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Facebook’s Problems Aren’t Only in Washington

The company is under the microscope in Washington, but it faces an even harder battle to control its platform overseas.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
The Facebook “like” sign is seen at Facebook’s corporate headquarters.
The Facebook “like” sign is seen at Facebook’s corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California, on Oct. 23, 2019. Josh Edelson/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Facebook’s international reach is under scrutiny, a Xi-Biden virtual summit is confirmed for later this year, and German parties convene for “traffic light” talks.

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Facebook’s Global Problems

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Facebooks international reach is under scrutiny, a Xi-Biden virtual summit is confirmed for later this year, and German parties convene for “traffic light” talks.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Facebook’s Global Problems

Facebook is again in the spotlight after whistleblower testimony from former product manager Frances Haugen led to fresh calls for deeper regulation and possibly dismantling the social media giant.

America first. The hearing—and the trove of data that led to the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files—showed the company has improved its handling of disinformation and electoral interference for U.S. audiences while the rest of the world got short shrift. According to Haugen’s testimony, the company spends 87 percent of its misinformation budget policing English-speaking audiences, despite those users only making up 9 percent of its user base.

As internal Facebook data reported by the Wall Street Journal showed, the problems can mean Mexican drug cartel activity goes unsanctioned, human trafficking in the Middle East gets facilitated, and ethnic violence is incited in Ethiopia.

Although some U.S. users have turned away from the platform, that option is unavailable to poorer countries where, in many cases, Facebook is synonymous with the internet itself.

Small countries, big problems. It’s not the first time Facebook’s international shortcomings have been in the spotlight. Allegations against the company include its use as a platform to promote ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka as well as allowing misinformation to thrive on its subsidiary WhatsApp during the 2018 Brazilian presidential election campaign.

Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook who blew the whistle on the company’s lax overseas moderation practices in September 2020, told Foreign Policy that although the social giant gives low priority to monitoring smaller countries, it would rather stop bad behavior in them than take on more politically powerful actors: “If I had found Modi doing something, I guarantee you that it would have gotten an answer much quicker, but the answer would probably have been ‘we’ll think about it’ or ‘no.’”

And although the company has made efforts to address its failings (for example, by publishing regular reports on the networks it takes down), the problem of policing content on a global scale means some countries move further down the priority list.

Katie Harbath, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, saw that first hand when she was Facebook’s public policy director. “It becomes one of those impossible trade-offs that nobody wants to have to make, but if youre trying to decide between India, whos going into an election, and Honduras, youre probably going to pick India,” Harbath told Foreign Policy.

Trouble on the horizon. The scale of the task isn’t getting any easier. Harbath points to 2024 as a key moment for Facebook and other social media companies as elections affecting roughly one-third of the world’s population take place in India, the United States, Indonesia, and the European Union: “It’s an electoral tsunami that I worry people arent ready for. And Im really keeping an eye on Facebook and other companies and all this stuff they built for [the 2020 U.S. elections]. How much of that are they going export to other countries?”


What We’re Following Today

The Biden-Xi summit. U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, will hold a virtual summit later this year, the White House announced late Wednesday. The announcement came after U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met in Zurich for talks the same day. A U.S. official described the Zurich talks as a “more meaningful and substantive engagement” than previous meetings.

Traffic light talks. The leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Free Democratic Party (FDP), and Greens party meet together today for the first time since the country’s inconclusive election in September. Although a coalition of the three parties is considered the most likely combination to form the next German government, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) have not yet given up hope and have conducted their own separate negotiations with the smaller FDP and Greens. A recent poll found that 74 percent of respondents would prefer the Christian Democrats go into opposition while CDU/CSU voters were split on the issue.


Keep an Eye On

Kurz in trouble. Prosecutors in Austria accused Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of bribery and embezzlement on Wednesday, prompting calls for his immediate resignation from the country’s opposition. Kurz and his associates are suspected of using public funds to secure favorable coverage in Austria’s Osterreich tabloid while Kurz was foreign minister in 2017. Kurz has denied the allegations, describing them as “manufactured.”

Britains energy crisis. A fire affecting a key underwater cable further endangered the United Kingdoms backup electricity supply, which has already been hit by gas plant and nuclear reactor shutdowns. According to the Guardian, the excess capacity that could be drawn on if needed could fall to levels last seen during 2015’s challenging winter if temperatures are very cold, wind speeds are low, and there are power plant outages.

Faced with such worries, business leaders and think tanks did not find any solace in British Prime Minister Boris Johnsons speech at the Conservative Party Conference. It was dismissed as “bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate” by the free market Adam Smith Institute.


Odds and Ends

Netflix announced plans to edit scenes from its Korean-language smash hit Squid Game after a phone number used in the show has led to one woman being inundated with calls in real life. A key plot point centers around contestants calling a number to take part in life-or-death versions of children’s games in return for cash, creating problems for the unnamed woman from Seongju-gun, South Korea, and prompting a return to the editing room for producers. “This is a number that Ive been using for more than 10 years, so Im quite taken aback. There are more than 4,000 numbers that Ive had to delete from my phone,” she said.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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