Popping the Western social media bubble

Platforms like VKontakte, WeChat and 2channel prove that Facebook's empire isn't global.

From Recife to Curitiba, Brazilians are angry. It’s 2015 and WhatsApp has been shut down for the third time in eight months. A Rio de Janeiro judge has ordered mobile phone companies to block access to the social media service. Hundreds of millions of Brazilians are affected. WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook, has refused to comply with Brazilian police demands to intercept messages sent by organised crime. Hours later, Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court reverses the decision, anticipating widespread unrest. WhatsApp doesn’t enjoy a particularly high profile in Australia, but in Europe, Asia and South America, it forms an essential part of the social media landscape. Brazilians are especially prolific users of the app, which allows you to message and make calls for a fraction of the cost of a typical phone plan. It’s hard to function in South America without WhatsApp, making its bans in Brazil all the more significant.

It’s an interesting case study: in Brazil, WhatsApp is a foreign company that has refused to comply with local laws—something worth questioning. At the same time, millions of Brazilians rely on WhatsApp for cheap communication. Is WhatsApp a digital coloniser, flouting local authority to reap the rewards of Big Data? Or do they provide a vital service for this developing nation? Are they a net good?

It’s easy to believe that Facebook is the only service that matters if you follow the nightly news bulletin, but the reality is that the global social media landscape is far more complex. The conversation around social media in the West revolves around privacy; a discussion gaining even more traction in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Yet there’s a whole other world of platforms, ideas and cultures that we’re ignorant of, and concerns that go beyond the public attention over personal data. The value of a broader social media literacy can be found on our doorstep. During the 2017 SRC elections, USU Board candidate Zhixian Wang was temporarily suspended for gifting students cash in the form of “red packets” on WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app. It’s easily understood how perhaps the issue might have been handled differently if there was a more broad understanding of the social norms that underpin this feature of WeChat—the gifting of red envelopes to celebrate holidays or special occasions is a common Chinese custom. At the time, Wang explained, “These packets contain a small amount of money (equivalent to [a] few Australian dollars), and when intended for multiple recipient … the amount in each portion [is] randomly determined. With elements of fun, luck and tradition, it [is] a social norm for users to send ‘red packets’ in group chats.” WeChat exists in a social media ecosystem that most domestic USyd students don’t inhabit, yet it’s an essential part of daily life for many others.

Social media platforms are imbued with the cultural values of the societies from which they are born and in which they inhabit. Japanese society, for example, places heightened importance on privacy and discretion. It comes as no surprise, then, that Japan’s 2channel (the highly influential message board that inspired Western websites like 4chan) by default sets all communications to anonymous. In fact, posting non-anonymously on 2channel is taboo, and users who do so are sometimes subject to extreme abuse. Take the so-called “HaseKara incident”, notorious in Japan: an online troll chose to post using an identifiable username, which allowed other 2channel users to figure out his details and begin sending him death threats. The troll hired a lawyer, whose vigorous litigation only attracted more scorn from Japanese netizens, who then orchestrated a cyberbullying campaign, culminating in bomb threats and the lawyer’s family graves defaced by trolls in the real world. Jokes about HaseKara are commonplace on Japanese social media—the poster and their lawyer face ongoing harassment and the incident was so notable that it’s received mainstream media coverage on multiple occasions.

We can analyse western social media through the same cultural lense. Many prolific social media companies originated from the US, so it may be argued that quintessentially American values of free speech and the free market inform how these platforms operate. Understanding these values may explain why, for example, WhatsApp was so reluctant to engage with the Brazilian state—instead adopting an American skepticism towards government oversight. Conversely, contempt of government perhaps explains why these companies commit personal liberty infractions on a grand scale, as evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica situation.

Sometimes it’s the opposite case and governmental intervention is the cause of injustice. Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte (a Russian Facebook analogue with over 460,000,000 users—more than double Snapchat’s user base, for comparison) was dismissed by his own company’s board as CEO after he refused to hand over users’ personal details to Russian security services. Durov alleges his company has been gradually taken over by Vladimir Putin’s allies, and his ousting was politically motivated. The Russian and American examples are essentially two sides of the same coin—too little versus too much government influence.

The West is primarily obsessed with one harm that social media poses—invasions of liberty. But our scrutiny of social media shouldn’t be so solely focused. In reality, there are many discussions regarding the status of social media in society, informed by the social contexts in which different platforms originate and operate. We should be aware of the dangers in that intersection, like possible e-imperialism in Brazil, and reflect on our own social media woes as just one product of a social environment, not as the inevitable and sole struggle at the centre of digital regulation. There’s lessons to be learnt from the precedents set in other social and legal environments and a need to come to a broader consideration of the modes of modern human interaction.