Hey Facebook. Working With Authoritarian Governments To Make Money Is Not Good For Democracy

Written by Staff

Facebook’s stealth partnerships with authoritarian governments are coming back to haunt it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he “doesn’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” but his so-called free internet offering, Internet.org, has helped make that happen in places like the Philippines, MSNBC anchor Ari Melber reports.

U.S. President Donald Trump was the biggest beneficiary of fake news in 2016, and now he’s been using that term against others, Melber asserts.

We’ve included a transcript here of Melber’s report from “The Beat with Ari Melber,” aired on Dec. 27, 2017 on MSNBC:

Trump got the term “fake news” from work by his own supporters who relentlessly pushed fake news stories like the false claim he was endorsed by the Pope.

The Pope did not endorse Trump but that fake news story was one of the most shared and most viewed items on Facebook in the general election. it would have been easy to fact-check it, or take it out of the newsfeed but Mark Zuckerberg’s company didn’t do that.

And while Trump benefits from fake news while using it against others as a slur, now the New York Times is reporting authoritarian figures around the world using the same trick.

The trick works for many reasons but one of them is how it is still pretty easy to spread fake news on Facebook, which makes money from clicks and shares regardless of whether the content is true.

Yes, undermining democracy can be profitable although Zuckerberg says this is not what he wants.

“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” Zuckerberg said on Sept. 21. “That’s not what we stand for. The integrity of our elections is fundamental to democracy around the world.”

In the Philippines, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the media, President Rodrigo Duterte is deploying a Putin playbook. He is accused of human rights abuses and targeting journalists and killing them more than any other country although Trump and Duterte hit it off in their November meeting.

Trump chuckled when Duterte called journalists spies. Duterte recently blamed his opposition critics for fake news. Duterte has been busted for pushing his own fake news and all kinds of fake accounts on Facebook during their election.

We’re reporting this tonight because it reveals two very important things: 1. Authoritarians will adapt any technology — it could be guns, it could be social media — and they will be authoritarian about it. 2. The now infamous Zuckerberg defense — that he and his company only really learned about all these problems after the November election — that doesn’t look very true.

Facebook is a global company and it was ground zero for this Putin-Duterte playbook long before Zuckerberg was playing naive about fake news after November and repeating their mantra that they’re just neutral.

In fact, there was a whole scandal in the Philippines over fake news and bots in their election which was held in May 2016, long before ours, and as (Zuckerberg) knows, a lot of this actually goes back to 2015. That is when Facebook first partnered with the Philippines government over a project which Facebook had called Internet.org — it’s Zuckerberg’s plan to try to connect everyone in the world so they can be online.

“Internet.org is a partnership between governments, mobile operators, local entrepreneurs and companies like Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in May 2015. “Everyone is welcome to join. we’ll work with anyone who wants to join us.”

He’s not kidding, Melber said. (Facebook) will work with anyone. After their initial launch, the Philippines election was around the corner and there were all kinds of candidates that wanted help with Facebook about using the platform. And Facebook did what it does a lot. It sent three employees who spent a week holding training sessions with candidates that included Duterte.

Facebook has a government team that does global work. It includes a former Republican operative … it includes Democrats. They train campaigns, they say, from all sides, just like they offered Trump and Clinton training last year. But giving tips to a few campaigns in a constitutional democracy can be different than giving tips to this authoritarian Duterte, and Facebook learned that quickly.

In fact after his team got that Facebook briefing, his team went into overdrive pushing fake news and accounts along with his other wider campaigns. The Pope was named in a big fake news story endorsing Duterte — that’s false.

This is basically a kind of a sign: If you get a Pope endorsement, you are the fake news candidate.

In part with the domination of social media there, Duterte in May 2016 won the election and his reliance on Facebook grew stronger. He also has less limits, constitutional or otherwise, than we have in the U.S. So he started doing things like banning a journalist from covering his events and inauguration and streaming them instead on Facebook.

So would anyone stand up to this? Yes. It was a journalist who decided enough was enough. She started speaking out against the way Facebook was being used. Her name is Maria Ressa, (now CEO of Rapler). She logged more than 12 million accounts that she thought were pushing pro-Duterte messages or fake news. She met with Zuckerberg and kept trying to sound the alarm about how Facebook was being used.

Ressa tells us she’s still an advocate of Facebook as a platform for news and discussion but she adds, “Facebook needs to moderate its greed, clean up the toxic waste, and be accountable for its role as the new gatekeeper to information.”

Duterte meanwhile has made the Philippines a very good place for business for Facebook. Towards the end of the election, Facebook even opened their first office there. The Philippines has more than 49 million active monthly users representing 91 percent of internet users.

This is a good place for Facebook’s business interests. I don’t say this as a criticism but we keep coming back to Zuckerberg’s claim that connecting the world is not about money — that Facebook’s primary business strategy is not about business.

Please.

After 18 months of discussion and planning that began mostly after Duterte’s election, Facebook and the Filipino government revealed a plan to build a very pivotal submarine cable system which is going to bring ultra-high-speed broadband service to that country and the region.

It’s a multi-million dollar plan and they say it is key to expanding Facebook access to new customers. Facebook also is teaming up with Amazon and a Japanese telco company to build an infrastructure of underwater cables to connect the entire Asia Pacific region.

The whole business connection goes back to 2014. Facebook then was touting its success in the Philippines and its success working with (a) Filipino telecom company which offered Facebook access to users at zero data charges.

You take this all together and what you see is a whole lot of executives saying, “We were surprised and it’s not about the money.” And then you look at the facts and it is about the money. And it’s not neutral, and in many cases, working with anyone and everyone to make money is not good for democracy.

Read more at MSNBC.

authoritarian governments
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the 2017 G20 Summit. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

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