In July 2018, Mexicans will elect a new president and all federal legislative offices will be renewed. At the local level, nine states will have elections to select a new governor. With more than 3400 public positions being contested, it is said to be the biggest election in the history of the country.
As the different offices and entities involved prepare for polling day, one key agency — the National Electoral Institute (INE) — has boasted about having a special ally in this election season: Facebook.
In the era of social networks and the rise of human interaction via the internet, it could make sense for the institution in charge of organising elections in Mexico to form an alliance with one of the internet's giants in content and advertising like Facebook. The Silicon Valley consultancy Pivotal Research estimates that Facebook and Google together took in half of global advertising revenues in 2017.
But according to the INE, the aim was something else, that has drawn even more attention. A joint agreement with the Silicon Valley company seeks to tackle the spread of what is known as “fake news“.
In the context of the 2016 presidential elections in the US, Mexico's next-door neighbor, public opinion condemned the spread of so-called “fake news” through social networks like Facebook, something that many say benefited Donald Trump.
With the aim of avoiding similar results in Mexico, the INE announced its collaboration with Facebook as follows:
El INE y Facebook México firmaron un convenio con el fin de promover la participación ciudadana en las elecciones del próximo 1 de julio.
A través de esta colaboración, además, se busca contrarrestar noticias falsas.
The INE and Facebook Mexico signed an agreement with the aim of encouraging citizens to participate in the elections on 1 July 2018.
Through this collaboration, it also seeks to tackle fake news.
The announcement that was officially published by the INE was picked up by various media channels.
The website Plumas Atómicas elaborated on the statement from the INE, highlighting that:
…el INE informó a través de un comunicado que la participación de Facebook iniciará con la difusión de un material informativo dirigido a los usuarios de la red social que tiene la finalidad de facilitar la detección de fake news y así generar decisiones electorales mucho más informadas.
By means of a statement, the INE announced that Facebook's participation will begin with dissemination of informational materials to its users, in an effort to aid them in detecting fake news and thus producing much more informed electoral decisions.
The distribution of the reports left the public with two key questions: What would this collaboration entail? And how would it work in practice?
Of course, the document in which the agreement between the INE and Facebook was formalised could shed light on these questions. But when they were asked to share the document publicly, election organisers first denied this request for transparency: the INE said that the document signed with Facebook could not be disclosed due to a confidentiality clause in the document.
However, there are transparency laws in Mexico that order the release of any agreement or contract that government bodies sign with public or private entities. Because of this, after a few days and considerable social pressure, the INE published the document that it signed with Facebook Ireland Limited (a subsidiary of Facebook Inc.)
In fact, the document contains no reference to so-called “fake news”. It does include a series of ambiguous declarations in which the only entity bearing responsibility appears to be the INE.
With the text already published, some social media users helped to disclose the content of the document:
The secretive agreement between the INE and Facebook that El Universal published.
People following the issue have expressed surprise that the document in question (that has seven sections over a total of three pages) neither makes reference to the “fake news” issue, nor to the way in which it would supposedly tackle it, as had been announced by the INE.
Regarding this matter, Joel H. Santiago wrote an entire piece on the website La Silla Rota, in which he stressed:
El tema es que este convenio no dice nada de combatir las fake news, como afirmara Córdova Vianello [presidente del INE], y sí compromete con información proporcionada por el INE durante el proceso electoral y particularmente el día de las elecciones…
The issue is that this agreement does not say anything about tackling fake news, as Córdova Vianello [president of the INE] claimed, and yes, it commits to the INE providing information during the electoral process and the day of the elections in particular…
He then concluded with questions concerning the electoral body's performance:
¿Con pifias como esta van a llevar a cabo la organización y cuidado del proceso electoral 2018 en México?
With blunders like this are they going to proceed with the organisation and monitoring of the 2018 electoral process in Mexico?
What does the aforementioned document say?
The terms of cooperation between the INE and Facebook are described in the document as follows:
Durante el período de elecciones (del 30 de marzo al 1 de julio de 2018), Facebook tiene la intención (pero no la obligación) de hacer que algunos de sus productos de participación ciudadana estén disponibles en su plataforma para sus usuarios en México.
El día de las Elecciones, el Instituto proporcionará a Facebook información en tiempo real sobre los resultados de la votación.
During the election period (from 30 March to 1 July 2018), Facebook has the intention of (but not the obligation) making some of its civic participation products available for its users in Mexico.
On Election day, the Institute will provide real time information on Facebook regarding the voting results.
Some social media users thus began accusing the INE itself of creating “fake news” for having made false claims about the nature of its agreement with Facebook:
Pues, resultó que el INE terminó dando noticias falsas, ya que al divulgar su acuerdo con Facebook, vimos que éste no dice NADA acerca de contrarrestar las #FakeNews como se había cacareado. Han perdido credibilidad. https://t.co/CcA7sNpT6y
— Madame Déficit (@Alessia_mx) 15 February de 2018
Well, it turns out that the INE ended by giving fake news, given that by disclosing its agreement with Facebook, we saw that it says NOTHING about tackling the #FakeNews that it had boasted about. They have lost credibility.
The user J. Cabrales Robles described the issue as a “failure” of the Mexican electoral authority:
— J.Cabrales Robles (@Jaimesincabrale) 13 February 2018
#FakeNews an utter failure of the INE and the only thing it did was give our information, let's see whether their nonsense affects the elections.
For the moment, with the document signed between the INE and Facebook now public, it remains clear that the social media company has no formal obligation — nor has it shown any intention — to tackle the so-called “fake news” that so many people have been talking about over the past few days.
Let us remind ourselves that not far from Mexico, in Honduras, the Congress is debating a law that seeks to regulate the spread, also in connection with electoral matters, also in connection with non-transparent grounds.