Facebook: A necessary evil in an open internet

BY KIRUBEL TADESSE – What if Facebook suspends Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s account? The PM has over 4 million people following him on the platform. More importantly, the page serves as a de facto office for state media organizations which broadcast every message the PM posts there.

For the PM office to lose such an asset is not something entirely hypothetical. Facebook has already removed one of the PM’s posts back in November, claiming it was “inciting and supporting violence.” To say the move was unprecedented and unwarranted would be an understatement.

But who is to say another post won’t be taken down and trigger Facebook to either censor or entirely suspend the PM? As another round of conflict with Tigray rebels appears to be imminent, the chance of this occurring is more probable than before.

This article hopes to help readers understand why Facebook has been aggressively censoring politicians and operating as a platform with little regard for its impact in Ethiopia. Such discussions could inform local actions and policy priorities.

Facebook is too big to govern
Facebook stands out among social media platforms in both popularity and influence. The social media giant has over 2.9 billion monthly active users globally. It is a popular medium where close to 6 million Ethiopians exchange information and access news.

Despite its immense power, there is little regulation about how the company should handle content or users on its platform. This is precisely why it removes elected officials’’ statements such as Abiy’s post and suspends world leaders like former US President Donald Trump without facing any consequence.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does what he wishes.

Zuckerberg, the founder, and CEO of the company, has 55% of the company’s voting shares and makes crucial decisions that govern content and users. Facebook’s former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen said this to Congress in October 2021: “there are no similarly powerful companies as unilaterally controlled.” Several scholars have questioned Zuckerberg’s fitness to exercise such power that dictates the global flow of information.

University of Virginia professor and a leading media scholar, Siva Vaidhyanathan, has closely studied Zuckerberg’s history, reputation, and world views. Vaidhyanathan concluded that “Zuckerberg is profoundly un-educated” and “lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans can do to each other and the planet.”

Zuckerberg claims Facebook is just a platform. In reality, the company acts more like a publisher, and the CEO is the world’s most powerful editor. Facebook’s blurred corporate identity can be traced to the US law that has allowed it to expand as much as it did. Section 230 of the 1996 US law Communication Decency Act offers social media companies broad protection from liability for content moderating decisions.

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” in part states the Act. Because of Section 230, social media platforms like Facebook cannot be legally treated as publishers: they cannot be sued by anyone for any information they remove or publish.

As a result, the company operates as a technology company that is not legally required to moderate content, however objectionable or harmful the content may be. Since the company prospered under such legal protections, it has become too big to govern. There have been some attempts to rein in its power; European regulators found some success.

But Ethiopia, with only about 25 percent of its population accessing the internet and 5.95 million people using Facebook, does not possess a lucrative business attractive enough to compel Facebook to sit down and negotiate its content moderation policies. This could soon change.

The arrival of Safaricom, which is the first non-state telecom service provider, will likely help expand internet access and spur economic growth across the 120 million, primarily young, Ethiopians. However, until that turning point, the Ethiopian government is at the mercy of Facebook executive’s whims.

US January 6 Capitol attack
The reason why Facebook acted against PM Abiy may not have anything to do with Ethiopia. Its aggressive stance against politicians and content that includes the threat of violence, even ‘acceptable’ state violence, came about after the January 6, 2021, riot in Washington, D.C.
Former American president Donald Trump has been accused of inciting his supporters to march and break into the U.S. Capitol grounds on January 6, 2021.

Trump still contests his election loss to President Joseph Biden. Before the violent January 6 protests, social media companies largely resisted calls to censor politicians. Facebook’s Zuckerberg insisted that his company should “not police what politicians say on its platform.” Facebook often claims what the politicians say is newsworthy, so it should be left alone.

This policy changed because of the January 6 violence after reports Trump used posts and tweets to incite violence and undermine the results of democratic elections and a peaceful transfer of power. Press reports suggest Zuckerberg decided to end the practice of shielding politicians’ posts the night of the violence.

The shift by Facebook and other companies in how they handle politicians’ content has had global implications. Some of the headline-making content enforcement actions occurred in Sub-Saharan African states. The removals of content PM posted, and the Nigerian president tweeted can serve as examples.

Facebook’s failures, Ethiopia’s reactions
Ethiopia’s case can perhaps serve as an example of Facebook’s failures in understanding content that should be removed and allowed. As the whistleblower Haugen testified in Congress, Facebook fuels Ethiopia’s civil war in which hate speech on Facebook is rampant.

The nation is currently suffering from a year-long civil war that has killed tens of thousands. 2.1 million people, primarily women and children, have been forced to leave their homes, and more than 9 million Ethiopian need food assistance.

While the conflict is ongoing between the country’s federal government and Tigray rebels, Facebook is helping supporters of both sides to commit war crimes.

Haugen says Facebook’s executives know what the platform is doing in Ethiopia. Yet they chose to do nothing as the platform ‘fans ethnic violence’ and serves as a tool to coordinate attacks against civilians.

In a post published on the platform, Zuckerberg dismissed the claim. But Facebook’s own Oversight Board, a 20-member body advising the company about its content, later implored Facebook to investigate the matter further and conduct a formal investigation. Zuckerberg did not fully commit to conducting the investigation.

It is unclear what such investigations would lead to anyway. The company had already admitted to not doing enough to stop violence against Rohingya people in Myanmar but did not change its policy since.
Ethiopian institutions, including telecom sector regulators and human rights organizations, need to appreciate that Facebook’s profit-driven global operation and inherent excesses translate to giving little regard for how its services are used in Ethiopia.

Facebook seldom reacts to events here, and its actions are usually because of or fear of consequence to the US domestic interests. As discussed above, Facebook’s issues are global in nature, and the solutions will not come from Arat Kilo. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned, if the government resorts to a blanket internet shutdown, it would hurt government revenues and depress local innovation and entrepreneurship.

The country’s economy would suffer when we the internet is blocked, including by scaring away foreign investors. Foreign investors, such as Safaricom’s $2 billion investment in Ethiopia, count on uninterrupted internet services to turn a profit and create the much-needed employment.

The project to come up with a ‘local Facebook’ is unlikely to succeed. Instead of investing resources in the ill-advised attempt to create a ‘local rival‘ to Facebook and run disinformation campaigns with fake accounts, the Ethiopian government should focus on supporting, or at least allowing, local journalists and media institutions to counter harmful content on social media companies like Facebook.

The nation’s democratic aspirations need an open internet. Blocking the internet would undermine the ongoing democratic transition. Democratic rules need a public sphere where topics of public interest are discussed. In today’s information age, the sphere is the internet, and without an open internet that includes rogue players like Facebook, a democratic rule is unrealizable.