Today
Sat 23 January 2021

The biggest danger of Facebook’s stranglehold on social media is not to its competitors but to those living under authoritarian leaders, reports Steve Shaw

For the past decade, Facebook has dominated social media. It has grown from an idea thought up on an American college campus to being one of the most dominant forms of communications on the planet, ruled over by 36-year-old Mark Zuckerberg.

But Zuckerberg’s digital empire – which also consists of other popular social media brands such as Instagram and WhatsApp – is now under threat after the US Government filed a lawsuit accusing the tech giant of anti-competitive behaviour. This could spell an end to Zuckerberg’s dominance and force him to split apart the company.

“Our aim is to roll back Facebook’s anti-competitive conduct and restore competition so that innovation and free competition can thrive,” said Ian Conner, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition. “Facebook’s actions to entrench and maintain its monopoly deny consumers the benefits of competition.”

Open Rights Group (ORG), a digital rights advocacy group, praised the move, warning that Facebook’s stranglehold on social media has created a monopoly on communication which is “bad for privacy and for freedom of expression”. Jim Killock, ORG’s executive director said social media needs reform and it should work like SMS messaging or emails, whereby people have the right to communicate without adhering to Facebook’s rules.

Facebook has given itself almost total control over the way people communicate in the digital world, but Zuckerberg has often reassured that this does not come at the expense of free expression and heavily promoted the company’s efforts to combat fake news during the 2020 US Presidential Election.


A Tool of the State

Thousands of miles from America, in south-east Asia, Facebook is not just the primary means of communication but it is the internet.

Zuckerberg has the power to control the information, discussions and news seen by almost 250 million users yet, rather than be concerned about fake news and free expression, the company’s priority appears to be market domination – whatever the cost.

Days before America announced it was filing a lawsuit, human rights group Amnesty International published a comprehensive report revealing how Facebook had allowed itself to become a tool of the Vietnamese authorities. The report showed that the social media giant makes nearly $1 billion from the country – almost one-third of all revenue from southeast Asia – and it began to comply with the authorities the moment its servers were threatened.

As early as 2018, rights groups were raising questions about the way Facebook appeared to “silence human rights activists and citizen journalists”. In an open letter, they also pointed out that Vietnam’s 10,000-strong military cyber warfare unit, named Force 47, was using the platform to spread fake news about activists. But Facebook merely said that it was committed to upholding the rights of its users.

But in April, Facebook’s hollow words about the rights of its users were made clear with a major shift in its content moderation policy. This involved significantly increasing its compliance with the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship of any content considered “anti-state”. It came following increasing pressure on Facebook from Nguyen Manh Hung, who became the country’s Minister of Information and Communications in October 2018. This included a threat to take Facebook’s servers offline.

In an article published by state-owned media in October 2020, Nguyen claimed that tech companies’ compliance in the removal of “bad information, propaganda against the party and the state” had reached the highest level ever.

Facebook had removed 2,036 posts during 2020 – a 500% increase from 2019 and a 95% compliance rate with government requests. Amnesty International said that users have had Facebook content censored under “vaguely worded local laws” and been accused of offences such as “abusing democratic freedoms”. The company then places a geo-block – technology which restricts access to internet content based on the user’s location – on the content to ensure that it is not visible in Vietnam.

“Imagine if you spent years and years growing your Facebook account, posting and writing about your passions for democracy, but then in one easy act, Facebook just erases all the work you have done over the years,” Nguyen Van Trang, a pro-democracy activist told Amnesty. “We have been stripped of our ability to express our opinions. Our ability to reach the public is now very limited.”

At the same time as Facebook has been censoring content, Vietnam has seen a major increase in people jailed for their use of social media. There are currently 170 prisoners of conscience imprisoned in Vietnam, which Amnesty International claims is the highest number it has ever recorded. Of those, nearly two in five have been imprisoned because of their social media activity. In 2020, 78% of prisoners of conscience jailed were prosecuted under the same criminal codes used by Facebook to justify censoring content.

“In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Vietnam,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns. “More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime. Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they’re increasingly complicit.”


Inciting Offline Violence

The problems with a single profit-making company being in charge of a vital form of communication does not end in Vietnam.

According to the United Nations, Facebook played a “determining role” in the genocide in Myanmar at the end of 2017 in which 25,000 Rohingya Muslims are estimated to have been killed and 800,000 forced to flee to Bangladesh. Facebook’s own internal investigation admitted that the platform had been used by Government officials and the military in Myanmar “to foment division and incite offline violence”.

While promises were made that it would never happen again, it emerged earlier this year that the company was refusing to cooperate with a United Nations body collecting evidence of the crimes. Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said that the company is potentially sitting on evidence that “could be crucial to support the many ongoing cases against Myanmar’s military”.

A damning October report from the rights group Muslim Advocates called Facebook “indisputably the world’s engine for anti-Muslim violence”. It highlighted that, in the wake of the genocide, the company banned accounts belonging to four minority rebel groups but did not implement the same type of ban on military-run accounts “presumably because they are state actors”.

Meanwhile in Thailand, where protests have erupted over inequality and a demand for Government reform, the authorities appear to be following the template set in Vietnam by threatening Facebook’s ability to operate.

In August, Facebook shut down Royalist Marketplace, a pro-democracy Facebook group critical of the Thai monarchy, after the country’s Minister of Digital Economy threatened legal action for it not complying with Government requests to restrict content deemed illegal. Facebook has claimed that it will challenge this in court but little details of this are known.

The company has also been questioned by a closed-door US committee about its apparent promotion of India’s ruling party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that it had ignored recommendations from its own safety team to ban a Hindu nationalist group called Bajrang Dal because of its support for violence against minorities across country. The company is said to have ignored the warning because banning the group would potentially endanger the company’s business prospects and its staff in India.

Zuckerberg was questioned in November by US Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn over whether he had put profits over principle.

“Do you think it is Facebook’s job to follow state-sponsored censorship so that it can conduct operations, businesses and sales in that country?” Blackburn asked Zuckerberg. “In general, we try to follow the laws in each country that we operate and trade,” he responded.

The break-up of Facebook would be unlikely to solve the challenges faced by social media firms but it could pave the way for people to have more choice and water-down the influence that a single company has over the freedoms of millions. Chris Hughes, a co-founder of the platform, wrote in The New York Times in 2019 that breaking apart the company was vital if only to weaken the power a single individual – Mark Zuckerberg – holds over communications.

“Mark’s influence is staggering,” Hughes wrote. “Far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – that billions of people use every day. Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60% of voting shares.

“Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their news feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.

“The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organise and even censor the conversations of two billion people.”


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