Facebook Is Not The Internet: Philippines Propaganda Highlights Perils Of Company's 'Free Basics' Walled Garden
from the disinformation-nation dept
We’ve talked at great lengths about Facebook’s pretty transparent effort to dominate the advertising industry in developing markets. That has come largely via internet.org and the company’s “Free Basics” service, which provides a curated selection of Facebook-approved content exempt from mobile usage caps (aka “zero rated”). While Facebook has often hyped this service as a wonderful way to connect impoverished third-world farmers to the internet, net neutrality and gatekeeper concerns resulted in the program being banned in India as part of a growing tide of criticism over the programs’ less noble aspects.
Many groups (like Mozilla) have pointed out that if Facebook really wants to connect poor people to the internet, they should just connect poor people to the internet, not some curated, AOL-esque version of it where Facebook dictates what content and services users get to see. Others have quite correctly pointed out the perils of conflating such a walled garden with the actual internet, especially in places like Myanmar just emerging from under the umbrella of violent dictatorship where the internet is a relatively new phenomenon with an even more profound impact than usual.
That point was driven home again this week via this Buzzfeed report on Facebook’s propaganda problem in the Philippines. While Facebook was ultimately forced to retreat from Free Basics in many areas due to the above criticisms, Zuckerberg initially and repeatedly praised the service’s 2013 launch in the Philippines as a smashing success, calling the program a “home run” at a conference in Barcelona in 2014.
But as the report notes, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has used Facebook — more specifically Facebook’s Free Basics service — to wage a major disinformation war against his political opponents, shore up support via a cacophony of fake user accounts, and amplify smear campaigns and any number of bogus news reports. And because only Facebook-approved content was exempt from usage caps, users quickly began to see Facebook as the end all be all of connectivity and information, exactly as Facebook designed it.
But Facebook didn’t do much of anything to help combat platform abuse, resulting in cultural and political chaos that may just look a little familiar:
“Alongside all this, Duterte and his administration have railed against the mainstream media in the Philippines. Duterte has repeatedly called local news outlets “fake news.” He’s suggested murdered journalists must have “done something” to deserve their fate. Such statements are chilling in a country where as many as 177 media workers have been killed since 1986, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
This miasma of inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda, and real and fake news has made a mess of the Filipino political discourse and the Philippines itself. And it’s a mess we’ve seen before.”
The difference, of course, is that in the States users at least tend to have access to the actual internet, allowing them to find alternative viewpoints. That’s not quite as easy when your version of the “internet” is primarily a walled garden dictated by Facebook; a walled garden that at least in its earlier incarnations went so far as to ban access to encrypted services while giving governments a wonderful new repository for personal data. The end result was that all of the problems we’ve seen in the States were amplified and made even worse in the Philippines:
“Facebook’s Internet.org effort has floundered embarrassingly in more than half a dozen nations and territories. But in the Philippines, the social media capital of the world according to global media agency We Are Social, Facebook rushed into a culture that unquestioningly assimilated it.
“We were seduced, we were lured, we were hooked, and then, when we became captive audiences, we were manipulated to see what other people — people with vested interests and evil motives of power and domination — wanted us to see,” de Lima wrote to BuzzFeed News. “It was a slow takeover of our attention. We didn’t notice it until it was already too late.”
Now that may have happened anyway, but when users can only afford to use Facebook’s version of the internet, you can see how the problem could be compounded. On the plus side, Facebook does at least seem to be showing some indication it now understands its own initial lack of understanding as it bumbled toward attempting to dominate the developing world’s ad markets:
“Facebook has made the world more connected than ever before, resulting in unprecedented ways for people to organize themselves in society,” a Facebook spokesperson said in response to a list of detailed questions sent by BuzzFeed News. “We know we were too idealistic about the nature of these connections and didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse or thinking through all the ways people could use the tools on the platform to do harm.”
We’re still pretty far from hammering out a solution to the global disinformation problem, or from determining the real width and breadth of such operations and their real impact on elections. But there does at least seem to be forming a growing consensus that when rich, white Westerners attempt to dominate markets they don’t really understand with “help” that may not actually be all that helpful — it’s possible to do more harm than good.