This piece was originally published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo’s Illustrisima magazine. Read it in Portuguese here.
Voters in Ukraine — Facebook’s third-fastest growing market — attend a rally for Yuliya Tymoshenko prior to the first round of the country’s presidential election in March 2019.
KYIV, UKRAINE — Sometimes I feel like a professional Facebook critic. As a disinformation researcher, the past few years of missteps and scandals in the social media world have meant that my work has become synonymous with public condemnations of the company’s behavior. From the platform’s response to Russian election interference, to Cambridge Analytica, to Mark Zuckerberg’s confounding New Year’s Resolution to have controlled conversations about technology and society, I rarely have a good word to spare. I wish it were different; if I had more occasions to praise the platform, it would be an indication that the Internet is becoming more just and democratic.
Despite Facebook and other social media platforms’ public remonstrations that they are changing their behavior, we could not be farther from that online democratic utopia, and my criticism continues. I am often in good company, as social media users are becoming more aware of their rights and the platforms’ negligence for them. Lately, though, my public disapproval has been met with a unique chorus of pseudo-wise men, eager to inform me that yes, of course, Facebook is bad! But why didn’t I realize that sooner? The pseudo-wise man usually goes on to inform me that he had the foresight to delete Facebook years ago.
Bravo to the pseudo-wise men of the global west and north for their apparent foresight. What they don’t realize, however, is their very ability to delete their Facebook accounts and their audacity to brag about it is not only coming from a place of supposed intellectual superiority, but one of privilege. For millions of people outside of North America and Western Europe, Facebook, quite simply, is the Internet. Deleting it is tantamount to throwing your phone into the nearest body of water and retreating to the dark depths of the forest to begin your life as a hermit.
Most western social media users probably don’t realize the extent to which Facebook penetrates the fabric of daily life in other countries. I am writing from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where my local cell phone plan includes free access to Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and Facebook subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram, among other social media and digital services. This is not simply a bonus to attract users to the mobile provider; it’s a necessity if telecom companies are to compete in the market at all. According to a report by Ukrainian communications agency PlusOne, Ukraine is one of the fastest-growing markets for the social media giant, behind only India and the Philippines. It boasts 13 million users, 8 million of whom access the platform exclusively through their mobile phones.
Without free access to the platform in their mobile contracts, telecom providers would be obsolete. But because that access is free, in comparison to using a native web browser to read the news or message with friends via SMS, Ukrainians turn to Facebook-owned apps for many of their online needs. Ukrainian Facebook users aren’t only sharing pictures of their cats, children, and vacations, either; in Ukraine, Facebook extends beyond the “social” aspect of social networking, and is an engine for politics, business, and other aspects of professional life.
Most of the interviews I scheduled during my time in Ukraine have been coordinated on Facebook Messenger. In several instances, I’ve sent an SMS to a colleague or interviewee only to receive a Facebook message in reply. It has increasingly become the all-in-one social network in Ukraine. Whereas Americans might use email for professional correspondence and LinkedIn to network professionally, Ukrainians use Facebook for these purposes as well, listing all of their professional credentials and affiliations in their profile, and adding those they have met at networking events, or those they hope to connect with in a professional capacity as Facebook “friends.”
Facebook has also become an increasingly critical tool for political discourse and mobilization. In the past, many Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking influencers used LiveJournal to blog about politics. But as Igor Rozkladai, a media expert and Ukrainian reform activist told me in an interview, he and many other Ukrainians moved their discussions to Facebook after LiveJournal was bought by a Russian company, migrated its servers to Russia, and began complying with the Russian government’s requests for data. Ukrainians have further relied on Facebook as an engine for political commentary since the 2013–2014 Euromaidan revolution and Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Activist Mustafa Nayyem posted a call to action on Facebook that called Ukrainians to the streets after then-President Yanukovych reneged on a promise to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, beginning the Euromaidan protests. Moreover, Facebook’s role as the key forum to discuss politics has been hastened by the Ukrainian government’s ban of Russian social media platforms vKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
Ukraine will elect a new parliament this fall. Though the country is widely recognized as the laboratory for Russian disinformation, Ukrainians are not leaving social media, but flocking to it. The PlusOne study shows one million new Ukrainian users created a Facebook account in the last quarter of 2018 alone. Facebook is Ukraine’s window on politics, window on work, and window on the world. Deleting it is — both for the average Ukrainian and this analyst reporting from Ukraine — is not an option.
