Facebook’s Experiments Abroad

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP

I mentioned yesterday the practice of Cambridge Analytica to field test tools and strategies in the developing world which they could not in North America and Europe because of more robust privacy protections, legal and otherwise, as well as a more robust free press. I’ve done some more digging on this front which has confirmed my assumption, particularly with regards to Facebook, which appears to uniquely exploit this path for experimentation.

First, an important preliminary that informs the technological reality in many countries in what we once called the Third World. Many countries in Africa and Southeast Asia never caught up with Europe and North America when it came to building near ubiquitous land line phone availability as well as other kinds of energy and communications infrastructure which were the norm for the US by the middle of the 20th century. When cell phone technology became available it made sense simply to leapfrog over the landline era. This summary leaves out a lot of detail. But it’s an accurate broad brush account of many countries today. What that means is that many such countries have extremely high levels of mobile phone penetration, sometimes faster bandwidth than many have in the US and mobile devices (and thus social platforms) having something closer to a monopoly of communications. By numerous measures this is a great thing.

Facebook has been particularly aggressive at field testing new strategies and technologies in these countries which would either be illegal at home, be too big a risk of bad press or simply be too experimental and have consequences which are too unpredictable. Sometimes they’re illegal abroad too. It just doesn’t matter.

Sometimes these tests are done semi-openly or have particular attributes that generate scrutiny from within the US. One relatively benign example happened a few months ago when Facebook tested splitting its newsfeed in six countries – Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka. The technicalities are complicated but the net effect was a devastating impact on digital publications in those countries. The US digital publishing industry, which has allowed itself to become heavily dependent on Facebook traffic, has been deeply worried about something like this happening. So chatter about the change from Slovakia quickly hopped in the US publishing trade press. It created an immediate firestorm within the publishing world.

This is a fairly benign example, relatively speaking. Facebook discontinued the experiment earlier this month. But it is noteworthy because I think the only reason it got any attention in the US is that it caught the hyper-attention and hyper-concern of what is almost by definition the industry with the biggest collective megaphone on the web: the digital publishing industry. More opaque experimentations with privacy, selling data, fake news would get, and do get, infinitely less attention.

I’ve been in contact with a number of knowledgeable sources and Facebook insiders who confirm that this is an ingrained Facebook strategy – experimenting on new tools in countries that have no privacy protections or weak states that can’t resist before bringing them to the US. This isn’t something that happens sometimes. It’s the model.

More ominously, Facebook also appears to be involved in some businesses abroad that it knows will never fly in the US. In this case, Facebook’s partnership with Cambridge Analytica appears merely to be an example of a larger dynamic. As I’ve noted, the UN has already chastised Facebook for the platform’s role in the on-going ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion in Myanmar. I’ve assumed that this was merely because the platform is poorly policed. I’m now more curious whether that is the full extent of it.

As I’ve said, I’ve spoken to a number of sources with experience inside Facebook. If you have information you’d like to share please contact me at our tips line at the top of the site.

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