Facebook has deleted a quarter of user total in account clean up but electioneering has moved

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Facebook has disabled a staggering 583-million fake accounts in the first quarter of this year as the social network tries to rebuild its shattered reputation from the Cambridge Analytica saga and resultant fallout about how lax its took its users privacy.

Over half a billion fake accounts is a eye-watering number by any measure, but even more so because it represents about a quarter of Facebooks 2.2bn monthly active users.

Facebook’s first Community Standards Enforcement Report details how it also took down 837m pieces of spam in Q1 2018, proudly saying most of it was before it was reported. This clearly points to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is part of its big three-year plan to clean up the social network, which it was a year into CEO Mark Zuckerberg told its F8 conference earlier this month.

In the first three months of the year Facebook took down “21m pieces of adult nudity and sexual activity” and 3.5m pieces of violent content, or applied warning labels to the latter. But it admitted that despite removing 2.5m items of “hate speech, our technology still doesn’t work that well and so it needs to be checked by our review teams”.

The clean-up includes suspending 200 apps for misusing data and new restrictions on content and advertising, and who can place political adverts.

But, as the New York Times reported last week, political machinations are moving from Facebook itself to its 1.5bn-strong WhatsApp, where it is “taking an increasingly central role in elections, especially in developing countries”.

This is especially true in electioneering in India which has 240m WhatsApp users, where it reported videos and audio recordings were used by both Hindu and Muslim, sometimes inaccurately, to cast aspersions on the other. One message “exhorted Hindus to vote for the [Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party] because ‘this is not just an election. This is a war of faiths’.”

As Aam Aadmi Party strategist Ankit Lal told the paper: “We wrestle on Twitter. The battle is on Facebook. The war is on WhatsApp”.

Meanwhile, Facebook appears to have anointed the successor to Zuckerberg by promoting chief product officer Chris Cox into an expanded role (from the main Facebook app) with added responsibility for WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger too. He is now in charge of the key apps that bring in the bulk of the social network’s annual advertising revenue of $40bn, and has an audience of several billion people.

The youthful Cox – he’s 35 but is a 12-year veteran of the 15-year-old company – was met with scepticism because Facebook has failed to fill its leadership ranks with women, except for COO Sheryl Sandberg who runs the business side. At F8 the new product executive team saw one woman added, Naomi Gleit, who is responsible for community growth and integrity.

As Zuckerberg told Wired before the annual conference: “The question isn’t, ‘Do we feel bad?’ Of course we feel bad. But what we owe the world is, ‘Here’s what we’re going do to make sure that doesn’t happen [again].’”

The social giant is going to have to do a lot more than make promises and delete fake accounts, even if its half a billion of them, to prove that it won’t.

This article first appeared in Financial Mail

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Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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