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Facebook's foreign disasters

Nov 09,2021 - Last updated at Nov 09,2021

CHICAGO — “The ugly American”, the title of a novel published in 1958 by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, entered the language to refer to boorish American officials abroad who sought to improve the lives of natives without taking the trouble to learn their language, culture or needs. A long line of ugly Americans, mostly politicians and government officials from both parties, have believed that applying simple formulas based on idealised versions of US institutions; democracy, markets and human rights, could convert long-suffering places like Afghanistan and Iraq into Western-style consumer utopias. Inevitably, these Americans caused more harm than good.

Today, the ugliest of all Americans is not a government official but a private citizen, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg has received an endless stream of criticism because of Facebook’s lamentable impact on American politics and culture. Less attention has been given to Facebook’s impact on foreign markets, which Zuckerberg recklessly penetrated with no evident concern about the possible consequences of conducting massive social experiments in countries with weak institutions and histories of instability.

Back in 2015, Zuckerberg teamed up with the musician Bono to advocate a human right to internet access. The all-too-common belief among America’s business elite that one’s economic self-interest coincides with the global good appeared as a paean to cyberspace that the duo wrote for The New York Times:

In Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, farmers connect to get better prices, track inventory and make mobile insurance payments in case of bad weather. In Nigeria, citizens use BudgIT, a mobile app, to assess whether governments keep their spending promises…. In Guatemala, cellphones inform mothers how to have healthy pregnancies. In Kenya, women receive financial services via their cellphones thanks to the brilliant M-Pesa microfinance scheme.

Reality has turned out a bit different. In Ethiopia, Facebook posts “incite[d] mob violence, ethnic clashes, crackdowns on independent press or outspoken voices”. In Nigeria, Facebook users circulated grisly images of dead bodies, which were falsely presented to suggest that members of one ethnic group massacred members of a rival ethnic group, and sparked a wave of horrific killings. In a country with 24 million Facebook users, only four people were employed to fact-check Facebook posts.

In Myanmar, Facebook accounts were used to stir up ethnic violence against the Rohingya, tens of thousands of whom have been killed and many more driven into exile. In India, Facebook users stirred up sectarian violence, including lynchings, against Muslims. Similar accounts of Facebook being used to inflame conflict and provoke massacres have been given for Sri Lanka, Yemen, Iraq and Bangladesh. And in many other countries, from Vietnam to Poland, governments or their supporters have used Facebook to target, harass, and endanger dissidents, political opponents, and vulnerable minorities.

In the Times piece, Zuckerberg was touting internet access, not Facebook itself. But by now we know that internet access and Facebook are intertwined, both in Zuckerberg’s plan and in reality. In many countries, Facebook and its properties, Instagram and WhatsApp, are the dominant social media platforms, as they are in the United States.

Both the internet and Facebook have done very well since that article was published. From 2015 to today, the per centage of the global population with Internet access increased from 41 per cent to 66 per cent, while Facebook’s monthly active user base increased from 1.49 to 2.89 billion. While the extent of Facebook’s contribution to the erosion of democracy and human rights over this period is unknown, the platform has clearly played a role in some of the worst atrocities around the globe, and in the coarsening of political life virtually everywhere.

But while Zuckerberg’s goal of “building a global community”, as he put it in 2017, resembles American foreign policy, or at least American foreign policy before it was reduced to ashes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Facebook is of course a private entity. It is subject to American jurisdiction and not the other way around. The chastened US foreign policy establishment, along with Congress and the president, might consider whether America owes it to the world to rein in Facebook, to the extent possible, in countries that lack the institutional capacity to rein it in themselves.

A few possible reforms suggest themselves. The US Congress could pass a law that requires American social media companies to devote resources to monitor and fact-check content in foreign countries in proportion to the amount they spend on these activities in the US. (Facebook currently devotes vastly more resources in the US.)

Another possible law would allow foreigners to bring lawsuits in US courts when American social media companies spread misinformation and hate speech, as defined under local law. While such a law would be challenged under the First Amendment, courts may give Congress more latitude to regulate speech abroad than at home, especially when doing so shows comity with foreign countries. And Congress could enact a law that imposes penalties on social media companies that are shown to have recklessly contributed to, or failed to stop, major atrocities that were facilitated by their platforms.

The title of Burdick and Lederer’s novel actually referred ironically to one of the few good Americans in the story. The negative meaning stuck because the shorthand was more useful: the bad type of American greatly outnumbered the good. And now, thanks in part to Facebook’s foreign policy, the ugly American is everywhere.


Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is the author of “How Antitrust Failed Workers”. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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