Future Tense

The Nationalism of Facebook

The company has treated most of the planet with all the care of an invading imperial force.

Facebook logo on a tablet screen
It’s Facebook’s planet; we’re only just talking about it. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook, like the internet itself, is supposed to be a global phenomenon. It’s designed, its leaders say, to unite the world, transcend difference, and collapse distance. Its global reach and influence is undeniable. Nothing in human history has connected more than 3 billion human beings. Nothing has had such a profound set of effects in such a short period of time as Facebook has had everywhere—except, more or less, the People’s Republic of China—over the past decade.

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Despite the constant flow of scandals, revelations, accusations, accounts, and studies that have documented the damage that Facebook amplifies for its users, most of the attention that journalists and critics have given the company has focused on only two countries—the United States and the United Kingdom—and one language, English.

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When news stories break about Facebook allowing massive spills of personal and behavioral data to rogue political consulting companies like Cambridge Analytica, the spotlight is on American and British data and elections. When most critics complain about all the garbage that flows across Facebook, the news stories they cite and the issues they raise almost always focus on American politics, society, and public health.

Whenever Facebook announces a new policy to tamp down the garbage or misbehavior, I always tweet at the reporters covering the story, “Did you ask if this policy change was only for the United States or only in English?” I rarely get a response. The answer to that question rarely makes it into news accounts.

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In 2018, I had an off-the-record conversation with members of Facebook’s civic integrity team. They went on and on about the measures they were taking to protect the 2020 elections in the United States. When I asked them about what they were doing about the 2019 general election in India, they fell silent. They seemed not to have considered that it might be a bigger problem—the biggest problem.

When former Facebook staffer Sophie Zhang went public back in April with revelations about how little top leaders at the company care about the rest of the world—like how her bosses ignored Zhang’s documented concerns that coordinated fake accounts were boosting posts by the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández—few paid attention. Just this week, every major news outlet is reporting similar problems because of the professionally managed public relations effort supporting newest whistleblower Frances Haugen, but at the time only BuzzFeed News and the Guardian considered Zhang’s story and documents important.

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Those of us who study the global influence of Facebook have known this for about a decade: The U.S. gets off easy from Facebook. American users get the prime services, the most sensitive content filtering (such as it is), and the strongest response (such as it is) from the company when legislators and regulators raise concerns.

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Yet the United States is a shrinking slice of the growing Facebook global empire. About 200 million Americans use the core Facebook app and website regularly, mostly in English and Spanish. That number is hardly budging. Compare that with the nearly 340 million Indians—and growing—who use Facebook in dozens of languages. Indonesia, with 140 million Facebook users, is followed by Brazil with 130 million Facebook users in the rank of countries in which Facebook has the largest user base.

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What do India, Indonesia, and Brazil have in common? They are all flimsy, postcolonial democracies with growing power, populations, and economies. All three have been pushing into the top tier of powerful nation-states over the past 30 years. The fate of those three countries in many ways will shape whether the 21st century fosters the flowering or demise of democracy.

And in all three countries, Facebook and WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging service, have grown into the major media and political forces. Facebook matters much more to politics and daily life in India, Indonesia, and Brazil than it matters in the United States and the United Kingdom. All three are the major sites of expansion for Facebook, and therefore generate much attention from Facebook leadership hoping to maintain the company’s stunning rate of business and user growth. Think about India, with its 1.2 billion people, and the fact that only a third of them are regular Facebook users—so far.

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Yet all the attention—journalistic and regulatory—seems to fall on Washington and London. And all the most influential analyses of Facebook’s effects on the world focus on English-language content and actors.

Thanks to the “Facebook Papers” leak, news organizations have been digging into the latest trove of internal Facebook documents and have revealed—at last—the appalling truth about Facebook’s global growth strategies and how little concern the company has shown for the state of democracy and human rights in India, Indonesia, Brazil, and other postcolonial countries around the world.

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The documents show that internal research from Facebook has revealed, again, what scholars and activists have known for a decade: Facebook directly contributes to mass violence against Muslim Indians by fostering coordinated campaigns by powerful political organizations connected with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The groups behind these campaigns have deep fascist roots and have never hidden their commitment to anti-Muslim violence (and violence against non-Muslims who stand against their terrorism, including Mahatma Gandhi).

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Facebook has invested billions of dollars and hired thousands of people to design and execute filtering systems that are supposed to limit the spread of calls for violence and genocide, health misinformation, and other efforts to undermine or overthrow democracy. Yet most of this effort has been deployed in and for the United States and Europe.

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Facebook does not have people trained in the various dialects of Arabic, as CNN reported on Tuesday based on the leaks, to help clean up the service in most of the world, including sensitive places like Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. It can offer no effective content filtering in the languages of Ethiopia, which is enduring a civil war. In India, with more than 20 major languages, Facebook content moderation might as well not exist at all. And it shows.

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Mark Zuckerberg and most of his top staff are Americans. They act and talk like Americans. They treat the world and their service as if it’s an imperial force, spreading American assumptions and values. They talk like missionaries, like civilizers, about parts of the world that are important to them yet basically foreign. Like colonial leaders of yore, they mostly work in the ideological interest of their home nation.

It’s been clear to scholars and human rights activists for some time that Zuckerberg’s commitment to his largest markets and the authoritarians who lead them is stronger than his—and thus his country’s—respect for human rights and free expression. Despite all his nice speeches and posts reflecting his alleged commitment to free speech, Zuckerberg has been more than willing to capitulate to tyrants who run countries like Vietnam and Pakistan. Now we know that it’s been clear to Facebook staff as well. I’m just surprised it’s taken this long for these documents to come out.

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The questions now are: How many more Facebook employees like whistleblower Sophie Zhang will we hear from? When will we see the full Facebook Oversight Board resign in disgust, now that we know its work is futile and Facebook has misled it? When will we see our best technology journalists regularly raise their eyes above the borders of the United States? When will we understand that Facebook is too big to govern and too deeply embedded in the lives of billions to expect “fixes” or even effective regulation?

The problems that Facebook amplifies are due to the company’s very nature, its core commitments, and the infrastructure it has built since 2004. There is almost no way to make this company better in any way that would matter at a global scale. The problem with Facebook is Facebook.

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All we could do is starve it by severely restricting the collection and use of personal data, yet there is almost no political will to do that anywhere in the world. After all, the anti-democratic leaders of many of the most populous countries in the world like Facebook just the way it is.

As Zuckerberg morphs his company from a social media platform into an all-consuming, all-knowing immersive experience he calls “the Metaverse,” he’s once again building it fast without considering the consequences when real people, with all of our flaws and free will, interact with it. This is all going to get much worse very soon.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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