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