Facebook in developing countries: promises, pitfalls and perils

‘We have gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community and we are better off for it’, so proclaims Mark Zuckerberg, founder, and CEO of Facebook. Has this promise of Facebook been fulfilled or in the process of being fulfilled?

Certainly, Facebook has become a global behemoth – well over a billion users and rising. It has made ‘Zuck’ the founder of Facebook among the world’s richest individuals. Developing countries have become the newest and most profitable markets. Various strategies – such as ‘free basics service’ in 37 countries – have been put in place to woo the next billion users.

Yet, these are also countries where Facebook is finding itself ensnared by pitfalls and perils. It is much more than ethical and legal issues surrounding data theft and citizens’ privacy as is the current preoccupation in the West. It goes well beyond the well-founded concern that Facebook diminishes individual well-being among profligate users. As the recent cases of Myanmar and Sri Lanka show, it appears that Facebook has unwittingly become an enabler of murderous communal strife. ‘Zuck’ and his associates that run Facebook could not have imagined facing the stigma of being held responsible for fomenting inter-communal hatred rather than connecting isolated communities. This is indeed a reversal from the heady days of Facebook and other social media platforms when they were credited with inspiring democratic social movements, such as the Arab Spring.

Recent research – see here, here and here – has shown that in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Sri Lanka, false rumours fanned by zealots through Facebook and WhatsApp (which Facebook owns) have set Buddhists against Muslims with murderous consequences. In Myanmar, which was isolated from the international community for decades, Facebook took off in the most unanticipated way, accounting for the vast majority of internet traffic. In a country of low media literacy, Facebook-driven ‘newsfeeds’ became the primary source of information. One researcher claims that ‘Facebook definitely helped certain elements of society to determine the narrative of the conflict in Myanmar’. The UN has added its growing chorus of critics of Facebook. As the UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee warned ‘Facebook has become a beast’ unwittingly allowing itself to become a tool of ultra-nationalist Buddhists who could incite hatred and violence against Rohingyas. As is well known, thousands of Rohingyas have been left dead and maimed, with about 700,000 having to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

In Sri Lanka, the government and civil society associations have blamed Facebook for failing to control rampant hate speech. They are convinced that this contributed to anti-Muslims riots in March that left several people dead, forced the authorities to temporarily shut down social media platforms and declare a state of emergency.

Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that Facebook is solely responsible for inter-communal tensions that are historically entrenched. Terrible communal riots have, after all, occurred in the pre-Facebook era as the Indian experience testifies, with the print media at times playing the role of enabler. In Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis goes back decades. Anti-Muslim sentiment among the more militant sections of the Sinhalese majority has always been prevalent. But, ‘where countries are tinderboxes’, Facebook can turn out to be ‘a match’.

So far, the response from Zuckerberg and his associates has been hesitant and even evasive As a global icon with the ability to affect the well-being of billions, Facebook bears a critical responsibility for being much more proactive in dealing with the unintended consequences of its global expansion. The world is a community of fragile and fractious societies which have to be carefully nurtured rather than a mere collection of markets that need to be connected.

People who don’t look like you

On 11 April 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission released it report on cultural diversity.  According to the report, the Australian population comprises 58% Anglo-Celtic, 21% Non-European (including Asian,  Africans, Middle Eastern, Latin American), 18% European, and 3% Indigenous. However, Australians of Anglo-Celtic and European  backgrounds continue to dominate the senior leadership roles in Australian  public and private organisations by as much as 97%. Race Discrimination Commissioner  Dr Tim Soutphommasane has rightly pointed out,  “It also challenges  Australia as a nation whose prosperity relies upon international trade, capital inflows and mobility of people.” Needless to say, if you don’t look like the Anglo-Celtics or the Europeans, your chances of reaching to the top in Australia are pretty slim.

Research into diversity tells a  different story. There is a  business case for cultural diversity. Culturally diverse leaders  can bring  in international experience, alternative perspectives, and skills that can complement  the skills of the dominant population group. But breaking the glass ceiling is not an easy task. Corporations choose their leaders through networks and informal processes. When you look different and talk differently, it might be difficult to get into those “inner” networks.


India and its fascination with the ‘digital age’

Rahul Bhatia writes: ‘The Indian government is in thrall of the dazzle and promise of technology…’ Perhaps the best example of this is the biometric identification system that India has embarked on. As the New York Times reports, ‘India is scanning the fingerprints, eyes and faces of its 1.3 billion residents and connecting the data to everything from welfare benefits to mobile phones.’ The end-product is the so-called ‘Adhaar’ system or the ‘foundation’ on which everything else is based. It is redefining the very essence of what it means to be an Indian citizen.

The scheme is both controversial and ambitious. In terms of ambition, it is one of the first examples of its kind of a large country engaging in such a scheme. Civil libertarians are horrified and view this as a huge Orwellian experiment. Large-scale invasion of privacy of citizens is seen as a major risk.  Others have argued that the biometric identification system performs significantly worse than old-fashioned manual methods in the case of delivering welfare benefits, although this conclusion is based on one case study.

Of course, those who are closely associated with the system see only benefits. They dismiss fears of a putative surveillance state as overblown and argue instead that the biometric ID system has empowered, rather than disenfranchised, millions of Indians – especially among the poor and the illiterate. Previously, they could not establish their identity; now they can.

Who to trust? The rise of China and the decline of the United States

Trust in institutions – political leaders, the government machinery in general, the business community, civil society, academia and the media – is an intangible, but a vital, element in fostering social cohesion and driving economic prosperity. Edelman, a leading US-based private sector entity, offers some intriguing evidence on cross-country patterns and trends in trust. Such evidence draws on an online survey in 28 countries, 18 years’ worth of data, and a sample size of well over 30,000 respondents. It makes a distinction between the ‘general population’ and the ‘informed public’ who are considered to be better educated and in the top 25 percent of household income per age group in each country.

It is tempting to suggest that trust is high in liberal democracies in the West and low in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes in the non-western world. Yet, the ‘global trust barometer’ provides evidence that militates against such a presumption. If we take two contrasting exemplars – the US as the self-appointed leader of the ‘free world’ and China as the authoritarian upstart flexing its muscle as the next global power – where do they stand in the global trust barometer? The authors are dismayed to report the dramatic rise of China and the equally dramatic decline of the United States. The authors of the report ruefully reflect that ‘the public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment’.

Based on a scale of 0 -100, the Edelman report offers three categories of respondents, ‘trusters’ with an average score exceeding 50, ‘neutral’ (50-59) and ‘distrusters’ (less than 50). It appears that trust is highest in China among all the nations surveyed (74 points for the general population, 83 for the informed public). At the bottom languishes the United States among the informed public (45 points), while the lack of trust is also prominent among the general population (43 points). While China gained by 27 points relative to last year, the US registered a 37-point fall relative to 2017. It is plausible to argue that the ascendency of the Trump Presidency has played a key role in the changing nature of trust in the United States. Perhaps the average American has become the victim of ‘fake news’.