Differential ad pricing: House panel asks Facebook for explanation in writing

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New Delhi: Opposition Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor-led Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology has sought an explanation in writing from Facebook whether it implemented differential advertisement pricing for political parties, people familiar with the matter said.

“The company offered predictable explanations and facts. [It] claimed that the accusations are false and the committee has sought details in writing within 10 days,” said one of the people cited above, requesting anonymity

A meeting of the panel with Facebook officials lasted for over two hours on Monday days after Congress chief Sonia Gandhi urged the government to end the “systematic influence and interference of Facebook and other social media giants” on electoral politics being used to “hack democracy”.

Speaking in Lok Sabha, she called it an issue of paramount importance while referring to the rising danger of social media abuse. She added companies such as Facebook and Twitter were being used increasingly to shape political narratives by leaders, parties, and their proxies.

Gandhi’s comments came following an Al Jazeera article that said Facebook undercut the Opposition’s influence on the platform ahead of the 2019 national elections and gave a distinct advantage to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The article was based on an analysis of 536,070 political advertisements on Facebook and Instagram from February 2019 to November 2020. It assessed the influence of Facebook’s political advertising policies on elections in the country.

Some experts have disputed the methodology of the report, arguing the pricing is contingent on the extent of the audience, with those with greater reach getting better prices.

HT reached out to Facebook but did not receive a response immediately. Facebook, in a blog post on March 27, argued it has tried to ensure transparency related to elections globally. “We have learnt from over 200 elections globally. We can anticipate threats and help prevent election interference better than before.”

Facebook said it continues to build new tools, including stronger AI and machine learning systems. “…as a result, we’re now more effective at finding and removing abuse and fake accounts,” the post said. “We’re also bringing unprecedented transparency to political advertising with our labels and Ad Library.”

Facebook said it believes voters deserve transparency as they participate in political discussions and debates. “That is why we are clarifying our political ad policies and their enforcement.”

Facebook’s India policy head Rajeev Aggarwal briefed the parliamentary panel on Monday. “The [electronics and information technology] ministry [officials] could not get a chance to report to the panel since the meeting with Facebook ran long,” the person cited above said. “On hate speech, Facebook informed the panel it does take a proactive approach.”

The person said Facebook said it was in the process of hiring more people to overcome the pitfalls of artificial intelligence and algorithmic takedowns.

The panel has also renewed its request for whistle-blower Sophie Zhang to depose before it. Zhang has accused Facebook of having biased policies when it comes to addressing hate speech.



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