Facebook and global poverty reduction: ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’

In 2013, Facebook launched an initiative to enhance internet access in developing countries. In 2015, at a UN Summit, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, argued passionately that connecting poor people in the developing world to the internet is crucial for the success of the global goal to eliminate extreme poverty. Today, this initiative is known as ‘Free Basics by Facebook’. The goal is to bring ‘internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the portion of the world that doesn‘t have them…. Free Basics by Facebook provides people with access to useful services on their mobile phones in markets where internet access may be less affordable. The websites are available for free without data charges, and include content on things like news, employment, health, education and local information. By introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these websites, we hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives’.

Not surprisingly, Facebook is also available free for mobile phone users of this scheme. Facebook makes strong claims about the impact of such a benevolent mission. Thus:

‘Through our connectivity efforts we’ve brought more than 100 million people online who otherwise would not be and introduced them to the incredible value of the internet. They’re doing better in school, building new businesses, and learning how to stay healthy’.

Some anecdotal examples are given to support this claim, but a more rigorous evaluation is needed. As critics have been quick to point out, this feel-good and benevolent mission can turn out to be self-serving as the ‘free basics’ scheme is a conduit for increasing the size of Facebook’s market in the developing world. Furthermore, subscribers to the ‘free basics service’ could easily end up conflating the internet with Facebook. It is also naïve to reduce a complex phenomenon – poverty and its multidimensional nature – into an issue of enhancing access to the internet.

Perhaps Facebook’s biggest moral dilemma is to contend with increasing evidence that it has unwittingly ended up as an instrument for either abetting authoritarian regimes (as in the Philippines) or fomenting social violence (as in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Libya). It has also been held responsible for mobilizing groups to commit violence against immigrants (as in Germany). In some cases, governments (notably Sri Lanka and Libya) have been forced to temporarily shut down Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg’s benevolent mission to join forces with the UN and others to fight extreme poverty across the globe has been dented by recent events. Facebook has responded with countervailing measures, but self-regulation by a global corporate behemoth is not adequate enough to respond to a growing and disturbing phenomenon of perpetrators in different parts of the world who have used Facebook as a way of ‘connecting hate’.