Dispatch

Facebook Can’t Cope With the World It’s Created

Zuckerberg needs to stop courting Beijing and start paying attention to the countries where Facebook matters.

Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a "town-hall" meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi on October 28, 2015. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a "town-hall" meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi on October 28, 2015. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK — As Mark Zuckerberg returns from his latest pilgrimage to Beijing, it’s time for him to pay more attention to the countries in Asia where Facebook actually matters.

The Facebook CEO has spent years courting Chinese officials in the hopes of winning admittance to the world’s largest internet market. But while he’s been beating his head against the Great Firewall, Facebook has swept like wildfire through the rest of Asia, with complicated and sometimes dangerous results.

Asia is now Facebook’s biggest user base. That has given the company unprecedented political sway across the continent, where it inadvertently shapes the media consumption of hundreds of millions of people. The impacts are amplified in the region because vast swathes of relatively new internet users turn to Facebook first as their primary gateway to the rest of the web. Meanwhile, it’s become clear that the attitudes and policies the Menlo Park-based company adopted when it was primarily a U.S. social network are inadequate, or even perilous, when applied in authoritarian states, fragile democracies, or nations with deep ethnic divisions.

After months of public outcry in the U.S., Facebook has finally agreed to take seriously charges that the social network played a substantive role in shaping the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On an earnings call earlier last week, Zuckerberg told investors and reporters “how upset I am that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust,” adding that he was “dead serious” about findings ways to tackle the problem. That would be a positive step — but it must also extend to examining Facebook’s tricky impacts in the rest of the world.

I’m writing now from Thailand, and I’ve recently reported in both Cambodia and Myanmar. In each of these countries, Facebook has become an accidental political juggernaut — providing public evidence used by authoritarian governments to imprison liberals and journalists for expressing dissent, and amplifying the reach of racist demagogues whose dangerous and false diatribes happen to collect a lot of rabid clicks.

In the early, idealistic days of the internet, “the platforms used to maintain they were paper mills rather than newspapers,” says Scott Malcomson, author of Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web and director of special projects at Texas-based Strategic Insight Group. But it’s no longer possible to think of the internet as a utopian great leveler, a world-flattener that empowers only the virtuous masses. The reality is that the effects of the digital revolution are complex and varied around the globe.

And in many parts of the world the stakes include life, liberty, and free speech — the most basic of all political rights. Facebook can no longer deny its moral responsibility to try to understand how cyberspace, law, and politics collide in each of the countries where it operates, nor its responsibility to do something about it.

***

In Myanmar today, Facebook is the internet.

When you buy a smartphone from a sidewalk vendor in Yangon, the seller will activate a Facebook account for novice users on the spot. Many people don’t bother with email if they have Facebook — and many people in Myanmar have multiple Facebook accounts.

This is all a staggeringly recent development. The junta that controlled the country until 2011 kept the price of SIM cards artificially very high to put them out of the reach of most people in Myanmar, and thus control the flow of information. When I first visited Yangon in spring 2014, only about 1 percent of the population of 52 million had access to the internet. A government official who attempted to defend the ethnic categories listed on Myanmar’s controversial census — there was no “Rohingya” category, but only “Bengali” — afterward gave me an informational DVD about the census. Today, 46 million people, or 89 percent of the population, access the internet, mostly through smartphones and mostly through Facebook — and there are far fewer stalls hawking bootleg DVDs on the streets of Yangon.

The rush online has given rise to entrepreneurial dreams and a nascent startup sector, but the internet has also given a megaphone to strident political voices formerly on the margins and made them mainstream.

Ashin Wirathu, a monk known as “the Burmese bin Laden” who has called for the expulsion of the Rohingya population, told BuzzFeed News reporter Sheera Frenkel in 2016 that his anti-Muslim Ma Ba Tha movement had gained national momentum due to Facebook. “If the internet had not come to [Myanmar], not many people would know my opinion and messages like now,” he said. “The internet and Facebook are very useful and important to spread my messages,” such as his call for boycotting Muslim businesses. Earlier this year, Wirathu was banned from making public sermons, but he continues to operate dozens of inflammatory Facebook pages.

The human-rights crisis in Rakhine state has escalated to what the United Nations’ top human rights official declared in September was “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” — citing the Myanmar military’s extrajudicial killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed against the Rohingya population. More than 600,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed over the border into Bangladesh, where they must try to survive in muddy refugee camps with little support from any government.

The roots of ethnic hatreds in Myanmar run deep, but a recent flurry of fake news posts — including doctored photos of Rohingya supposedly burning their own homes or attacking Burmese Buddhists — has stoked popular support, or at least tolerance, for the army’s hardline approach. Debunked rumors even appear on the Facebook pages of government officials.

