When news emerged about a leaked trove of documents about the inner workings of Facebook, known collectively as the Facebook Papers, Colombian journalist José Luis Peñarredonda, the audience editor at the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation, reached out to the Twitter hivemind and asked, “Is there something on the #FacebookPapers about Latin America?”
He was met with complete silence.
“I wasn’t really all that surprised,” Peñarredonda told Rest of World. “Ultimately, there was some reaction [to the Facebook Papers] from media specialized in the region or in this sort of subject matter, but, as far as I know, there was no reaction from any regional government authorities to get a sense of how to deal with the issues being revealed.”
The Facebook Papers, which first appeared in the Wall Street Journal and were then disseminated through a consortium originally made up of 18 U.S.-based outlets, offered damning evidence that the company had prioritized resources for Western users and acquiesced to authoritarian regimes. In Ethiopia, the platform wasn’t able to identify hate speech in the country’s two most-spoken languages, even as the country slid into ethnic conflict. In India, the company pandered to India’s Hindu nationalist government, letting harmful anti-Muslim content stay on the site unchecked. And in Vietnam, Facebook — with direct approval from Mark Zuckerberg himself — struck an agreement with the government to censor “anti-state” content in order to continue operations in the country.
Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind the leaks, then embarked on a testimonial tour to share her revelations in front of the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament, and the EU Parliament, as Western governments seized on the opportunity to hold the platform to account.
But despite the significance of the revelations for the Global South, the official reaction in countries named in the papers has been muted. In India, unlike with previous Facebook scandals, the government did not threaten to force Zuckerberg to appear. Instead, the Ministry of Electronics and IT sent a letter to the company, asking for information about moderation and steps to prevent harm to users. In Mexico, where the president hosts daily press conferences to go over the day’s news, President López Obrador opted instead to focus on an ongoing fight he had picked with the country’s flagship university. In Colombia, news of the leaks didn’t gain much traction around the country.
Even many in civil society have barely registered the leaks. Rest of World reached out to journalists and civic organizations across Latin America, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa to gauge the local response to the leaked documents. Many expressed a sense of numbness — the contents of the papers either didn’t feel new, or there was little faith that governments would challenge the platform’s status quo.
“Very little of what I have read about the Papers comes as a surprise,” said Rosemary Ajayi, a lead researcher at Digital Africa Research Lab. “It is, however, vindicating because a lot of people from developing nations have been working behind the scenes for years, investigating and flagging systemic failures, only to be gaslit by the platforms.”
While the leaks led the U.S. news cycle for weeks, a Rest of World straw poll suggests that coverage was more limited outside the West. In Brazil, which is listed as a “Tier 0” country, the highest priority area for election disinformation monitoring within Facebook, the story was overshadowed by news that a video posted by President Jair Bolsonaro containing false Covid-19 vaccine claims was simultaneously taken down by Facebook and YouTube. Mexican headlines focused on President López Obrador’s contentious fight for electricity reform. “There’s just so much going on that I just haven’t got around to it,” a prominent Mexican news analyst who asked to remain anonymous told Rest of World.
In India, the Facebook Papers barely made it to news channels, which largely remained obsessed with the drug possession charges levelled against Aryan Khan, the 23-year-old son of Hindi film star Shah Rukh Khan.
Even in the Philippines, which has been called “patient zero” for political misinformation on Facebook, members of the media and activist communities say that the leaks have made relatively little impression in contrast to the recently leaked Pandora Papers, which showed that wealthy Filipino tycoons were tucking away their cash in offshore havens.
The understated response is at least partly attributable to how the documents were originally disseminated: first to English-speaking, largely U.S.-based outlets.
The stories on Facebook’s actions overseas are “the most damning, in my opinion,” Dr. Evelyn Douek, an expert on content moderation and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School, told Rest of World. But “without anyone sifting through the files from that perspective and writing about it in local press, it’s understandable it gets less attention.”
The skewed access to the primary documents has led journalists to call for broadening or even abolishing the Facebook Papers consortium. “Even if some of the most crucial stories inside of these [non-Western] regions haven’t been overlooked, there is no way that we can report on that with the appropriate amount of context and nuance, given that we’re removed from the local situations in which they occur,” Alex Kantrowitz, the independent publisher behind Big Technology and an early member of the consortium told Rest of World.
