In 2012, a Syrian software engineer named Mohamad al-Bardan was working with the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, a pro-democracy group, when someone from the organization went missing. Whenever this happened, Bardan and his group would shut down the missing person’s Facebook account as soon as possible, to prevent the government from accessing all their information. But the government came up with a brutally clever counterstrategy. Facebook would get a message, supposedly from the detained person, asking why his or her account had been closed. Bardan says that when he and his friends reached out to Facebook and tried to explain that the government was forcing detainees to give up their passwords and reopen their accounts, nobody believed them. It took Bardan and his group several weeks—and a crucial intervention from a US-based human rights group—to convince Facebook that they were telling the truth. “It’s difficult to describe to any American that this is the way that we live in Syria,” Bardan said when I first interviewed him about this incident for a story in 2013.
This isn’t just happening in Syria. Governments all over the world are using Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram as tools for surveillance and repression. And now, thanks to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, we have confirmation that Facebook has been systematically ignoring some of the more horrific human rights violations on its platform—especially if they take place in countries outside Western Europe and North America. In fact, Haugen told The New York Times that the danger to the global south was the reason she launched the Facebook Papers in the first place.
Yet the Facebook Papers consortium, the group of news organizations that has been granted access to Haugen’s leaks—presumably by the public relations firm Bryson Gillette, which is reportedly handling the rollout—did not, as far as we know, originally contain a single non-Western news outlet. Despite the fact that many of Facebook’s worst abuses are taking place in the global south, all of the news outlets initially analyzing this unprecedented look inside Facebook’s operations—including WIRED—were from North America or Western Europe, as journalist Alex Kantrowitz, a member of the consortium and author of the newsletter Big Tech, pointed out last week. As criticism began to mount, Gizmodo announced that it would start sharing materials with select non-Western outlets. Days later, in a statement to Off the Record, Bryson Gillette’s Kevin Liao wrote that “there is an international consortium underway that includes journalists and publications from India and other deeply impacted countries.” But to date, the only non-English news outlets that have published stories from the Facebook Papers are both in Western Europe: France’s Le Monde and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, according to a Google Doc of all the consortium’s stories maintained by former Facebook employee Katie Harbath. (Bryson Gillette did not respond to WIRED's request for comment.)
The team that is running the consortium is making the same mistake that Facebook did: By excluding the non-Western world from a global discussion of its own human rights, they have been ensuring that those rights will continue to be violated. When authoritarian governments use Facebook to surveil, harass, and intimidate people, those people need to be at the table when those abuses are being documented. People from non-Western countries deserve a chance to report on those who have clearly been reporting on them. This is a moral imperative, but also a practical one. If a consortium set up to expose Facebook’s global abuses treats institutions in the global south as irrelevant, second-string, or unworthy of equal access to the truth, how can it hold Facebook accountable for doing the same thing?
Thanks to the Facebook Papers’ revelations, we now know that Facebook (now technically Meta) has enabled abuses all over the world in various languages—including Hindi, Bengali, Pashto, and Arabic. Facebook’s policy of malign neglect of non-Western languages turned the site into an incubator for serious human right abuses, from cartels in Mexico using Facebook to hire hit men, to employment agencies in Dubai using it in the trafficking of domestic workers (an offense it ignored for so long that Apple actually threatened to pull Facebook off its App Store). But there is most likely still a lot we don’t know. I suspect that this is only the tiniest tip of a giant surveillance and disinformation iceberg.
Even when Facebook does take action against misinformation in nonwestern countries, says Ashraf Zeitoon, the company’s former head of public policy for the Middle East and North Africa, it’s usually too little, and too late. For example, he points to a few thousand fake accounts that Facebook shut down recently in the Middle East. “I believe there's hundreds of thousands of fake accounts,” he says. “So whatever they've done now is cosmetic.”
When Facebook does root out such networks, says Zeitoon, it’s usually thanks to the personal efforts of enthusiastic and committed staffers, not because the company decided to allocate time and resources. “When they say they don't have the expertise or the manpower, that's a load of crap,” he says. “They have some of the best brains in the world. But these guys' priorities are more Western priorities. A network of misinformation in Jordan is not a priority for Facebook.”
