Bhaskar Chakravorti will be moderating a discussion about the opportunities and challenges of bringing the next 3 billion people into the world’s economy at Techonomy 2018, November 11-13, at Half Moon Bay, California.
After a great rise, gravity may have caught up with Facebook. Despite sizzling growth and 2.5 billion users, it has recently had to grapple with concerns about misinformation, the safety of user data, and scrutiny around its leadership.
Embedded in its still stratospheric valuation is the stock market’s expectation for continued growth. But such growth isn’t coming from the U.S. and Europe. At the Fletcher School at Tufts, where I teach, we call that the “Digital North.” The emerging Asian, African, and Latin American markets, the “Digital South,” will instead be the source of Facebook’s growth. Users here not only spend more time on the mobile internet, but an average user spends more time on social media than one in the Digital North—almost 4 hours a day in the Philippines, for example, versus 48 minutes in Japan.
Of the top 10 countries with the most Facebook users, eight are in the Digital South, accounting for 41 percent of users worldwide. Facebook’s North American and European revenues in the last quarter fell $75 million relative to the same quarter in 2017, while revenue from other markets rose $51 million. North America and Europe accounted for only 4 percent of daily active user growth over that period, while Asia-Pacific and non-Western markets accounted for 31 percent of daily active user growth.
Facebook’s Digital South strategy thus far has focused on access. To close the connectivity gap, it launched the Free Basics initiative aimed at developing world users. It extends free internet access through a stripped-down mobile application, including a version of Facebook. Its Facebook Lite product uses less data and pairs with other “light” features—Instant Articles, with 10 times faster loading times than standard articles. Instagram Lite and Messenger Lite are also designed for places with weak data connections and low-bandwidth networks.
Despite these strategic moves, Facebook has struggled with socio-cultural and political nuances in these countries. And even with some fumbles, Free Basics has expanded into 63 countries and municipalities, covering more than 100 million new users.
The biggest contextual challenge in the Digital South is that Facebook becomes a de facto carrier of rumors and misinformation, which come at a heavy human cost. Rumor campaigns targeting the Rohingyas in Myanmar were spread on Facebook, sparking violence. (See accompanying story.) In Sri Lanka, Facebook was similarly slow to remove content and ban users when its platform was used to organize violence against Muslims.
Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp has been the primary carrier of fake news and divisive rumors in India. Recently, India has experienced a spate of lynchings instigated by rumors spread over WhatsApp. For months, Facebook did nothing other than make small tweaks.
Facebook needs a proactive, context-aware strategy for tackling the mushrooming fake news problem in the Digital South. Here are five suggestions:
Own the reality of its own success: Facebook with its family of apps is an opinion shaper and de facto news source—and increasingly so in the Digital South. It has outlived its original role as a “public square.” As an influential media company, it must take responsibility for the content it carries. It can combine both human and artificial intelligence to sort through the content, classify, and filter it. It should partner with grassroots organizations around the world dedicated to local fact-checking. Examples from India alone include, SM Hoax Slayer, and, each dedicated to de-bunking rumors and stopping misinformation. It is currently labeling WhatsApp messages as “forwarded” or “suspicious”. But it needs to go beyond such subtle markers. Eventually, Facebook must develop transparent policy guidelines to label, de-prioritize, even block, different categories of content.
Establish on-the-ground operations: Facebook had no formal offices in Myanmar or Sri Lanka. In India, its offices are in closed-off office parks that mimic Silicon Valley, far removed from the milieu in which the product is actually used. It should, instead, invest in a larger physical presence closer to users. It must utilize this local organization to understand the context and local languages and should collaborate with law enforcement and local organizations to better anticipate possible problems. It is instructive to use “traditional” global companies such as Coca-Cola or Unilever, as models. They realized the complexities of international markets and have extensive local teams.
Apply persuasive design to induce desired behaviors: Facebook’s current approach to limiting rumors is both incremental and pro forma: adding notes to messages or making it more cumbersome to forward messages on WhatsApp— barriers easily overcome by determined malicious groups. Ironically, Facebook is among the world’s leading practitioners of “persuasive design.” These principles are at the heart of the addictive features of social media, including the Like button or the continuous scrolling feature. Design principles for such products involve creating “triggers” for certain behaviors. The same principles can be applied towards behaviors that stop or flag the spread of misinformation.
Actively educate users: The platform could become a mechanism for educating novice users. YouTube is adding information from Wikipedia to videos that deal with potentially controversial subjects or rumors, to provide alternative viewpoints and background. While Facebook did create a version of this for its main Facebook app, it addresses only typical Digital North concerns about fake news. The devastating unverifiable rumors on WhatsApp, the primary carrier in the Digital South, remain unchallenged.
Reduce dependence on advertising: Facebook is dependent on an advertising-driven business model. Fake news or sensational rumors tend to generate more view—and help a business model predicated on garnering more user attention. Taking inspiration from Amazon and Alphabet, Facebook could use its treasure trove of user data responsibly, to design new paid services. The Digital South may be an ideal lab for such alternatives. The average ad revenue per user is much lower here; the region has many more underserved needs; in sheer volume, it will produce more usage data even without resorting to clickbait.
Facebook has had a great rise. It is a connector of people like no other but like cigarettes and sugary drinks, it is a potentially risky product, particularly in the developing world. Growing to 2.5 billion users a month was the easy part; keeping the next billion civil, productive, and safe will be much harder.
Bhaskar Chakravorti is Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and the founding Executive Director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context.