rig elections digitally,” Hafeez said. “Considering that the PML-N was involved in heavy on-field rigging in the 2013 balloting, it won’t be a surprise if they do the same digitally as well.”
Digital analysts are also critical of what they dub the IT ministry’s failure to protect users’ data in Pakistan.
“The IT ministry should have… as promised, enacted the data protection law alongside the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in 2016. A law which was much more predatory in nature [PECA] was given priority whereas a law that stands to provide protection to citizens’ data was delayed,” says Asad Baig.
“Now it’s too late. Only in the next term can we see something happening about. Meanwhile, if someone for instance now, chooses to exploit local data sources, they can do so with impunity.”
Critics say the greatest failure of the IT ministry is that there is no data protection law in Pakistan.
“The first and foremost thing that the ministry of IT [should] be doing at the moment is to introduce the data protection legislation that has been long overdue,” says Nighat Dad. “If the said law turned out to be a good one, it will ensure that people’s data is not being misused on or by the social media platforms.”
However, Ali Warsi, associate digital editor at the Daily Times, believes that the sheer volume of fake accounts being run from the country makes it impossible for anyone to control the spread of fake news.
“How exactly would [Mark Zuckerberg] track the fake accounts? This is too difficult to actually implement,” he said while talking to The Diplomat.
“What I have observed interacting with [social media executives] over the years is that [the parties] are good at making fake accounts. But that’s all they can do actually as far as the skill set is concerned. Disciplined use of data is something far beyond their capacity,” Warsi adds.
Even so, Warsi doesn’t believe any online data theft would have a huge impact on the Pakistani elections.
“[Pakistan has just] 17 percent internet penetration. The political parties wouldn’t really invest in online ads or Google adwords, and that too with such precision that they’d use Cambridge Analytica’s data,” he maintains.
Meanwhile, activists underscore that in Pakistan the spread of fake news and misinformation is a much graver problem than the impact it might have on polling.
“Seen in Pakistan’s context and the pretext of false blasphemy accusations, fake profiles are a huge concern. Anyone, for instance, can copy your display picture, create a fake account and starts spreading blasphemous content under your name,” says Asad Baig.
“The investigative agencies might get to the bottom of it, but by that time it’s perhaps a little too late. See Mashal Khan’s case for instance.”
Mashal Khan was a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, who was lynched in April 2017 by a mob that suspected he had uploaded blasphemous content to Facebook.