The situation in Ukraine is probably familiar to Brazilian readers, where telecom providers also offer free access to social networking platforms. My colleague Anna Prusa, a program associate at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, tells me via email that like in Ukraine, “Facebook and WhatsApp are central to the way Brazilians engage with one another, from family group chats to professional communications.” As cell phone coverage has become more ubiquitous, more people are relying on Internet-based services for all of their communications; over 83 per cent of Brazilians made a video or voice call using an Internet service last year.
But Brazilians’ dependence on Internet-based communications has consequences. Disinformation ran rampant during the 2018 presidential elections. Jair Balsonaro’s campaign, afforded little television time because of his party’s limited representation in parliament, “was almost entirely reliant on social media,” his preferred method of communicating with voters, the Wilson Center’s Prusa wrote. WhatsApp, Facebook’s encrypted messaging service, was particularly critical for Balsonaro: Folha reported that his campaign used to launch informational attacks against his leftist opponent Haddad.
As in Ukraine, a future without Facebook and its subsidiaries in Brazil is almost unthinkable, Prusa writes. “It is very hard to imagine that Brazilians could go without WhatsApp. It is the primary means of communication for many, and is used for both texting and phone calls, including by businesses.” She notes that even doctors in Brazil use WhatsApp to communicate with their patients. Facebook and its children are everywhere; deleting them is not an option.
Dependence on Facebook is even more of a threat in countries less developed than Ukraine and Brazil. Its “Free Basics” program, which provides a curated, zero-data version of the Internet to users in developing markets, aims to “help people discover the relevance and benefits of connectivity.” A 2017 report by citizen media collective Global Voices shows, however, that the program is less altruistic than it appears on the surface. Far from purely seeking to inform and improve lives, the Free Basics program serves Facebook’s business model more than it does disconnected populations, the report’s six case studies concluded. Free Basics lacks basic language adaptability to serve multilingual countries such as Pakistan. It pushes corporate content originating in the West, most notably the Facebook app itself. And it collects every shred of data generated by the users of the Free Basics program.
Even outside of these problems, the Free Basics program means that in countries with low Internet connectivity, Facebook represents the Internet wholecloth to millions of people, and the company is swiftly moving to close the gap for it hasn’t yet reached. Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, a Philippines-based website that has been targeted by President Duterte for uncovering government-sponsored disinformation campaigns on Facebook, often tells the story of a conversation in which she tried to explain the outsized impact of Facebook’s penetration of the Filipino media market to Mark Zuckerberg. Ninety-seven per cent of Filipinos are on Facebook, she told him. She invited him to travel to the Philippines so he might better understand the danger the platform posed. Far from addressing the problems she had identified, Zuckerberg asked instead: “What are the other 3 percent doing, Maria?”
Ukraine, Brazil, and the Philippines cannot quit Facebook. Neither can Burma, where Facebook played a part in the disinformation that hastened a genocide of Rohingya Muslims, or India, where WhatsApp disinformation is more rampant than in Brazil. Some of the world’s biggest democracies are dependent on Facebook for communication, regardless of the threat it poses their political systems or their information ecospheres. This is why, though I understand that deleting Facebook and its subsidiaries may seem like a noble personal sacrifice to the pseudo-wise men of the Internet, it is something I will likely never do. Instead, I hope to use my privileged position to make a positive change on the platform.
As an expert on social media and democracy, it is critical for me to maintain my accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to understand on an intimate level the risks they pose, to empathize with those affected by the latest data breach, to understand how the platforms influence my own information consumption habits. Coupled with my research in countries like Ukraine, I can advocate for a more equitable, just, and democratic Facebook, and by extension, a more equitable, just, and democratic Internet.
Citizens in the global west and north must engage with Facebook’s problems, rather than simply deleting the platform. We are still Facebook’s primary advertising market, and thus, Facebook’s primary money maker. The United States is Facebook’s home. The consequences of the outrage of American citizens or regulation pursued by the US government will be felt not just within our borders, but around the world. We may not be able to single-handedly prevent telecom providers from furnishing free access to the social media company or stop bad actors from manipulating it, but by engaging with and understanding the risks Facebook poses on a personal level, we can use our position of privilege to make the service more democratic for all.