Over the past year, Facebook has faced a reckoning over the way its plan to connect the next billion users to the internet has sown division, including spreading hate speech that incited ethnic violence in Myanmar and disseminating propaganda for a violent dictator in the Philippines. But even as the company admits that it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” in Myanmar and makes promises to be more proactive about policing content “where false news has had life or death consequences,” Facebook’s efforts in the developing world appear to be speeding up rather than pausing to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
In mid-August, Facebook said it was making progress in Myanmar by adding more Burmese speakers and changing its content-moderation policies to make it easier to report bad conduct and root out hate speech. By the end of this year, Facebook says, it expects to hire 100 Burmese speakers to review content. The changes come more than two years after Facebook pushed into Myanmar. During that time civil-society groups have repeatedly asked the company to do a better job patrolling hate speech, and UN investigators said Facebook had played a “determining role” in the killing of Rohingya Muslims.
But Facebook’s lack of preparedness in Myanmar has not halted its efforts to expand access to the internet—and to Facebook—in the Global South. A couple of weeks after touting its progress in Myanmar, Facebook quietly celebrated plans to expand Wi-Fi access in India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania through partnerships with companies that sell Wi-Fi hardware. In Tanzania, for example, the World Bank estimates that only 13 percent of people use the internet, roughly the same internet penetration in Myanmar in November 2015.
From Free Basics to Express Wi-Fi
Facebook’s efforts to connect the next billion fall under internet.org, which the company describes as an effort to get 4.5 billion unconnected people on the internet. Initially, Facebook’s preferred vehicle to spread connectivity was Free Basics, an app that provided free access to a limited number of websites. Amid criticism of that approach in India and elsewhere, Facebook in the past year has instead promoted a program called Express Wi-Fi, where local merchants or business owners offer affordable access to Wi-Fi hot spots, using Facebook’s Express software as a platform for billing and managing accounts.
Express Wi-Fi has raised fewer red flags because, unlike Free Basics, users can access the full internet. Facebook provides financial support to set up the hot spots, but the company says Express Wi-Fi is not supposed to be a profit center. Rather, Facebook wants partners to get enough financial return to keep expanding connectivity efforts.
Facebook would not disclose how many Express Wi-Fi hot spots there are or how the program has grown, but it is clearly part of Facebook’s larger push into Africa. Three of the five countries where Express Wi-Fi has launched are in Africa. In March, Facebook launched an Express Wi-Fi app in the Google Play store in Kenya and Indonesia. Facebook’s ISP partner in Kenya, Surf, says it has 1,100 Express Wi-Fi hot spots in the country, up from 100 in February 2017. In September, Facebook announced a partnership with The Internet Society, an American nonprofit, to improve internet connections throughout Africa.
Digital rights advocates in Africa say Facebook has evolved its approach after the problems in Myanmar. Facebook is working more closely with civil society groups, sending more delegations, recruiting native language speakers, planning for contentious elections, and hosting digital literacy efforts.
Ephraim Percy Kenyanito, a digital program officer at the East Africa office for Article 19, a nonprofit that defends freedom of expression, says Facebook’s decision to hire more Africans, especially from civil society groups, has made it easier for concerns to be heard, if not always addressed. During the 2017 presidential election in Kenya, for example, Facebook responded when advocates reported hate speech or fake news, but the company did not always protect female journalists who became targets for harassment on the platform after writing critical stories about politicians. “They’re trying to get there, but they need to do better.”
Still, some of the civil society groups say Facebook’s efforts often fall short. Advocates say it’s hard to get straight answers from Facebook about its content-moderation process, plans for hiring native language speakers, meetings with the government, or the goal of its connectivity efforts, leaving some to suspect that Facebook’s recent overtures are more of a public relations campaign. As governments elsewhere crack down on Facebook and Free Basics, they worry Facebook is targeting Africa because there are fewer protections for user privacy and freedom of online expression. (Kenyanito says only about half of the 50 countries in the African Union have data protection and privacy laws.) What’s more, some critics also suspect that Express Wi-Fi is just a way for Facebook to rebrand its connectivity efforts as something less controversial.
Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Without Borders, says Facebook is facing the same explosive ingredients in Africa that it encountered in Myanmar, including unstable regimes, ethnic tensions, and a flood of new users. She fears that Facebook’s reliance “on algorithms to solve complex issues” means that the brunt of preventing abuse may once again fall on nonprofits. Facebook has pledged to hire 20,000 content moderators in 2018, but will not disclose where those people will be located, partly to protect them.
The need for real transparency became clear during Facebook’s recent activities in Cameroon, which holds elections on Sunday. In September, Facebook helped sponsor a symposium on digital rights and election safety in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. Facebook’s presence shows that the company is “a bit more humble than a few years ago, when they thought they had the solutions to every problem,” Owono says. But just one month earlier, civil society groups were blindsided by news that Facebook met with government officials about fighting fake news during the election. Activists feared Facebook might be planning to censor accounts at the government’s behest. Although concerns were eventually assuaged, Facebook’s initial scripted statements only fueled confusion.
