Facebook usage may help curb government corruption

Researchers connect Facebook usage with curbs on government corruption in countries with limited press freedom, while discussions continue over how best to reduce the spread of fake news on the influential social network.

A study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has shown that open sharing of information on Facebook is a vital tool against institutional corruption, particularly in countries where press freedom is curbed or banned.

The research was inspired by the role of social media in enabling the Arab Spring of 2011. Large protests across the Middle East – which toppled corrupt and oppressive governments – sprung into action, largely driven by Twitter and Facebook users.

This weekend, a fresh wave of protests – more than 600 individual marches – rose around the world in response to what has been described as attacks on science, facts and evidence-based policy, most notably under the presidency of Donald Trump. Like the January 2017 Women’s March and similar protests, this global ‘March for Science’ was heavily organised and promoted through social media.

Professor Sudipta Sarangi, head of the department of economics at Virginia Tech, carried out a cross-country analysis using data from 150 countries. According to Dr Sarangi, few quantitative studies have looked at social media use and its impact on corruption, as country-specific social media usage data is hard to come by.

He found that social media use is negatively correlated with corruption, with this relationship being strongest in countries with low press freedom, such as China, Russia and Malaysia. The more that Facebook penetrates public use, the higher the likelihood of government corruption meeting protest, he found.

Most significantly, Sarangi reports in Information Economics and Policy, social media is complementary to press freedom with regard to tackling corruption.

“This study underscores the importance of freedom on the internet that is under threat in many countries of the world,” said Professor Sarangi. “By showing that social media can negatively impact corruption, we provide yet another reason in favour of the freedom on the Net.”

Most anti-corruption content on Facebook is independently created and shared by individuals, often between users who trust each other, thus giving the content credibility. This allows multi-way communication, rather than the one-way communication provided by broadcast and print media. This network of communication is harder to censor.

The complexity of this network, while proving invaluable in scrutinising institutional corruption, has its downsides. Malicious and otherwise damaging content spreads between users rapidly. Fake news on social media platforms was credited with helping Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton to the White House in last year’s US presidential election.

In an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight programme, due to air tonight, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, commented that Facebook was taking its responsibility over fake news “very seriously”, but that it was not appropriate for the network to be an “arbiter of the truth”.

“False news hurts everyone because it makes our community uninformed, it hurts our community, it hurts countries,” she said.

Facebook now offers its users a guide to identifying fake news in their news feed and provides a “disputed content” tag to add to hoaxes shared on the site. Ms Sandberg denied that this reflected a transition from Facebook being a platform to a publisher. Such an editorial voice, she said, was inappropriate for the company.

Since beginning its crackdown on fake news, Facebook has faced further criticism for allowing advertisers to promote hoaxes on users’ news feeds. This included a promoted link to a false The Sun web page, in which businessman Alan Sugar was falsely quoted supporting a money making scheme.

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