A defense for Facebook and global free speech

A defense for Facebook and global free speech
© Greg Nash

Debates over Facebook have been roiling Western nations for years, with many voices raising questions over the unintended consequences of the social media giant’s outsized role in the public square. Such questioning is a healthy exercise in any true democracy, blessed with a robust civil debate

Yet even as we weigh those consequences, it is crucial that we not lose sight of the global context; one where many nations do not enjoy the robust debate that citizens of more fortunate lands can afford to take for granted. 

In the Arab world, Facebook and other social media networks fill a crucial role. They alone provide a platform for free speech, unmediated by Ministries of Information and Ministries of Education, or a host of security services. They alone provide a measure of what is known in Arabic as “tanfees” or social release.  

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They have also played an indispensable role in organizing the protests for freedom and democracy that formed the core of the Arab Spring — one independent of the state or the network of mosques, so often divided between government and Islamist zones of control. 

As Syrian activist Shakeeb al-Jabri once put it, “In Syria, we are unbelievably dependent on social media. For organizing, you create a Facebook group. For calling a protest, you create a Facebook page. For reporting news, you create a Twitter account. For communicating with other activists, you use Skype. For showing the protest to the world, you use YouTube. There are signs in Syria that say, ‘Thank you, YouTube.’ If this didn’t exist, the revolution would’ve been crushed immediately. There would’ve been another Hama massacre and the regime would have gotten away with it.”’

While the Syrian revolution ultimately met a tragic fate, social media remains an essential tool for liberal reformers and protest organizers from Malaysia to Tunisia. In our region, we see every day how groups which otherwise would have been marginalized by reactionary forces have successfully used social media networks to communicate, organize and push for positive change in their communities. It is surely not an accident that it is those governments most resistant to grassroots democratic activism, such as China, Iran and North Korea, that have taken the hardest line in banning and blocking Facebook in their territories.

Despite its humble origins as a simple tool for classmates to get to know each other, it is clear that, with over 2 billion users, any decisions made by a social media behemoth like Facebook will have profound reverberations across the globe, particularly in places where they serve as the only unregulated platform for free speech. 

I was struck by the reaction to Frances Haugen’s testimony before Congress, which offered a rare glimpse into Facebook’s operation. Haugen’s testimony on the monitoring and persecution inflicted upon vulnerable populations such as the Uyghurs of China, or the minorities of Myanmar and Ethiopia, was powerful and moving. Yet I could not help but notice the framing which undergirded the critics’ commentary: Almost invariably, these voices focused on how much malign activity by bad actors Facebook was unable to prevent. Few focused on the bad actors themselves: the authorities in China and Iran, the militias and extremists of Myanmar and Ethiopia, etc. 

Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergEx-Facebook data scientist to testify before British lawmakers A defense for Facebook and global free speech Senate Democrat calls on Facebook to preserve documents related to whistleblower testimony MORE could perhaps be forgiven some frustration at having nearly all the evils of these foreign conflicts and injustices laid at his feet, however implicitly. Indeed, he fiercely defended his company's business practices in a post, only a few hours after Haugen delivered her testimony to Congress, writing that “It's difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don't recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.” 

Zuckerberg also rightly noted that, in certain edge cases involving unavoidable tradeoffs between public and private goods, it’s not his role to decide on behalf of an entire polity, much less a planet, contending that “at some level the right body to assess tradeoffs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress.”  

In assessing those tradeoffs, however, Congress and the American public might want to consider that the world of social media and information technology is no longer a purely American affair. China, once merely a space for Western companies to rent cheap manufacturing capacity, has evolved by leaps and bounds. First as a consumer, and now a formidable competitor in its own right. To take example, although it has nearly no market share in America, Xiaomi recently edged out with Apple as the world's second largest smartphone maker with over 10 percent of global market share.  

However dissatisfied Americans may be with the political compromises their own tech firms forge, it is safe to say they will find their Chinese successors far less to their liking. 

Ahmed Charai is a publisher of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.