The danger is greatest in countries where democracy is already in short supply. When people don’t trust traditional outlets, they tend to get a lot of their news and information from friends. This kind of person-to-person communication—Mark Zuckerberg calls it “meaningful social interactions”—seems more believable. And that is exactly why it’s the perfect tool for spreading disinformation. Authoritarian governments have mastered the art of using Facebook to create disinformation campaigns with fake accounts, fake news, and what Zeitoon calls “a significant abundance of troll armies.”
The best way to uncover these abuses is to let the reporters in those markets see the papers for themselves. I’m an editor for an independent public interest media outlet in Beirut called The Public Source. (I lived in Beirut for more than a decade, and I’ve been covering the Middle East since 2003.) There’s only a handful of truly independent news outlets in Lebanon, and we're one of them. We don’t get funding from the government or political parties or outside powers. (These days, that category includes Facebook, which is increasingly bankrolling journalism outlets in the Middle East and all over the world.) We’ve asked for access and haven’t heard back.
Facebook holds a lot of power in Lebanon, where mobile phone rates are some of the highest in the region. Many Lebanese people have family living abroad, partly to help pay for exactly this kind of outrageously inflated charge. So almost everyone relies on Facebook and WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. WhatsApp is so fundamental to everyday life in Lebanon that when the government tried to impose a $6 monthly tax on voice-over-internet calls, such as WhatsApp, in October 2019, it set off a popular uprising—called the “WhatsApp Revolution” by Western media, but known in Lebanon as the October Revolution or the October 17 Revolution—that lasted, in one form or another, until the present day.
Facebook’s hold over Lebanon is not unique. The company’s Free Basics program, which was originally rolled out in 65 countries, took advantage of poverty and low internet penetration to lock in audiences across the global south. Some countries, like India and Egypt, eventually pulled the plug. But as of last year, Toussaint Nothias of Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab found that Free Basics still existed in 28 countries on the African continent alone; Facebook has launched a similar program, called Discover, in a number of countries, including Peru, Chile, Thailand, the Philippines, and Iraq.
The power that Facebook has in countries like Lebanon is exactly why my colleagues and I at The Public Source believe it's essential that independent media across the globe—not just in the Western European or English-speaking press—be allowed to participate in the Facebook Papers. Outsiders, no matter how skilled, will always miss stories that locals will be able to situate within a broader framework. This is especially the case in countries and communities where a foreign language and familiarity with local and regional politics is key.
“I think regional-specific outlets, having access to such information, will be able to dig up significant stories about how Facebook has abused its power, has abused its user base, and has continued to prioritize growth over safety,” sys Zeitoon. “Because regional media outlets, with the expertise they have, the investigative journalists they have on board, will be able to dig up a lot of the stories and then contextualize them within a Middle Eastern context.”
We know it’s unlikely that Haugen and her handlers will include a grassroots antiauthoritarian journalism platform from Beirut in the consortium of big media players. But that’s exactly why we’re making this request—because we believe that all of the leaks should be open access and available to everyone, no matter how big or how small, and no matter what part of the world they live in. Facebook’s global data-gathering reach is so massive that it even includes people who’ve never used it. They too have the right to know what data the company is gathering. Even if outlets from the global south do eventually gain access to the leaks, why only include the rest of the world after Western Europe and North America? Vital information should not be made available to the powerful first, and to everyone else as an afterthought.
IT IS ESSENTIAL that journalists from all over the world have the same opportunity to report on The Facebook Papers that Western ones are getting. Local reporters are the ones who can connect the dots between the internal discussions at Facebook and the abuses they’re documenting on the ground. It’s great that CNN wrote about Facebook’s weakness in Pashto and Bengali. But why not have a Pashto- or Bengali-speaking reporter writing stories at the same time?
"As a global platform, Facebook deserves global scrutiny,” says Sunjeev Bery, executive director of Freedom Forward, an organization that campaigns to end US support for non-democratic governments. “Authoritarian governments all over the world are skilled at using social media to drive their authoritarian agendas,” he adds. “That's why we need the journalists who understand these governments best to be at the table when it comes to analyzing the Facebook leaks.”
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