“Facebook has become a bit like an absentee landlord in Southeast Asia,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “When Buddhist extremists start instigating action against Muslims [in Myanmar], looking around for the local Facebook representative is hopeless — there isn’t one. Instead, it’s sort of, complain into the void and hope some relief arrives before it’s too late — and that’s assuming you know a language that relevant Facebook staff are conversant in.”

A spokesperson for Facebook confirmed that the company has no office in Myanmar or Cambodia, although it has consultants in each country and a regional office in Thailand. In an emailed statement to Foreign Policy, the spokesperson wrote, “We have clear rules on what can and cannot be shared on Facebook, technology that helps prevent abusive behavior, and we work with safety experts and civil society to educate people about our services.”

The spokesperson said that a Facebook “product and integrity research team” would be visiting Southeast Asia this month to assess regional challenges. Internally, Facebook has also begun to grapple with how to identify and define “hate speech” in different countries.

In Myanmar, the word “kalar,” or “kala,” can be used as a simple prefix to refer to things of South Indian origin, like kala beans — or it can be used as a nasty ethnic slur. Richard Allen, a Facebook vice president for public policy, wrote in a blog post this summer about the tricky case of context-dependent words: “The term can be used as an inflammatory slur, including as an attack by Buddhist nationalists against Muslims. We looked at the way the word’s use was evolving, and decided our policy should be to remove it as hate speech when used to attack a person or group, but not in the other harmless use cases.”

Implementing the guideline was not so easy. “We’ve had trouble enforcing this policy correctly recently, mainly due to the challenges of understanding the context,” Allen wrote. “After further examination, we’ve been able to get it right. But we expect this to be a long-term challenge.”

It’s a positive sign that Facebook is studying the way hate speech spreads online in Myanmar, and elsewhere, but that won’t undo the damage that’s already happened — or give 600,000 refugees a safe place to call home.

What’s different about tech as opposed to other global industries — say, automobiles or pharmaceuticals — is that only after the products are released into the world do the developers gain any real understanding of what the existential problems will be. And then it may be too late.

***

Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, a Thai student activist who joined several peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014, is in jail right now for content he posted Facebook.

Last December, the BBC Thai published a new documentary about the Thai royal family, which contained unflattering information about the then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, now King Rama X. Jatupat, a 25-year-old member of Thailand’s New Democracy Movement, shared the link on Facebook and quoted some of its content. The next day he was arrested by plainclothes police officers for violating the country’s antiquated lèse-majesté law — which outlaws insulting or defaming the monarchy, and which is selectively deployed by the junta that seized power in 2014 to suppress its critics with a veneer of legality. Thousands of people shared the BBC documentary; most of them were not arrested — but Jatupat’s prosecution was used to send a chilling message to others.

The day after his arrest, he was released on a 400,000 baht ($12,000) bail. Jatupat turned to Facebook to joke: “The [Thai] economy is poor so they took my bail money.” The court ordered him back to prison for the comment, and his subsequent six requests for bail were denied. In August 2017, he was sentenced to five years in prison for the initial Facebook post; after he pleaded guilty, his sentence was commuted to 2.5 years.

Jatupat’s case is hardly unique. Before the 2014 coup, six people were in prison on lèse-majesté charges. The junta dramatically stepped up convictions to silence its critics. Between May 2014 and March 2017, at least 90 people were arrested and 45 of them sentenced, according to research by iLaw, a Bangkok-based nongovernmental organization that tracks legislation. What’s more, the majority of these recent cases have involved social media — Facebook posts and tweets — turning offhand remarks into prosecutable offenses. In these recent cases, only 17 percent of those arrested were released on bail before their trial dates. Many cases were tried in military courts.

Why is Facebook so useful to the junta? First, its insistence on a “real name-only” policy makes for easy tracking of dissidents. Even in cases where people successfully mask their names, their web of social connections makes them potentially easy to identify. (In the U.S., sex workers have already found themselves inadvertently exposed by Facebook’s data-aggregation and friend suggestions.) Hard-to-navigate privacy settings can mean that what people mistakenly think of as private speech, limited to a small group of friends, is often anything but. “If you make a certain kind of comment online, you can quickly be sent to prison in Thailand,” says iLaw researcher Anon Chawalawan.

***

The news isn’t all bad. Over the past five years, Facebook helped enable a groundswell of citizen journalism and activism in Cambodia — but a recent experimental tweak to the timeline function pulled the rug out from under regular news posters, at a time when the political tolerance for free speech was already shrinking.

In January 2014, I met Cambodian monk But Buntenh in a small room on the third floor of a ramshackle office building in Phnom Penh. The founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, he was seated on an embroidered cushion on the floor and surrounded by electric cords charging his various devices: a laptop, tablet computer, and smartphone.

