Facebook is pushing hard into developing Asian markets as the pace of its growth in the west slows, but a growing array of political stand-offs is threatening its relentless global expansion.
Five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg embarked on a charm offensive in China, learning mandarin and dining with president Xi Jinping as he sought to expand his social media empire.
But having ultimately refused to kowtow to Beijing’s demands to censor its users, among other requests, the company has been locked out of the country ever since, the chief executive has said publicly.
Now, Facebook is ramping up its expansion into other Asia-Pacific markets in an attempt to capitalise on millions of untapped mobile users, investing in broadband infrastructure and trialling payments initiatives in the region.
The number of users in the region has grown more than 50 per cent over the past three years to 1.2bn, compared with an increase of about 7 per cent in the US and Canada to 255m.
However, Asia-Pacific markets present Facebook with regulatory dilemmas that are almost impossible to square with its internal ethics and guidelines, particularly Mr Zuckerberg’s open commitment to free speech.
Already, Facebook has quietly bent to the will of some of the most autocratic regimes in the region — for instance censoring content from dissidents in Vietnam and Thailand at the behest of the countries’ governments.
“Facebook is and has been playing with fire in these very fragile democracies,” said Coby Goldberg, researcher with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
From sharing to transactions
The world’s largest social media platform has long had ambitions in fast-growing Asian markets, establishing itself as a primary portal for millions seeking news and communication.
Regulatory filings show India, Indonesia and the Philippines represented the top three global sources of Facebook user growth year-on-year in September 2020. By contrast, the US and Canada lost a million monthly users in its latest quarter.
Still, average revenue per user in the Asia-Pacific market in its latest quarter was only about a tenth of that in the US and Canada, at $3.67 versus $39.63.
To grow this further, Facebook has attempted to boost internet access in the region, and thereby lock in users to its services. Recently, this has included helping to deliver fibre-optic networks in countries such as Indonesia, and investing in submarine communications cables linking much of south-east Asia.
The company is also using parts of the region, such as India and Indonesia, as a testing ground for introducing new payments services to users of its WhatsApp messaging app, seeking out additional revenue where the digital advertising market is still relatively immature.
“The focus was social and sharing — now they want to move from sharing to transactions,” said Satish Meena, senior analyst at Forrester.
“The upside is massive and they want to take a lead,” he added.
But critics warn that the platform is being increasingly manipulated in Asia by some governments, and prioritising profits over free speech.
In Thailand, which has a population of close to 70m people and some 61m monthly active Facebook users, authorities last year threatened to prosecute the social media company’s employees if it would not censor critics of the Thai monarchy, according to Simon Milner, the company’s senior executive responsible for public policy in Asia-Pacific.
“That gave us pause and did lead us to take action against some pieces of political speech where we would really prefer not to,” Mr Milner said in an interview with the Financial Times.
While Facebook went on to push back against the order, causing Thai authorities to drop the threat of criminal prosecution, Mr Milner said the situation in Thailand was still “precarious”, with the company “constantly, constantly calibrating” to protect both free speech and its employees.
In Vietnam, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, Facebook’s situation is even more tenuous. Hanoi is increasingly cracking down on the platform, which is the third most-visited website in the country, and other social media groups by inundating them with takedown requests.
In April, authorities in the communist-ruled country slowed Facebook’s local traffic sharply in an effort to pressure it to take down content critical of the government. The tactic succeeded: according to Facebook’s own data, Vietnamese content takedowns subsequently soared sharply.
Amnesty International last month accused Facebook and YouTube of complicity with “industrial-scale repression” of free speech by allowing their platforms to become “hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls”.
Mr Milner acknowledged the increased number of takedowns, which he said were made “in order to protect the ability of Vietnamese people to be able to use our services, which are incredibly important in that country”.
He added: “It wasn’t an easy decision, it was kind of hard fought, but we are still protecting enormous amounts of political speech in Vietnam.”
Elsewhere, some caution that strongmen leaders are silencing dissidents under the guise of cracking down on fake news. In Singapore, where its Asia operations are headquartered, Facebook has agreed to append “correction notices” to news stories deemed false by the government, which human rights groups argue could easily be abused.
Meanwhile, Facebook is also facing accusations that it has sometimes overlooked hate speech in order to cosy up to governments of developing nations. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company failed to ban a politician from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party despite his breaking the platform’s rules.
“Absent a good system of content moderation, it becomes much easier for countries to put in really bad authoritarian systems of content moderation,” said Mr Goldberg, arguing that the platform had not done enough to tackle hate speech and fake news in places such as Myanmar and Indonesia.
‘Where does Facebook draw the line?’
Facebook is not alone in struggling with politics overseas. Google is banned in China and has faced similar criticisms for curbing free expression in Vietnam, while Chinese short-video app TikTok has been banned in India amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment in the country.
Still, experts complain that public attention — and therefore Facebook’s own action — has tended to focus on addressing content moderation on home turf.
“Each of our markets alone will not get the same attention that the United States got, because we don’t have enough economic clout,” said Maria Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists.
Against this backdrop, critics are calling for more clarity from Facebook around the considerations it makes before caving to government takedown requests.
“Where does Facebook draw the line? We know that [it] does push back but it clearly does not push back in enough cases,” said Sarvjeet Singh, director of the Centre for Communication Governance at the National Law University Delhi.
Mr Milner said the company has a formal system for governments to request take downs, considering human rights values and whether the political speech is “peaceful or not” — but added that it “can’t ride roughshod over national laws” without risking being blocked.
As Facebook nears saturation in developed markets, however, any wrong move in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region runs the risk of spooking investors. “There are going to be a whole lot of flashpoints,” said Youssef Squali, analyst at Truist Securities. “[But] the prize is immense; Facebook is going to try to thread that needle really carefully.”