Facebook, fake news and authoritarianism

Erin Jordan explores how Facebook helped spread ‘fake news’ in Southeast Asia

“You’re looking at me like, ‘I thought Facebook was already free,’ but it’s actually not. It’s costing you data,” Dr Aim Sinpeng, lecturer in comparative politics at USyd, tells me. But there is a free version of Facebook, which we don’t have access to in Australia. Facebook Zero.

Sinpeng’s research focuses on how social media influences political regimes in Southeast Asia. In light of the ongoing debate about Facebook’s role in influencing the 2016 US election,  it is apparent that Facebook has a large role to play in many political conflicts.

In 2015, Facebook decided to target some regional black spots that had managed to remain beyond Zuckerberg’s reach, by launching a program called Facebook Zero. Facebook Zero is a basic version of Facebook that you can access without internet data charges. Facebook persuaded telecommunications companies in Africa and Southeast Asia to waive the data charges normally linked with the site, arguing that this would boost internet infrastructure and attract potential customers.

That is why today, in some of the most poverty-stricken parts of Southeast Asia, where citizens often have limited access to running water, healthcare and road networks, you can still access Facebook.

Since Facebook Zero was launched, the digital divide between developed and developing countries has been reduced – on the surface. Sinpeng believes Facebook Zero’s design is flawed because it makes it incredibly easy to spread misinformation.

“This Facebook Zero version is limited,” Aim says. “It comes with pre-installed news which has been pre-selected by Facebook.”

Sinpeng argues that these limitations, which are meant to entice new users to commit to Facebook and local telecommunications companies, benefit these businesses at the expense of communities. Users have very little say in what they get to see. This model discourages users from reading news from multiple sources, and balancing biases against one another. Users are offered one steady stream of ‘the truth’.

“Because they [users] only have free access to Facebook and not free access to Google, they can’t check if what they have read is true against another news site, so it limits [their] ability to check factual  information, ” Singpeng explains.

To further complicate the issue, Facebook targets people from low income backgrounds, who often don’t have regular access to computers and haven’t grown up with the internet.

“While it may be a habit for many of us to think critically about the news we read on Facebook, it is not like that for many people who are new to the internet,” says Singpeng. “They may not even be in the habit of even thinking of checking if the story is even true.”

When designing the app, Facebook primarily focused on closing the digital divide in access, but neglected attempting to close the gap in digital literacy skills. Some governments and developing agencies are now experimenting with vocational workshops, which focus on equipping rural men and women with practical skills to navigate the online world once they have access.

Beyond Facebook Zero’s inbuilt limitations, Facebook’s push to introduce a mobile-based model has shaped the pattern of internet usage throughout Southeast Asia.

A 2016 report by the United Nations said that the current situation in Southeast Asia is “worrisome” because while programs like Facebook Zero have made “access to the internet affordable and flexible”, they have also led to a proliferation of mobile data subscriptions rather than fixed connections to broadband. This is problematic because mobile subscriptions lend themselves to being used for social and entertainment purposes, rather than for educational purposes.

This occurs for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there is an economic incentive to use free social media apps rather than to pay to read news. Secondly, social media apps are highly addictive; they are psychologically satisfying. And, when users do use mobile subscriptions to access information, they are likely to read news curated by Facebook Zero or infotainment companies. The report concluded that the development of a mobile-based model limited the internet’s capacity to foster “productivity and growth”.

Sinpeng is currently researching how Facebook has inadvertently helped spread ‘fake news’ in the Philippines, which, in turn, helped authoritarian strongman Rodrigo Duterte win the 2016 presidential election. In the Philippines, ‘fake news’ has become intermingled with the old system of gossip. Each time ‘fake news’ is passed around families and shared with friends, it becomes harder to distinguish from reality. It is exactly this that the current authoritarian regimes thrive on. An Oxford study published earlier this year alleges that Duterte paid trolls money to spread misinformation that would benefit him and his campaign. One famous ‘fake news’ story claimed that Duterte was “the best president in the solar system”.

With Facebook admitting guilt in light of the Cambridge Analytica data breach, perhaps it will also admit that it was wrong to encourage the proliferation of misinformation in political systems that already do not uphold rights to free speech and freedom of the press.