Facebook and civil society in development countries

Hi, I am not a developer, not a decision-maker, I am simply a concerned citizen (of Europe) who was broad here by reading “Zucked”.

Of course, after finishing the book my own anti-Facebook feelings became quite strong and I almost completely stopped using it. But then, I would have never started using it in the first place, if it hadn’t been for professional reasons. I work in human rights of indigenous peoples and for many of my partners around the world, Facebook is the platform for exchange and networking. That’s why I couldn’t avoid creating an account in 2008, even though I already back then had a bad feeling about it. But especially when there are urgent situations, when human rights defenders I work with are threatened, when indigenous communities I work with face displacement and violence, Facebook is a place to quickly get the word out and have it spread through the network.

At present, I don’t see any other platform that could take its place, even though in the 90s, when I began working in this area, there was a global network, the Association for Progressive Communication, whose newsgroups, while being separate from the Usenet, were the default place for NGOs to go when they wanted to network. Just as the Usenet itself, they eventually faded into oblivion (And I am not sure what APC is doing these days. Back then, it was a global federal of politically progressive ISPs, but today it seems to be just one organisation.) So in the pre-Facebook times there were other options, although for an audience which was smaller by several orders of magnitue).

Today, Facebook, Twitter and co seem to be a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, you have the tremendous downsides that you all know of and which can be summed up in two words: Trump and Brexit. On the other hand, I do think that protest movements such as the recent protests in Sudan which managed to overthrow long-time islamist dictator Omar Al-Bashir strongly relied on social medial, which becomes even clearer when you look at how the authorities responded: On 3 June, after their militia committed a massacre, killing over 100 protesters, they completely switched off the Internet for the entire country, and until it came back a few weeks ago, footage of atrocities by the Janjaweed militia that left a large number dead, failed to reach the public and Sudan largely disappeared from the news.

On the other hand, there was another recent event where a country blocked Facebook (not the entire internet) for good reasons, and that was after the recent islamist attacks on churches in Sri Lanka, because the experience was that Facebook was typically used to organise a violent response.

So the question would be: If not Facebook what then? Is it perceivable to have an alternative platform for civil society? The internatia even of politically conscious minds is enormous, and I don’t see them changing to Diaspora or Mastodon any time soon.

Or could there be regulation that obliges facebook to filter out calls to violence, but without filtering out calls to overthrow tyrannic governments? The latter seems not very realistic to me, because after all, regulation comes from the government, and in a world where government regulation is strengthened, the Sudanese Transitional Military Council could just order Facebook to filter out the protests, couldn’t they? For the revolution in Sudan, it was a blessing that they could not. But there is no principle in international law that stipulates that tyrannic governments may not regulate while true democracies may. To me this seems like an unsolvable conundrum. What are your thoughts?

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As I see this problem, Facebook here is both the link and the amplifier.

  • As a link, regulations cannot ban it as they cannot ban telephone wires to avoid some communication over those wires.
  • As an amplifier, regulations can force Facebook not to apply its algorithms on content, users and recommendations that lead also to amplification of violent, conspiracy-bound, shocking content and users. Facebook and others do this to maximize time spent on the screen, they are agnostic: they can boost a ‘right’ protest as well as a ‘bad’ response. Regulations should prevent those backstage customized amplification - fed by heavy data-driven analytics - to happen, or at least to be visible, transparent and justified.

So do you suggest that without those algorithms, there would be no problem? I am especially thinking about Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where real world violence was very much the result of what happened on Facebook? Or would it merely be somewhat less of a problem, given that e.g. in Myanmar the anti-Rohingya sentiment is very strong regardless, and Sri Lanka also has a history of bloody communal violence?

Also I see there would be a penalty for people’s movements in Sudan, at least i their early stages. Later, it probably wouldn’t matter very much as virtually everyone in Sudan who was not a member of a militia supported the protests, and they don’t need boosting, they just need free flow of information.

However, the other principle issue is: What should governments be able to regulate? Sure, the US model where they just fold their hands is bad, but the Chinese model, where the government turns the entire net into a walled and controlled garden - that’s worse. And that seems to be where other countries are going as well, Iran, Russia, Vietnam are examples, but far from the only ones. To me personally, this seems to be a bigger problem still. And the worst situation is where private monopolies are complicit with authoritarian governments, where facebook style surveillance capitalism and Chinese surveillance state mix. I guess that’s hardest to overcome.