from the do-this-the-right-way dept
By now it’s fairly clear the Facebook leaks showcase a company that prioritized near-mindless international growth over the warnings of their own experts. They also show a company that continues to painfully struggle to be even marginally competent at scale, whether we’re talking about content moderation or rudimentary customer service. While this has become an all-encompassing media spectacle, the real underlying story isn’t particularly unique. It’s just a “growth for growth’s sake” mindset, where profit and expansion trumped all reason. It just happens to be online, and at unprecedented international scale.
One thing I haven’t seen talked a lot about is the fact that if you look back a few years, an awful lot of of folks in developing nations saw these problems coming a mile away, long before their Western counterparts. For a decade, international activists warned repeatedly about the perils of Facebook’s total failure to understand the culture/regulations/language/norms of the countries they rapidly flooded into. Yet bizarrely, Frances Haugen’s PR team somehow excluded most of these countries when it came time to recently release access to the Facebook files:
re: #facebookpapers — we're hearing from * a ton * of reporters in latin america / india and other regions outside of the west that aren't getting access. please, please dm or email dell/myself and we'll do what we can to help https://t.co/S3Vlw9w19A
— shoshana wodinsky (she/her) (@swodinsky) October 29, 2021
The “consortium” handling release of the files is basically a loose collaboration between 17 U.S. news orgs and a handful of European outlets. They’re all being given access to redacted versions of documents Haugen provided the Securities and Exchange Commission, showing Facebook repeatedly prioritized growth and profit over, well, everything else. The whole thing was handled by Haugen’s PR team via an ordinary embargo, which some oddly saw as itself somehow nefarious (it’s not, embargoes, though often kind of stupid, are commonly used to maximize impact).
The real problem was who was included in that consortium. And a bigger problem, oddly not talked about until a month into the Facebook leak news cycle, was that much of the developed world was just… excluded… from the coalition by her PR reps. The exclusion of academics and researchers that could make the most sense of the data was a problem. But restricting analysis to most white, western newsrooms, (despite Haugen’s very clear understanding that most of Facebook’s impact problems disproportionately harmed developing nations) is particularly odd and tasteless.
For all the problems Facebook (sorry, Meta) has had in the United States in regards to managing the company’s platform at scale, those problems have been dramatically worse internationally. Facebook was so excited to flood into dozens of international locations to wow investors, they didn’t dedicate the time, resources, or attention needed to actually understand what they were doing. Even if they had (and the whistleblowers keep showing they absolutely didn’t), the sheer scale of the expansion made it impossible to do well. That Facebook did so anyway despite being warned about it is an act of greed and hubris.
It was actually a net neutrality debate that keyed many overseas activists into Facebook’s problems more than a decade ago. Activists in India were particularly sensitive to Facebook’s attempts to conflate “the internet” with Facebook in developing nations. If you recall, activists in India successfully derailed Facebook’s Free Basics program, which was Facebook’s attempt to corner developing nation ad markets under the banner of altruism.
Basically, it involved Facebook striking deals with local wireless companies to offer discounted access to Facebook, under claims that aggressively curated version of “online” was better than no online access at all. It was a highly curated walled garden bastardized variation of AOL or CompuServe, in which Facebook decided what information, services, and resources mattered (they initially even banned encrypted services). But activists and international experts were quick to see the problem with giving Facebook this kind of power, especially in countries they didn’t take the time to understand.
We’ve seen repeatedly how conflating “Facebook” with “the internet” (or Whatsapp with “the internet”) has created a laundry list of problems that are especially pronounced in developing nations. The centralized approach of programs like Free Basics defeated the purpose of the open internet, reduced transparency, was a big boon for authoritarian governments, and helped create an even more potent funnel for propaganda. One recurring theme in whistleblower accounts is that Facebook’s own researchers generally warned about all of this, repeatedly, but were ignored for profit and growth’s sake.
As early as 2015 organizations like Mozilla were busy arguing that if Facebook genuinely cared about information access in developing nations, they should simply fund access to the internet itself. Facebook was ultimately forced to back off its plan in some countries like India and Egypt, but if you were a reporter or activist in these countries who pointed out the problems with Facebook’s ambition, you were accused of being an enemy of the poor. When the Free Basics brand became toxic, Facebook just named Free Basics something else (sound familiar?).
There has been some valid and not so valid criticism of the way Haugen handled these latest revelations. Some have tried to argue that because she was smart enough to hire lawyers and a PR team to maximize impact she can’t possibly be technically seen as a “whistleblower.” There was also some brief hyperventilation over a Politico report, with some trying to claim that because she had received some money from investor Pierre Omidyar, she shouldn’t be taken seriously. But a shrewd, organized whistleblower is still a whistleblower, and Omidyar proxy groups actually just funded whistleblower orgs Haugen was part of after she went public. It’s actually a good thing to see a whistleblower do the right thing and not be economically and reputationally devastated for once.
But it’s both weird and telling that people freaked out about these perceived injustices, but didn’t notice that the whistleblower’s PR coalition apparently just forgot the developing world existed:
I have massive respect for a lot of the reporters working on the files but whoever is keeping the document access limited to Americans is in the absolute wrong.
— Chillian J. Yikes! (@jilliancyork) October 29, 2021
Nobody I’ve talked to so far at news organizations seems clear why this seems to have happened (a strange decision for an effort geared toward greater transparency). It’s not like it would be particularly difficult to coordinate the release via the same organizations in places like India that warned about Facebook’s consolidated power almost a decade ago (see: IFEX). Some outlets, like Gizmodo, have been trying to expand access to the source documents to everyone. That’s apparently to the chagrin of Haugen’s PR team, who seems to think they can put the genie back in the bottle.
There was a certain hubris in Facebook stumbling its way across the developing world in a quest for growth without bothering to understand the impact their platform would have on foreign cultures. But there’s a fairly substantial amount of hubris in excluding these developing nations from accessing raw data on a problem they’ve disproportionally been harmed by.