“Someone with access should convince the whistleblower to release the papers to other media,” said Peñarredonda. “The bigger story is happening in India, in Brazil, and we are not reading that.”
But another reason that the Papers haven’t caused more of a stir, particularly in Latin America, may be that they don’t feel particularly revelatory. More than half of all Latin Americans are on Facebook, they’re more active on the platform than in the U.S. and Europe, and the papers revealed that the company had systematically underinvested in Spanish language moderation.
But people on the continent are used to surveillance and misinformation, Carlos Affonso Souza, Director of the Institute of Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro, told Rest of World. Over the past decade, they have received news about their governments, other governments, and local companies spying on them and each other, such that the public at large experiences a sort of surveillance and “social media critique fatigue,” he said.
The same sort of fatigue may be evident in South Asia. In India, in 2018, after Facebook was accused of involvement in a breach of user information to influence polls in the U.S. and the U.K., the then Indian Union Minister for Information Technology and Law Ravi Shankar Prasad threatened to summon Zuckerberg to answer to Parliament. “We welcome Facebook in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook’s system, it shall not be tolerated,” Prasad had said at the time. This time around, the government seems less concerned — sending a perfunctory letter to the company rather than a threat.
The Indian government’s hesitance to turn up the heat on Facebook in response to the leaked documents might be because the revelations are damaging to its own reputation, said Anushka Jain, policy researcher with the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). The papers reveal how Facebook dithered in taking action on anti-Muslim hate speech spread by two Hindu nationalist groups with ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“If you look at the U.S. or U.K., both the Congress and the U.K. parliament have taken this up, and they have listened to the testimony of Francis Haugen and Sophie Zhang. In India, we don’t have that,” Jain said. The Indian government even ignored Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang, who volunteered to testify in the lower house of the Indian parliament about the leaked documents. Instead, she hosted an AMA on Reddit.
The reaction was also tempered in the Philippines, which is home to some of the company’s highest engagement figures. The Philippines has the world’s most voracious internet consumers, its internet is rife with disinformation, and it is the home of journalist Maria Ressa, Nobel laureate and one of Facebook’s fiercest critics. Targeted disinformation campaigns on the platform, often authored by groups linked to the government, have been blamed for multiple deaths. But, as elsewhere, the Facebook Papers only confirmed what people already knew.
The information contained in the leaks was “frankly speaking … not surprising,” said Philip Jamilla, spokesperson for Philippine human rights group Karapatan. In August last year, Karapatan activist Zara Alvarez was murdered after being outed, falsely, as a communist supporter on Facebook.
With a presidential election ramping up in the Philippines, journalists and civil society expect a new flood of disinformation to hit Facebook. In the wake of the leaks, Facebook has pledged to improve its moderation efforts around the world, with Facebook’s office in the Philippines saying it would soon announce additional measures ahead of the country’s upcoming election. Jamilla said it was “welcome, but very much lagging.”
“In the U.S., it took an insurrection for Facebook to act,” Jamilla said. “I’m scared that it might go that way in the Philippines — that it will take some big, violent event.”
In Africa, civil society figures worried that governments could use the Facebook Papers as an opportunity to limit freedom online, rather than address misinformation.
“We’re stuck in a place where many African government officials and policy makers think harmful content is anything that spotlights government failures,” said Ajayi of Digital Africa Research Lab.
From Nigeria to Zimbabwe, a number of governments on the continent already have a tense relationship with social media in general, and Facebook in particular. On the one hand, many authoritarian-leaning leaders are concerned with Facebook and WhatsApp being used to organize opposition movements, and on the other, they are furious when their own messages are censored by Facebook.
“Africa’s political players will trust social media less and this could actually become an excuse for governments with an existing agenda of clampdowns to pursue that,” Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African digital rights social enterprise headquartered in Nigeria, told Rest of World. “I hope that interest picks up on the cultural impact, and that the media in Africa gains access to the full papers so they can run contextual analysis.”
In the meantime, the popular response will likely be limited, in no small part because of Facebook’s dominant position as the front page of the internet for many consumers.
“Campaigns like #DeleteFacebook are highly unlikely to pick up steam on the continent,” said Ajayi of Digital Africa Research Lab. “How do you delete what many consider to be the internet?”