In 2013, Facebook hit upon an idea to grow its user base: It would subsidize internet access to Facebook on mobile devices in countries where cellular data was pricey, physical internet infrastructure was poor, and the smartphone revolution meant many leapfrogged from having no internet access at all to using their smartphone as their only source to the web. It found the perfect country to test this out on, in the 100 million citizens of the Philippines, calling it “Free Facebook.”
If the idea sounds familiar, it’s because Facebook attempted to do a version of this in many more countries with its “Internet.org” plan, hoping to get basic internet access to billions of people living without it — access that would come thanks to subsidies from Facebook. Internet.org was largely a failure, thanks to pushback by local governments, telecom companies, and human-rights organizations. Meanwhile, Free Facebook remains wildly successful in the Philippines. As outlined by BuzzFeed News reporter Davey Alba, the company serves as the de facto ISP for many Filipinos:
Thanks to a social media–hungry populace and heavy subsidies that keep Facebook free to use on mobile phones, Facebook has completely saturated the country. And because using other data, like accessing a news website via a mobile web browser, is precious and expensive, for most Filipinos the only way online is through Facebook.
Roughly 69 million Filipinos have access to the internet today, of those nearly 100 percent have a Facebook account. In the U.S. and Canada, for comparison, 87 percent of people with internet access use Facebook. (Zuckerberg, when told by the CEO of Filipino website Rappler in April of 2017 that 97 of the population with internet access was on Facebook, reportedly asked, “What about the other 3 percent?”)
Two years after the launch of Free Facebook, Rodrigo Duterte mounted a presidential bid, casting himself as the tough-on-crime, anti-elite Everyman ready to bring back jobs and order. Posts about Duterte, full of memes, propaganda, and outright libel (one opponent, now in prison on a dubious drug charge, saw a fake sex tape circulate on Facebook with her in it) did extremely well on Facebook, as nearly any inflammatory content does. When Duterte said he would dump the bodies of executed drug dealers “into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there,” the post immediately went “viral, viral, viral,” bragged one of his two social-media directors.
He won handily, and his rule has been brutal. At least 12,000 people have been killed during Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have been jailed, many of them opponents of Duterte himself. Meanwhile, his social-media team has actively worked to bring in social-media influencers to prop up Duterte’s regime (think Filipino versions of social-media creatures like Mike Cernovich, Laura Loomer, or Jack Posobiec) working closely with the Duterte administration — sometimes directly on the government payroll — to spread fake stories such as a deposed Supreme Court justice was caught attempting to flee the country. Meanwhile, news sources seen as unfriendly to the Duterte campaign have increasingly come under fire, including banning all reporters from an outlet from the presidential palace.
Look: Absent Facebook, Duterte almost assuredly would have assumed power and began his dictatorial rule over the Philippines. But Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, attenuated to surface anything that attracts attention, amplifies dictators and demagogues like Duterte. In one egregious example, a fake sex tape spread quickly through Facebook of one of Duterte’s opponents having sex with her chauffeur. “De Lima is not only screwing her driver, she is also screwing the nation,” quipped Duterte.
Facebook says it’s working to police the content in the Philippines better. “We know we were too idealistic about the nature of these connections and didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse or thinking through all the ways people could use the tools on the platform to do harm,” said a Facebook spokesperson to BuzzFeed News. “In the Philippines, this includes the roll-out of third-party fact-checking, better detection of bad content, improved enforcement of our policies, and deeper support for the country’s digital literacy efforts.” (Ironically, many of Facebook’s content moderators who would end up doing this work live in the Philippines.)
There’s a peculiar callousness in Facebook using entire countries as testing environments. Last year, the company wanted to know what happen if it split the News Feed into two separate streams: one only populated by posts created by friends, and one only for posts created by media publishers. Instead of testing this on a small percentage of American users, it simply flipped the switch in six countries: Bolivia, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia. Media organizations suddenly saw their websites’ traffic plummet, fake news stories flourished, and Facebook shut down the experiment within weeks , apologizing in a post that the company “received feedback that we made it harder for people in the test countries to access important information.” About 66 million people — roughly the population of Texas, Florida, and New York combined — live in those six countries. Each country has its own particular news ecosystems, cultural norms, and political challenges. For Facebook, the countries represented a handy way to try out some A/B testing. To be very cynical about it, it also probably affected Facebook’s decision that those six countries bring in significantly less advertising dollars than Texas, Florida, and New York.
In the Philippines, its Free Facebook program has become so successful that it’s hard to imagine how Facebook and the Philippines could ever untwine themselves from each other. (Indeed, the company partnered with Duterte’s government to build an undersea cable connecting the Philippines to the U.S. and Asian countries.) And even after Duterte leaves office, whenever that may be, the Philippines will still be a country where one website’s algorithm determines what 97 percent of internet users look at.
There are, of course, no parallels to be drawn between the Philippines and the United States.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited that 97 percent of Filipinos with Internet access have a Facebook account. According to the data from WeAreSocial, that number is actually 100 percent; 97 percent of Filipinos with internet access were on Facebook in April 2017. The post has been updated to reflect that.