Facebook is a name that the American audience reading this may treat with disdain. I remember when first meeting many people at college, the idea of making a Facebook group for our floor was met with, “But who uses Facebook anymore?” By and large, Facebook is not seen as ‘”cool” social media anymore, replaced by the likes of Instagram and Twitter. Worse yet, the platform has recently come under fire for its role in selling advertising space to Russian groups.
This is not the case in the rest of the world. I remember the platform being much more accepted for keeping in contact with my relatives from Britain. Going even broader, there were events like the Arab Spring, in which many countries in north Africa and the Middle East staged protests and uprisings against their governments organized through Facebook. In this example, Facebook represented youth, democracy, and modern values.
Even wider and we can see Facebook preferring this romantic view. Much like how European colonizers forced themselves on developing areas around the globe, Facebook has tried to plant its foot everywhere. Some of these attempts have been met with rebuffs from governments, as in China and the European Union. Less developed or insulated nations have not been so lucky.
In Africa, Facebook is dominant. According to Forbes, 70 percent of people with internet in the continent use the platform, but this is no accident. Mark Zuckerberg and his company have groomed the region to be integrated with and reliant on Facebook for a decade at least. While there is pushback from a few African leaders now, Facebook has been able to cement itself into the foundation of communication there, primarily through two means – technological investment and political cooperation.
Facebook has spent plenty of time working alone and with governments in Africa to increase online access. They are building fiber optic cables in Uganda and offering basic internet (complete with Facebook) for free to much of the continent. At a glance, developing African internet does not seem like a bad thing. Facebook is most certainly self-interested, but the benefit of wider internet would be worth it. This could be true under some implementations, but Facebook has covered their bases this time.
The problem comes from the centralization of communication on one service. If Facebook is accessible for free for all, then most people will use it. If most people use it (many of whom may have only access to it), then the target audiences for businesses and events can be reached from it. If the best way to reach people is through Facebook, then these businesses and interest groups will cater to, sell on, and recruit from the website. And finally, when this is the case, Facebook not only has gained millions of dollars in advertisements, but it also gets to control the discussion, the narrative, and the priority of conversations, including economically or politically sensitive ones. In a world where Mark Zuckerberg is a benevolent, omniscient god, this is okay. However, there is a reason why net neutrality is an underestimated conflict in the United States.
In order to placate the officials whose compliance they rely on to propagate, Facebook has worked hard with governments. Perhaps in their failed but still relevant attempt to court China, for example, the company has developed ways to block content from certain areas to reach users in others. In other cases, Facebook has agreed with countries to remove content that disobeys local laws. The control that Facebook and its political allies have on the African public is extremely troubling.
This sort of meddling is not just local to Africa. In the entirety of the developing world, from South America to southeast Asia, Facebook is sinking its claws on the untapped markets. They are taking advantage of relaxed regulations and technological ignorance in order to claim the region for themselves. While other companies are attempting this as well, none are as prevalent nor insidious as this. The comparisons to colonialism are certainly apt, as, although Mark Zuckerberg would like to make himself out to be a paragon of open internet access who does good for emergent nations, the actions of him and Facebook could strangle the development of these places for decades to come if left unchecked.
Peter Fenteany is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.