Negotiating with the government becomes fraught in repressive regimes where political parties can manipulate Facebook’s platforms—and may shut down internet access during elections or to silence dissent. “During political moments, the same political actors are the ones fueling misinformation and memes,” says Grace Bomu, a tech policy advocate based in Kenya.
Facebook says it has met with a range of stakeholders in Cameroon, including civil society groups and human rights activists, and made no agreements with the government.
In a statement to WIRED, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We know we were initially too idealistic” about connecting people worldwide, “and didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse or thinking through all the ways people could use the tools on the Facebook platform to do harm. That’s why we have invested in people and technology to build better safeguards. This includes the roll out of third party fact-checking, better detection of bad content, improved enforcement of our policies, and deeper support for digital literacy efforts. There is always more to do, and that’s why we have a dedicated team of product, policy, and partnerships experts who are focused on helping to keep the platform safe.”
But Tessa Wandia, who works at iHub, a hackerspace for technologists and entrepreneurs in Kenya, says Facebook’s connectivity efforts steer users toward choosing Facebook. In Africa, for instance, the Express Wi-Fi app can feature a prominent link to Free Basics, with the tagline “See popular websites for free,” a tempting offer for users in a region where data plans can be relatively expensive. Wandia believes Facebook may be using Express Wi-Fi “to make people quiet down” about Free Basics, and “convince us that they really do have a philanthropic angle.” Facebook says it offers partners the option of including Free Basics in Express Wi-Fi, but it’s not required.
Concerns about social media’s influence are not theoretical. In March, for example, Cambridge Analytica executives were caught on tape bragging about influencing Kenya’s presidential elections in 2017 and 2013. The controversial political consultancy reportedly experimented in Africa in part because of lax privacy rules and access to government data from willing politicians. A case study on Cambridge Analytica’s website says polling data was used to target social media ads to youth voters. Wandia says she reported some inflammatory ads that spread on social media, which contained misinformation and were used to psychologically manipulate citizens. “We have to be worried about how Kenyans are influenced, how they are making decisions,” she says.
To be sure, many of these worries stem from Facebook’s staggering popularity, and would likely exist even without efforts like Express Wi-Fi or Free Basics. Telecom operators in Africa, for instance, often include free use of WhatsApp or Facebook as part of a data bundle to entice users who want to use those services.
But Facebook’s continued push to connect the globe raises questions about who bears responsibility for unintended consequences, which have disproportionately affected people in the Global South. After the violence in Myanmar, we now know how Facebook’s promises to help the developing world can play out.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that a former government official in Sri Lanka had been warning Facebook about abuse on its platform by the Sri Lankan government since 2014. Facebook began to address concerns after the government shut down access, but won’t disclose how many content moderators it has hired.
Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to connect the next billion has been greeted with suspicion since it was announced in 2015, but tensions boiled over when Facebook tried to push Free Basics in India as a philanthropic act. “This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests—there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics,” Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed in the Times of India. Eventually, the Indian government banned programs like Free Basics, which favored some content over others.
Some of the skepticism towards Express Wi-Fi is residual distrust from those days. For example, Zuckerberg said Free Basics was for people who had never accessed the Internet before and all content providers were welcome to apply. But a study of Free Basics published by Global Voices, a media organization of advocates and journalists from 170 countries, in August 2017, found that it was often marketed to urban millennials, who used it as a way to access Facebook for free. Within the app, users may have a harder time identifying fake news. The report found that the only local news sites prominently displayed in Kenya and Ghana had either faced pressure to fire journalists or were “known for sensational coverage” and questionable standards.
Facebook says the report reflects the experience of Global Voices volunteers in a limited number of countries, not the people benefitting from the program.
Facebook says it does not track whether expanding Express Wi-Fi has led to more Free Basics users because the programs are separate. But Mark Summer, CEO of Surf the Kenyan ISP working with Facebook, says Free Basics is “very popular,” with Surf’s Express Wi-Fi users. Although Express Wi-Fi is billed as a way to connect communities with limited access, Surf has placed hot spots in major towns and focused on lower-class to middle-class users, who typically already have other, more expensive options, Summer says. “It’s not super low-end users like slum areas or refugee camps and very much not the high end areas where upper class to high income people,” he says. “We provide it in the neighborhoods where the people go and work and shop, where they go on and buy food and go to restaurants and cafes where people sit out and congregate.”
Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices, says the availability of Free Basics through Express Wi-Fi can influence users’ media choices. “If you have the one thing that is cheaper than everyone else, it makes it really easy to spread a lot of information quickly,” he says. Facebook successfully neutralized many internet.org critics by positioning its work as a choice between bringing affordable internet access to the neediest members of society or elite concerns about the purity of internet access. But Nikhil Pahwa, founder of news site MediaNama and a key voice during the fight over Free Basics in India, says Facebook does not have to play a central role in expanding access. Fostering competition can lower data prices. Since regulators passed a net neutrality rule in India, he says prices have dropped roughly 90 percent. “There is no need for Free Basics lately,” he says.