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Is Facebook Fury A “First World” Issue?

Facebook’s platform can be – and has been – used for nefarious purposes, but imagine if you are a budding entrepreneur with a new product in India, Indonesia, or Brazil. Shirish Shete/AP


Facebook is under fire. The social media giant with more than 2bn users and a stock market capitalization approaching the stratosphere is facing a storm of controversy in the United States and Europe over breaches of user data and accusations that the platform was manipulated by foreign actors to influence the US election. Facebook’s stock lost some $59bn in value last week after the story broke in The New York Times and the Observer of London that a data mining firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign accessed the personal information of some 50m users without their consent.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been doing the mea culpa rounds on television and in carefully scripted statements. Still, anger is rising and a movement is gaining steam calling for users to leave Facebook. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook was trending on Twitter this week. Celebrities like Cher have joined the movement, as has the billionaire founder of Whatsapp, Brian Acton, who sold his app to Facebook in 2014 for $16bn.


Meanwhile, Americans have been engaged in a lot of hand-wringing about the effects of social media on society. Tragedies like teen suicides attributed to social media or incessant cyber-bullying have exposed the dark side of our connected society – though the offending platforms tend to be more youth-friendly sites like Snapchat or Instagram (another Facebook property).


Social media has also been charged with making us dumber, contributing to shorter attention spans, and coarsening our political discourse. There is merit to all of these arguments. Vox Media editor and prominent blogger Matt Yglesias makes a devastating case in the “Facebook is bad” genre. He cites research demonstrating how Facebook makes people feel lonelier and sadder, outlines the corrosive effect of fake news injected into the Facebook bloodstream, and explains how the social media giant is destroying the business model of quality journalism.


Yes, when you put it that way, Facebook is bad.


The trouble is that most of the “Facebook is evil” missives hail mostly from the US and Europe. Emerging markets and developing countries – where some 85% of the world’s population lives – have not yet caught the “Facebook is evil” virus. That’s good news for Zuckerberg and company, as these are also Facebook’s fastest-growing markets.


Is Facebook fury a first world problem? A problem of people in advanced economies who have the luxury of deleting the app from their phones to make a statement?


Yes, Facebook’s platform can be – and has been – used for nefarious purposes, but imagine if you are a budding entrepreneur with a new product in India or Indonesia or Brazil. You’ve raised some funds, created your logo, and developed your pitch. What do you do next? The answer is obvious: You go to Facebook.


For you, Facebook is not a place of hand-wringing about privacy or questions about broader societal impact. It’s certainly not evil. Facebook is the marketing team you cannot afford.


In fact, Facebook has become an essential marketing tool for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) worldwide, particularly in developing countries and emerging markets. India, Indonesia, and Brazil account for nearly a quarter of Facebook’s 2bn worldwide user base. The three countries are among the the largest states of “Facebookistan”.


For businesses across the emerging world, the political firestorm around Facebook matters far less than the social media storm sweeping their societies. Facebook gives them exposure to a broad and national customer base, and even an international one where relevant.


Lost amid all of the excited talk of a Fourth Industrial Revolution about to reshape our society is the continuing impact and promise of the information technology revolution. As the World Bank noted in a 2016 report: “Today’s increase in access to digital technologies brings more choice and greater convenience. Through inclusion, efficiency, and innovation, access provides opportunities that were previously out of reach to the poor and disadvantaged.”


This is certainly true of innovations like mobile money that have have transformed lives by broadening financial inclusion for the base-of-the-pyramid populations from Latin America to Africa and Asia. Facebook, however, has been successful at boosting small businesses, particularly ones targeting the consumer.


India is a prime example. In mid-2017, India overtook the US as the largest Facebook population in the world, with some 241m users. That’s a lot of eyeballs for Indian businesses to target. That helps explain why some 4m small businesses in India have Facebook pages. Esme Dean, a SME specialist in India, says print and television ads remain expensive and hard to measure, making Facebook a more attractive option for small businesses.


With some 36m companies that employ 80m people across India, SMEs are clearly an economic force. Finding their customers in a heavily saturated and expensive traditional media market has always been a challenge. Social media tools like Facebook can break down those walls. Larger companies like automaker Mahindra or mobile provider Vodafone India have also reported sales growth attributed to Facebook advertising.


Indians are avid users of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, too, with 200m monthly active users. It should come as no surprise then that companies are already using Whatsapp to target customers, and the company has launched a separate business app for small businesses in India.  


With an internet user base expected to hit 730m by the year 2020, India is fertile ground for Facebook’s growing footprint. The same can be said of Brazil, where Facebook has a startling 61% penetration rate, and Indonesia, with 36% penetration. Facebook touts their small business stars in Brazil in their advertising.


All across the emerging world, Facebookistan is growing. And wherever it is growing, small businesses have an opportunity to use the platform to grow, too.


This is not to suggest that Facebook’s significant issue of societal impact has not hit the emerging world. It has. Cyber-bullying among youth is a problem everywhere, whether you live in Senegal or Sweden. Reduced attention span and higher rates of depression are also inevitable wherever social media is prevalent.


Still, #DeleteFacebook is simply not an option for small businesses in Asia, nor will it be for their counterparts across Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Facebook has major problems, no doubt, but we should not let the pitchforks blind us to its positive effects in supporting small businesses in 85% of the world.