Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
The United States vs Rest of the World
How companies approach politics around the globe
Whoo boy. I knew this fall would be busy, but like always, it's a different thing to live through the crazy versus trying to prepare for it. There’s a lot of tech news in the States, but I’m mostly focusing on the rest of the world this week.
First, though, a note about the cross-check story. On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it was going to ask the Oversight Board for guidance on this system. In response, I tweeted that, “I really hope the board doesn't just look at who is a part of this system but the process that it uses and all the different areas where it is applied and how.”
This is a follow-up to a Twitter conversation Kate Klonick, Jeff Horwitz and I had on Sunday where we were talking about why it's essential to not just look at the policies but how well they are being enforced. We shouldn't expect 100% perfection, but we should know accuracy rates and how decisions are made. I hope the Oversight Board looks into both.
On to the main thing I wanted to talk about today.
When I first started building out the global politics and government team at Facebook back in 2013 I had never traveled anywhere outside the United States other than Canada. Over the next six years, I was lucky to visit 28 countries and work on at least one election in every country that has them around the world.
To say the experience changed me would be an understatement. I quickly realized that the United States is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to elections and politics. There’s not a strong central election commission (instead, it's a decentralized system across 8000 election officials), the campaign periods are longer, there are fewer regulations (like political ad blackouts) and far more money is spent on elections here. Most countries have more than two parties, many are in a parliamentary type system, some have multiple election days, and cycles of three, five, or even six years exist. Some have four-year cycles, but few go to the polls every two years.
On top of that you have over 7,100 languages and a myriad of cultural norms, turns of phrases, and images or symbols that can all mean one thing in one country and another somewhere else. The Oversight Board recently dealt with something like this as Evelyn Douek pointed out on Twitter. They upheld Facebook taking down hate speech in South Africa but had previously ordered the restoration of the same word in a different context in India.
All of these factors make the challenge of protecting the integrity of these elections exponentially more challenging as you can't just build a tool such as hate speech classifiers or political and ad transparency and then scale it to the rest of the world. Rather, you usually need to customize some of it to fit that country's structure and norm to be effective.
With the Canadian and German elections recently completed and Freedom House's new Freedom on the Net report out, I wanted to focus this week on explaining a little bit more about how these tech issues manifest themselves in other regions.
Let's first take a look at how these companies are roughly structured around the globe. Most companies have split the world up into regions:
North America (which covers the U.S. and Canada)
LatAm (which includes Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America)
Europe, Middle East, and Africa (sometimes shortened to EMEA)
India and Asia-Pacific (sometimes shortened to APAC). For some companies, India is a part of their APAC teams and for others - such as Facebook - they are separated out.
The personnel in each of these regions are usually mostly non-product teams consisting of people from public policy, communications, partnerships, and salespeople. Some hubs do have large operations teams and even product teams. Some of these people will be in charge of just one country, some a few, and some will cover the entire region. Those regional leaders then usually report to someone back in the United States.
It then usually varies between companies as to which initiatives are coordinated regionally vs centrally as well as where they choose to build up their support teams to work with partners.
When developing a global strategy, one needs to think about how to have a set of principles that can apply globally but that you can adopt locally. To give an example, when I was at Facebook running the elections team, we had a set of principles such as making sure to provide the same information to all candidates/parties that we applied globally, but then we had a menu of different options of what we could in that country depending on what was needed. For instance, in some countries like Russia with strict laws around foreign involvement in their elections (ironic, I know) the most we could really do was monitor for potential problematic activity or requests similar to what Apple and Google got recently. In other countries like India, we would do a wide range of work from Election Day reminders to the integrity operations centers.
Setting the priority of what to do in each country is a difficult task for any company. There simply isn't enough people-power to do everything everywhere. Nor is it always right to assume that something which works well in the U.S. will work in other places. But that said, I am keeping a close eye on what the companies will do for international elections that did for the U.S. 2020 election.
If we look at the recent Canadian and German elections - Facebook, Google, and Twitter all rolled out a series of work that they've built up over the years. Usually, this includes integrity measures, civic education, and fun stuff like Instagram stickers and Doodles. The fact that many of these efforts can be scaled to various elections around the globe is impressive and a testament to the number of resources each company has dedicated to this work. NOTE: I linked above to work mainly around the Canadian election since those posts are in English. Many of these same things were done in Germany. For instance, Facebook's post on that is here.
However, in the U.S. we saw many more efforts put into place such as labeling content, more robust voter information centers, and eventually the unprecedented move of deplatforming President Trump. No question that the 2020 election was unique in many ways; however, given the fact that we are seeing many more candidates and political parties around the world adopt some of the rhetoric and tactics from last year such as Germany to Brazil and Peru, I sincerely hope we continue to see this work built upon for the rest of the world.
Now, one other important thing about this work to mention. That is the fantastic work that groups outside of the companies are doing to help protect the integrity of elections. Those include my colleagues at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab to the good folks at NDI, IRI, IFES, Kofi Annan Foundation, the Alliance of Democracies, Athens Democracy Forum, and many others. It may sound like corporate-speak (I said it about a bajillion times myself), but partnerships like these are essential, and I hope to keep highlighting some of their work.
While there's been a lot of great work in this space, there still is a lot more to do. (More corporate-speak that's actually true!) Early on (circa 2012), helping politicians to use the platform was seen as a good business practice. Post 2016, people have rightly raised questions and criticisms about how these companies help politicians and parties use their platforms when some of those do so in ways that undermine the democratic process. At Facebook, we made some changes to our approach in 2018 based on those criticisms, and I continue to wonder what the right balance is. I think the main things are more transparency, clear rules, and enforcement when accounts break those rules - but more on all of that in a future newsletter.
What Am I Reading
News that I've been paying attention to this week.
Congrats to the Brewers who clinched the National League Central crown. I also want to apologize to Aaron Rodgers for doubting him after the first Packers game and thank the American football gods for sending us Macon Crosby.
I talked to BBC World's Talking Business Asia about the relationship between big tech and India. My portion starts at the 19:15 mark.
I'm also excited to be working with my alma mater - UW-Madison - on an effort to detect and correct misinformation about vaccines & electoral administration.
The whistleblower who gave the WSJ the docs for its Facebook Files series is testifying to the Senate on Tuesday, October 5.