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.

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