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Facebook’s Gambit

Mark Zuckerberg is offering developing countries free access to the internet through Facebook. Is it a Faustian deal?

When the Western world first learned of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the response was mixed. Even China-friendly think tanks and journalists were hesitant to buy the line China was selling. Would a nation really launch an imperialist project spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa for no reason other than to offer free infrastructure and bolster its trade routes? Now, nearly a decade later, as half-finished infrastructure projects litter impoverished countries and Beijing looms as a growing world superpower, the project is viewed with almost universal suspicion.

That the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been most successful in impoverished or war-torn countries susceptible to bribery, such as Malaysia and Ethiopia, is hardly surprising. A McKinsey survey in 2017 revealed that between 60 and 80 percent of Chinese companies in Africa admitted to bribing their way into a contract. In Kenya, senior government officials conspired to illegally acquire government-owned land to sell it to Chinese parties for a railroad project, demonstrating that the corruption is hardly one-sided. Meanwhile, China gave up construction on a railroad from Mombasa to Uganda, stopping 290 miles short of the border—in the middle of the countryside—when it ran low on cash. Kenya was left to pick up the pieces.

The BRI scheme seems to have an offense in hand for every party, including the American political class. For the war hawk, China’s very presence in third-world countries that were once the sole proprietorships of U.S. NGOs and the federal government is enough to view the initiative as Beijing’s rebuttal to American manifest destiny abroad. For the humanitarian, the broad gulf between the shining infrastructure the Chinese Communist Party promised to many third world countries and the cheap, unfinished roads, ports, and railways they have delivered as the money runs out is worse than if they’d never promised anything. For the free-market economist, it’s a lesson in the failures of big government.

For the conservative, however, the Belt and Road Initiative is more than just a talking point—it’s a new verse in the long rhyme of the history of empires. In reframing the causes of the Roman Empire’s decline for the Enlightenment era in his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, even Montesquieu could not escape the main cause that brought the empire to heel: it overstretched itself, getting involved in too many foreign nations and foreign wars. The implications of this principle for the United States were plain enough to see in the swift collapse of the Afghan democracy the U.S. government spent 20 years planting—if not well beforehand. That China’s global trade network is not what it was chalked up to be should not be much of a surprise, even apart from their history of cheap manufacturing. The expansionist projects of empires can never be built to last.

* * *

Does the same principle of national overreach apply to corporations with global ambition? Facebook seems poised to find out.

It’s been a bit of a rough quarter for the social-media conglomerate. After Frances Haugen, better known as the Facebook whistleblower, told the Wall Street Journal in September what most had already intuited—Facebook’s algorithms are harmful to teens, and Facebook knows it—the company’s rather conveniently-timed name change to Meta and November announcement of the Metaverse received a rather lukewarm, mixed response, even from friendly parties. Now, the Journal reports the company is responsible for accidentally getting impoverished nations hooked on its app, after Facebook promised free internet to poor countries and wound up instead driving them to pay collective usage charges of several millions of dollars monthly.

The mistake, according to Meta employees, was a faulty algorithm. The free version of Facebook they offered developing countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines was meant to allow users free access to the internet through a stripped-down, video-free version of Facebook for which they would pay no service charges. Instead, users in these countries were still able to access videos and other content through Facebook with no warning that the content was triggering additional data usage. Many drained their monthly service within a few days.

Facebook has known of the software problems for months, according to the Journal, but has failed to correct them yet. Indeed, the documents the Journal reviewed show the company is in no hurry to fix the problem, since the two parties are benefitting.

The benefit to cell providers is obvious: increased usage. While most of the service providers involved declined to comment to the Journal, the Facebook documents confirm this. The arrangement would help move customers away from the prepaid data plans common in such countries, in which a user pays a couple of dollars each month for a limited amount of data, and toward “Western-style monthly plans,” or “loans,” according to the Journal. The companies hope to give customers unlimited access to cellular data, then bill them afterward, to increase time online.

The benefit to Meta, too, is self-evident. In exchange for providing a limited—and, evidently, faulty—version of their app, Facebook will gain an estimated 10.6 million new monthly users and a de facto monopoly on the internet for those who can’t afford to pay for greater access. Indeed, they give poor countries tantalizing “access”—the gateway drug not just to Western-style internet loans, but Western-style internet addiction. To paraphrase George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, Zuckerberg isn’t selling, Zuckerberg is buying.

Indeed, as Facebook’s popularity continues to decline with younger Americans and the app continues to grow as a target for potential regulation in the U.S., Meta has moved its strategy overseas, particularly to poorer nations. Already, more than 90 percent of Facebook’s monthly users are outside the U.S. and Canada, and the company seems poised to lean into the trend. It’s a clever business plan: The Metaverse for the wealthy Americans with too much time on their hands, and knock-off Facebook for the huddled masses yearning to know what was viral last week.

In all of this, we shouldn’t also lose sight of where we started—that is, the whistleblower and her documents, which showed Facebook and Instagram usage leading to soaring suicide rates among teens and increased anti-social behavior among its users. The apps are also breeding grounds for predators of every sort. It’s no secret that countless of our own homegrown terrorists have been groomed online through Facebook and other platforms, which by their nature tend to have the strongest grasp on those who already perceive themselves as outsiders or aliens in their community. Human traffickers likewise take advantage of vulnerable users, who are far easier to target thanks to their open-book presence online.

Preying on this “outsider” psychology has been a very successful strategy for Facebook—a rather appropriate, if pitiful, irony given Zuckerberg’s own reclusive adolescence. The app succeeds, of course, because it understands the basic human need to be “in,” and keeps users coming back not because we are addicted to “likes” but because we are addicted to proving ourselves, whether through sharing our accomplishments, thoughts, or attempts at humor. The interest compounds: Facebook, Instagram, and others reward users who share more by boosting their posts in their friends’ feeds. The lure is even strong for those fond of social-media purges, hiatuses, and mental-health-posting breaks. As a female friend of mine likes to put it, “You still have to log back on every now and then to let them know that you are, in fact, doing well.” Reality isn’t real until you’ve shared it.

What will such access do to underdeveloped countries? While most Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Indonesians might not adhere to the modern Western values embraced by Facebook—like gender identity, narcissism, and material excess—that doesn’t mean those things can’t be learned. Grandmothers and toddlers alike have quickly mastered the art of the selfie, sometimes without even being taught. The effect of widespread, global Facebook use will be homogenization—a universal embrace of the modern, Western definition of happiness. Social media, the great super-spreader of trends, can cure even the strongest cultures of their folkways. Progress marches on.

The Romans fell not only because they stretched themselves too far, Montesquieu argued, but because in so doing, they weakened the Roman spirit, the civic virtue that was their strength. A little over a century later, Alexis de Tocqueville would argue something similar about the French Revolution, condemning the ballooning size and influence of Paris on the once-diverse French countryside, the homogenizing effects of the French capital’s spread being a key cause of that violent chapter in France’s history.

Of course, there are differences between corporations and governments. Corporations are not elected, and therefore don’t owe anything to anyone, save their own employees. If there are ethics that govern global economic expansion, the definitive book on them has not yet been written—or, at least, the heavy hitters aren’t reading it. Still, there are similarities in the power both corporations and governments have over people and nations that cannot be ignored.

Fortunately, what happens to a culture and its civic virtue under Facebook, as under empire, is no longer anyone’s guess. We need only look to our own neighbors and fellow travelers to glimpse the future Zuckerberg offers developing nations: one in which the promise of access will bring them into the future, the “developed” world.

The real question, of course, is if that future is a development for good.

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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