Facebook must confront its Asian shortcomings

Group should beef up presence to handle challenges from extremists

Facebook and Asia

This article was first published in Nikkei Asian Review on 24 March 2018.

Mark Zuckerberg has clearly had a very bad week. In the aftermath of revelations about the British research group Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s founder is enduring a firestorm of criticism on both sides of the Atlantic about unauthorized access to users’ personal data.

Yet these American and European attacks should not disguise the fact that Facebook now faces a severe political backlash across Asia too. And the social network largely has itself to blame.

That Facebook has an Asian problem should by now be obvious. Earlier this month it was briefly banned in Sri Lanka, after the South Asian island nation accused it of fueling violence between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population and minority Muslims and Christians.

Then, two weeks ago, United Nations human rights investigator Yanghee Lee accused it of spreading hate speech in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority, more than 700,000 of whom fled from the eastern province of Rakhine last year, in what U.N. experts say may be a case of genocide. “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended,” Lee said.

These flare-ups follow several other instances where Facebook has run into official opprobrium. Last year, authorities in Thailand, which has strict lese-majeste laws, threatened court action until the company removed videos apparently showing King Maha Vajiralongkorn walking through a shopping mall, dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt.

Earlier there were problems in India, when public protests in 2016 forced the company to abandon plans to launch a “free basics” internet service — a stripped down form of online access which offered access to selected online services for free, but which was sharply criticized by local supporters of “net neutrality” — the idea that internet providers should not be allowed to charge different prices for different kinds of online content.

More recently, the social network has been caught up in rising concerns about “fake news,” as governments in countries like Singapore ready potentially far-reaching new laws supposedly to counter online misinformation. In Malaysia, Facebook, together with other global tech giants, including Google and Twitter, met officials last week to discuss similar rule changes.

For Zuckerberg, all this should be worrying for two reasons. First, Asia is now Facebook’s largest market, with 828 million users compared with 609 million across Europe and North America. True, the average Asian’s status updates are worth just a tenth of the revenue it earns from the average American. But much of Facebook’s future growth hopes, as well as its extravagant share price, rest on upping earnings across the region, and especially so in potentially huge markets like India and Indonesia.

Indeed, it is worth pausing to consider the sheer scale of Facebook’s growth, and thus its dramatic impact on Asia’s communication patterns. 288 million Asians started using it in the last two years alone, more than its new users in the rest of the world combined. In total, Asia’s 828 million monthly active users, a common measure of the network’s growth, account for 39% of Facebook’s global total of 2.1 billion.

Facebook is not dominant everywhere: In China, where local rivals like WeChat dominate, the service remains banned. But across much of the rest of Asia, Facebook is now arguably a more important platform even than it is in the West, especially for young people. In Myanmar, for instance, its user base has rocketed to 18 million, up from barely 1 million five year ago. “Social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media,” as the U.N.’s Lee said of Myanmar.

Facebook’s position as Asia’s dominant social media platform matters in particular because so many of the accusations it faces in the West — from disinformation, hate speech and “fake news” to being used for Russian-style election meddling — could become even more problematic in the continent’s developing economies.

A good number of these countries, including Cambodia and Thailand, are run by authoritarian or autocratic regimes, which place heavy curbs on free expression in traditional media. In response, their citizens have flocked to discuss politics on platforms like Facebook, which are harder for authorities to police. The same pattern holds even in richer and more formally democratic places like Singapore, where relatively few use open public platforms like Twitter to post about political events, preferring instead the semi-private space of Facebook or WhatsApp, the messenger service which Facebook also owns.

Yet many emerging Asia nations also lack high-quality, reputable media institutions, capable of providing neutral, fact-checked information to the wider public. Taken together, these twin factors — growing Facebook enthusiasm but weak and unreliable public data — only make issues like the spread of misinformation more dangerous. This is especially true in countries with simmering ethnic tensions, like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where extremist groups have often used Facebook to disseminate abhorrent material.

Facebook is not entirely blind to these concerns. “We have invested significantly in technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content,” the company said, in response to criticism of its actions in Myanmar. It claims to have drawn up clear rules to identify troubling content, and to be working with local charities to raise awareness of “fake news” and other issues. Facebook’s troubles have caused internal soul-searching too. “Connecting the world isn’t always going to be a good thing,” as senior executive Adam Mosseri told Slate, the U.S. news website, last week. “We lose some sleep over this.”

The problem is that even these limited measures are clearly not enough. Facebook still relies on users to flag bad content, leading to delays in its removal. It also has a tiny footprint in many countries where its service has caused complaints. There is no Facebook office at all in Myanmar, and its local presence is often close to non-existent in many other countries around the region. Without people on the ground, Facebook has little hope of understanding the sensitivities of its local markets, and the problems that might be caused by those who use its service.

The company’s position in Myanmar is especially worrisome, with the potential to damage its global reputation, if the U.N. is right in claiming that Facebook’s service has indeed had a big impact on the spread of recent violence. But it is indicative of a wider difficulty too. Facebook use has many upsides. But Zuckerberg needs to spend far more of his considerable resources to mitigate its downsides, most obviously by investing in substantial local offices and well-funded operations in the vulnerable emerging nations in which it operates.

If he fails to do so, governments will inevitably clobber his company with more restrictive rules. Allegations of hate speech and fake news, even if they are not substantiated, can provide useful excuses for crackdowns, particularly in authoritarian states. Such an outcome would strike a double blow: depriving ordinary local Facebook users of a useful arena for online discussion, while ending  Zuckerberg’s hopes of rapid future Asian growth too.


James Crabtree is an associate professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and a former Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times. His book on India, “The Billionaire Raj,” will be published in mid-2018.