On Global Accountability

Hi. This is your host Can Duruk speaking.

Earlier, this week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on a surprise charm offensive, literally asking to be regulated. He first published an opinion piece on The Post, and now is rubbing elbows in Europe with the Eurocracts. What a turn of events!

But maybe it’s not too surprising. Just a few months ago, Facebook was seen as the main driver of a major genocidal violence in Myanmar. At the time, I had visited Myanmar as a tourist and awestruck by the presence of Facebook in the country.

Following, I wrote a piece about how Facebook, a US company with most of its users outside of the US, can be held accountable for a US national publication. Ironically, the piece never made it to print due to another Facebook crisis. The narrative moves on.

I’ve decided to publish it here instead for all The Margins readers.

Facebook’s own blog post about its role in the genocide in Myanmar is not particularly flattering. In it, the company admits that haven’t done enough to keep Facebook “from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” That admission isn’t surprising: There’s a very long list of groups who blame Facebook for its involvement in Myanmar, including Burmese activists, the United States government, and the United Nations.

What is surprising, however, is the sleight of hand that follows. While Facebook hesitantly agrees that it hasn’t done enough, it claims that the situation on the ground in Myanmar was so dire, so complicated, so violent that it could only do so much. “Facebook alone,” the company announces in its blog post, “cannot bring about the broad changes needed to address the human rights situation in Myanmar.”

Digital is Real

Facebook’s deflection of responsibility is merely the latest instance common line of argument that social media companies like Facebook put forward is that their work exists on a different plane of reality. The digital realm ties into the analog, but the relationship is not a two-way street. Rather, they claim, it is a set of two one-way streets. One of these streets is from computers to the real world, where only the good stuff travels, enabling free speech, liberating the oppressed, democratizing the internet. The bad stuff, however, only goes the other way, where bad individuals misuse and abuse internet platforms. In other words, Facebook argues the good things happen on Facebook, but the bad things happen to Facebook. 

The report commissioned by Facebook acknowledges a key fact about Facebook’s role in Myanmar’s crisis: that in Myanmar, there’s no internet, there’s only Facebook. There are an equal number of Facebook and internet users in the country, and even the government officials use Facebook without having a separate online presence. This didn’t happen by accident: as Myanmar transitioned from military rule to civilian governance, Facebook saw an opening and positioned itself as the country’s central internet platform. 

Facebook dove right into Myanmar head first, throwing caution to the wind. Ever since 2014, activists have been warning the company about hate-speech on the platform, and social scientists like Zeynep Tufekci have been writing about the impending problems that Facebook will cause. Facebook completely ignored these warnings, and up until recently it had only a dozen support personnel working in Myanmar, a country of 20 million Facebook users. 

This matters because one of the report’s key findings is that the lack of digital literacy in the country contributed to rife false news and rumors circulating on the platform: people got on Facebook so fast, they didn’t know how to use it. And Facebook did nothing to solve this problem: until recently, the help section of Facebook in Myanmar was largely inaccessible because of a font problem (most of the country uses a nonstandard font).

Admit There’s a Problem

Facebook’s online domination in Myanmar is a problem. But an even larger, more general problem is Facebook’s casual denial of its impact on the world. We’ve seen how Facebook’s popularity in Myanmar fueled what the United Nations said "bears the hallmarks of genocide” — do we really want to see what happens in the rest of the world as Facebook grows in popularity?

It almost goes without saying that we must criticize Facebook for the humanitarian crisis they’ve enabled, and we should demand further accountability for what has taken hold. That’s largely what the response has been, but, as we have seen, it’s not enough. Facebook does not seem to care about the negative role it has played in the world, and world leaders have been unable to hold Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, accountable. 

There’s a pragmatic problem that we have to solve before we can expect anything at Facebook to change: how do we make a product manager or software engineer sitting in sunny Menlo Park care about the millions of users over at Myanmar, or India, or Turkey? Employees at companies like Facebook should be made very well aware of their impact around the world, before, during, and after their work is deployed. Most other fields of engineering, like civil engineering, already have this built into their culture, but software engineering is lagging behind. Tech employees need to realize that their responsibility doesn’t end at the last line of code — that’s just where it starts. 

Tech companies like Facebook are responsible for this shift in mentality, but the global news media also needs to shift its focus, and proportionately cover those who are most at risk. The “techlash” coverage has focused primarily on the problems of wealthy countries like the United States, ignoring smaller, poorer countries until it is too late. Covering remote regions like Myanmar requires more money and effort — and might command less attention initially than the latest privacy debacle — but the potential impact of such coverage is far greater than reporters might expect. 

There is also the matter of truly holding Facebook accountable, and the answer lies in elevating this global problem to a global arena. The uncomfortable truth is that Facebook wields such power: already, elected officials and politicians from multiple countries who gather together are unable to get Mr. Zuckerberg to show up for a hearing. If Western democracies where Facebook makes most of its money cannot summon Mr. Zuckerberg and hold him accountable, then smaller, poorer countries don’t stand a chance.

Global Response to a Global Issue

The global community needs to elevate these issues to where they belong; the avenue of international politics. Facebook doesn’t just run a social media application, but is practically privatized infrastructures for politics, media, and commerce around the world. It is naïve to assume a company headquartered in California to be able wrap its head around all the complexities of such a task, even with the best of intentions, for all the countries it operates in, let alone deal with the complexity of a single, large country like US, as the 2016 elections showed. Many countries like India were already not on board with handing over the keys to their digital future to Facebook. Now the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar should act as a wake-up call for the global leaders to take the reins back.

It is time that we all realize tech companies do not operate on a different plane of reality. The many layers of abstractions that lie between the keypresses over in Silicon Valley and the rest of the world often doesn’t just blind the fresh-faced faces in California, but often obscures what’s happening to the rest of the world as well.

Facebook will only grow in size and impact around the world. For many years, we acted like such companies only bring good to the world, and the bad stuff happens to them. Yet, the good, the bad, and the ugly are all interconnected. We need to hold those accountable for their mistakes, and then plan as a global, interlinked world how and who should run our digital infrastructure. Myanmar deserved better and so does the rest of the world.

Singapore, November 2018