As Indian election looms, Facebook steps up fact-checks

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Facebook Inc is expanding its fact-checking network in India to curb the spread of misinformation as the world's largest democracy prepares for a general election that must be held by May, the U.S.-based social media giant said on Monday.

"We are committed to fighting the spread of false news on Facebook, especially ahead of the 2019 General Election campaign season," Manish Khanduri, Facebook India's news partnership head, said in the statement.

The coming election is expected to be a close fought battle between Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress Party and its regional allies.

Last week, Facebook said it was introducing stricter rules for political advertisements in India.

The latest move to strengthen the fact checking program is aimed at verifying the accuracy of stories and preventing the spread of hoaxes.

Five new partners, including the India Today Group, a leading local media house, have been added to Facebook's fact-checker network, taking the total number to seven, the statement said.

And the program has been broadened to cover services in more Indian languages, so that it will now cover English and five local languages, the statement added.

India is Facebook's largest market by users, and its WhatsApp messaging service has more than 200 million users in the country thanks to the advent of cheap mobile data and increasing penetration of smartphones.

Aside from concerns over misuse of social media for political purposes, there has also been criticism over the spread of false, incendiary messages that have fanned communal tensions and sparked mob violence.

Last year, after a series of lynchings were incited by messages sent on its service, WhatsApp reduced the number of people or groups that a message could be forwarded to at one time, cutting it to five from 20 previously. WhatsApp has since moved to make that its norm worldwide.

Facebook's main rival in India, Alphabet Inc's Google, has also conducted scores of workshops across the country to train journalists to verify news.

(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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