TOKYO -- Facebook is taking its battle against fake news to Asia, one of the fastest growing regions where misleading information is also increasingly dividing local communities.
But the initiative, centered on partnerships with third-party fact-checking organizations, faces an uphill challenge. Only three countries -- India, the Philippines and Indonesia -- currently meet Facebook's criteria. And it is already stirring controversy in the Philippines, where the government of President Rodrigo Duterte is accusing the social media company of partnering with parties critical of his administration.
The fresh effort by Facebook come amid a pledge by its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to "take more responsibility" over content shared on the internet platform. This followed revelations in March that user data had been leaked to the Cambridge Analytica, a research company tied to Donald Trump's presidential election campaign in 2016. In early April, Facebook said users across Asia, including more than one million in the Philippines and Indonesia, may have had their data improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.
Around the same time, Facebook began launching fact-checking programs in the region. It partners with signatories of the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network, a global forum for fact checkers, which includes Rappler and Vera Files in the Philippines, Mumbai-based BOOM in India and Tirto.id in Indonesia. Facebook will stop news rated false by these partners from appearing on users' feeds. Facebook claims that once a story is rated false, it has been able to reduce its distribution by 80%.
Monthly users of Facebook in Asia have grown 54% over the past two years to 873 million, making up 40% of the company's total user base despite the service being blocked in China. The widespread use of social media has made it easier for false information to spread quickly.
In Indonesia, fake news has fueled political tensions ahead of the June elections for governors and mayors across Indonesia. The government has stepped up its campaign against fake news, enlisting the national police to crack down on groups believed to be responsible for producing and spreading disinformation and hate speeches on social media.
In March, the police exposed an alleged fake news syndicate calling itself the Muslim Cyber Army, which had spread false reports such as the disbanded Indonesian Communist Party being revived and Muslim preachers being killed. These false reports appeared aimed at undermining the administration of President Joko Widodo, who is seeking re-election next year.
In India, which reportedly has more than 200 million Facebook users, fake news has triggered violence and protests. Amid communal tensions caused by the killing of a young Hindu man in a town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in January, social media platforms circulated photos of another Hindu man who was said to have been killed by Muslim mobs in reprisal. The news turned out to be false and the local police issued a statement clarifying that the Hindu man was, in fact, alive. In another incident, seven people were lynched to death on rumors of a child abduction that had spread on social media.
Facebook's initiative "is a first-of-its-kind effort to combat online misinformation," said Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the Poynter Institute's IFCN. "There will no doubt be lots of lessons if and when Facebook decides to share data about how the project has gone up to now."
So far, however, the partnerships have done little to reduce the hostility expressed by governments in the region to the social media giant.
The initiative has backfired in the Philippines, where it has met strong opposition from Duterte's supporters.
Vera Files is a non-profit media organization that routinely fact-checks Duterte's public statements, while Rappler, an online news portal, has clashed with the government.
Early this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler's corporate license for violating foreign media ownership restrictions, while the Bureau of Internal Revenue has slapped a tax evasion complaint against the news site, which is fighting the actions.
Manila's Presidential Communications Operations Office on April 16 said: "We would also like to register our protest at the choice of fact-checkers by Facebook." A government official meanwhile called on Duterte supporters to boycott Facebook.
Harry Roque, Duterte's spokesperson, said Rappler and Vera Files are "sometimes partisan themselves."
Vera Files said it has also fact-checked other officials, while Rappler said it will guarantee "rigor and quality" in its fact-checking processes.
The partnership in Indonesia has not deterred the communications ministry from warning Facebook that it will shut down the platform if it fails to provide explanations as to how the personal data of 1 million Indonesian users were stolen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
A ministry official said Facebook sent the ministry a letter on April 25 claiming it has restricted or ended some third-party applications believed to have been used to harvest users' private data, while it was still investigating the role of others.
Meanwhile, the lack of independent fact-checkers elsewhere in Asia will likely hamper Facebook's expansion of the initiative. Facebook only works with organizations verified with the IFCN. While three groups in Brazil are signatories, there are none in Southeast Asia besides Indonesia and the Philippines.
Mantzarlis, the IFCN director, attributed the shortage in Asia to "very few eligible fact-checking projects" that have sought to be registered.
Notably, there are no IFCN signatories in Myanmar, where Facebook has come under the spotlight for its role in spreading hate speech. During his congressional testimony in April, Zuckerberg said Facebook will hire "dozens of new Burmese language reviewers".
Some experts point out that tackling fake news on Facebook alone will not be enough to stem its flow in India. KK Mookhey, founder and chief executive of Indian cyber security consultancy Network Intelligence, reckons that the bigger challenge is the spread of fake news through WhatsApp since data on the Facebook-owned messaging app is encrypted and "no algorithm can monitor that."
"Indians consume the most amount of Whatsapp content in the world. Facebook obviously cannot monitor that," he said. "WhatsApp communications are private and encrypted. Riots have been triggered because of propaganda on WhatsApp."
Nikkei staff writers Cliff Venzon in Manila, Erwida Maulia in Jakarta and Rosemary Marandi in Mumbai contributed to this story.