Buntenh had recently begun to organize what he called “monk reporters” to use their smartphone cameras to document peaceful human rights demonstrations in Cambodia’s capital — including garment workers marching to raise the minimum wage and families evicted for development projects marching to demand compensation or adequate rehousing. (Many were living in shantytowns, with blue tarp roofs pulled between tent poles.)

“I am trying to encourage monks to become more political,” he told me at the time. “We cannot wait for our political parties to change; we must do it ourselves.” Buntenh had by then recruited about 5,000 monks to his watchdog army. Their cause took a grave turn on Jan. 3, when military police opened fire on striking garment workers in Phnom Penh, and at least seven people were killed. Photos, videos, and firsthand reports — from the monk’s group and from other witnesses — quickly circulated on social media, especially Facebook and Line. That put pressure on Cambodian politicians and caught the attention of domestic and international news media and the foreign brands — Nike, Adidas, Puma, Gap — that were some of the factories’ biggest customers. The minimum wage was eventually raised, although the widows and families of the deceased workers were never compensated for their loss in any significant way.

I visited Cambodia a half dozen more times between 2014 and 2016 to report on the evolution of the country’s intertwined social justice movements, collectively referred to as the “Cambodian Spring.” The internet was absolutely essential to the minimum-wage and land-rights campaigns, and the sharpest knife in the toolbox was Facebook. Activists turned to Facebook for news reports from the Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia, for updates from human rights groups like LICADHO, and for messages from march organizers and journalists. A 2016 survey conducted by the Asia Foundation found that more Cambodians said they got their news from Facebook and the internet than from watching TV. “Facebook became the country’s most important source of news, giving the government some headaches as its old information monopoly has been circumvented,” says Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

These are darker times now in Cambodia, as earlier this year the government arrested the leader of the main opposition party, expelled the staff of the U.S. State Department-funded National Democratic Institute, and forced the independent Cambodia Daily to shut down because of an unpaid tax bill. Facebook didn’t change the political winds, but it did inadvertently squeeze remaining channels of dissent.

It’s unlikely that anyone in Silicon Valley was thinking of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political repression when Cambodia was selected in October as one of six pilot countries to test out a new timeline feature, which separates news items from personal posts. A Facebook blog post by Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri explained that the goal was “to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content.”

But the BBC has reported that one unintended impact was dramatically shrinking the number of people who would see published items. “Out of all the countries in the world, why Cambodia? This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” a Cambodian blogger told the BBC, explaining that the number of people who saw her public video had dropped by more than 80 percent. “Suddenly I realized, wow, they actually hold so much power.… [Facebook] can crush us just like that if they want to.”

Because Cambodia is a small market of 16 million people, testing a new feature there may have seemed like a perfectly reasonable choice to an engineering product team. But when your product is not sneakers or toasters, but the single most important way that people in that country receive news and information, it bears a different kind of consideration.

The Cambodia Daily is now attempting a comeback, and this too will depend on Facebook. The journal has recently started publishing Khmer-language essays and voice pieces through its Facebook page, bearing a new motto, “Second Life: A Life Online.” It remains to be seen how successful or long-lived the effort will be, but one hopes that its fate won’t be determined by Menlo Park suddenly switching algorithms without notice or consultation. As a former Daily staffer told me — via Facebook, naturally — “I really like the idea, but it’s a big risk,” adding that the publisher “might get arrested for this … maybe.”

***

These three cases are very different. But they all speak to the need for Facebook to localize, diversify its policies, and decide what kind of values and culture it’s trying to promote.

In theory, the fourth-most valuable internet company in the United States — worth more than half a trillion dollars — knows this. In a statement emailed to FP, a Facebook spokesperson wrote, “There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that works everywhere, and we are committed to working closely with local organizations to develop education programs, policies and products that meet people’s needs in different parts of the world.”

But so far, the social network hasn’t lived up to its ideals, says Human Rights Watch’s Robertson. “They are going to need to build up their capacity to get further into the game, talking with all the stakeholders from civil society, business and government to ensure they know the political and social context and are prepared to respond in a substantive, rights respecting way.” He adds: “People entrust their private and public lives to this platform — so decisions need to have customer buy-in, and communications need to reflect two-way dialogue.”

For a long time, Silicon Valley espoused a dogma of information neutrality — claiming, falsely, that search engines and social networks were only impartial tools. But, at a time when algorithms can determine whether an entire country sees genuine news or hate-filled propaganda, this idea can’t be sustained. “Move fast and break things” was Facebook’s mantra for developers until 2014, signaling the twin totems of speed and aggression that animate many programmers and venture capitalists in the U.S. tech industry. Yet it’s a lot less appealing when the things being broken are people.

 

Christina Larson is an award-winning journalist based in Beijing.

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