Facebook has been dominating the communication sphere since it moved from the US College community in 2007 and allowed the general public to take part in what was already taking off. Facebook has become ingrained in the lives of both rural and urban users in developed countries and lesser developed countries (LDCs) around the globe – and now, it aims to take over the untapped market of non-internet users in LDCs. At surface level, Facebook may seem like an innocent online social media platform. It connects grandmothers and grandchildren, long-long childhood friends, and has even been used for groups such as Autism or Mental Health support. The uses of Facebook are limitless – and thus includes negative drawbacks along with its positive applications. Facebook is a media conglomerate through purchasing popular communications apps, and has been exporting their model to LDCs through electronic colonialism, whilst ignoring international borders by taking part in transnationalization.
Most of the world’s global media is concentrated through conglomerates such as companies that are bought and owned by larger parent companies. Mergers are very common in the media industry, and concentration of media is then concentrated between a small number of competitors who bought out the numerous smaller competition; these mergers are ignorant of cultural/physical nation-state boundaries. As McPhail points out, “[c]onvergence involving the interlocking of digital technologies, computing, telephony, and global networks, is rapidly changing the commercial environments, with new stakeholders entering the arena on an almost daily basis. Think Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube and the pace of changed involved becomes obvious” (McPhail, 2014, 45). It is interesting to note that Google owns Youtube. Media concentration in conglomerates leads to an efficient arm that can reach across the world and impose its political or economic desires on Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs) through electronic colonialism.
Electronic colonialism theory (ECT) is the theory where modern technology (such as television, internet, wire services, phones) are importing cultural ideals to semi-peripheral and peripheral nations such as China, India, Latin America from core nations such as the USA, Canada, UK, etc. An extreme example of ECT is the use of MTV to change music culture in lesser-developed-countries by spreading Western media types to these nations, and effectively changing the youth culture in these areas. Advertising, as well as media cause changes in how people, “look, think, and act” (McPhail, 2014, 17). McPhail explains that ECT acts as masks that people wear as they interact with different perspectives than their own. Eventually these masks become invisible and, “eventually, even subtly, we begin to act out, dress, or speak differently as we consume input from the mass media rather than from family, community, or former friends” (McPhail, 2014, 17).
Transnationalization refers to the process where nation-states and sovereignty are becoming less important in international factors due to Capitalism, trade economy, and the spread of cultural homogenization such as the spread of ideas/advertising and behaviors through Electronic Colonialism Theory. Large corporations such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and others do not operate in one Nation-state, and are becoming global power-players with influence and income that rivals states themselves. Transnationalisation ignores previous systems of sovereignty, and is creating a new system as, “[t]he transnational media order belongs to this emerging context, challenging boundaries, questioning the principle of territoriality and opening up ‘from within’ the national media” (Chelaby, 2005, 32). Global Communication and Globalization has led to a world where nearly every corner – whether in rural Australia, the rainforests of Brazil, The United States, or Germany, are connected in one vast system of media. The spread of wire technology, radios, and eventually satellites and the Internet has led to a media system where no part of the earth is impenetrable by media systems. The barriers that do exist are technological advancements and financial capacities of LDCs, but these barriers are also lessening as the technologies become more available, and corporations such as Facebook step in to fill the gaps. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has tried to frame his Internet.org project as humanitarian, but there is criticism that this is merely a means of electronic colonialism. Internet.Org aims to spread internet services throughout LDCs, at little or no cost to the LDC governments or citizens.
There is no secret that Facebook has been snapping up popular communication systems across the world effectively becoming a conglomerate. Facebook’s ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp might seem like a benign and easy business decision to the casual observer, but at a closer glance, something more insidious seems to be playing out. WhatsApp is a commonly used “free texting” service which is used frequently in developing nations.
WhatsApp is extremely popular in Latin America and dominates the global messaging game. Of mobile phone internet users in Brazil, 93 percent actively use the app and correspondingly, 84 percent in Argentina. It is similarly popular across the globe (excluding the US and China) with 81 percent of internet users in Italy and 77 percent throughout the Middle East using the app for example (Panoramas, 2017)
WhatsApp is more than just a social media platform; it is a method of communication that has helped with ease of access to users in LDCs. On the surface, this is a positive development in communication, especially in countries where access to services can still be spotty and costly compared to the unlimited plans seen in developed nations. However, the purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook is what is more concerning. Instead of these developing nations controlling their media system and improving their text-message, phone, and communications systems, the “free-market” has stepped in and literally made the usage free, in-exchange, of course for control, data, and the ability to strengthen capitalist behaviours and advertising potential in growing markets. Facebook buying important global media companies such as WhatsApp and the popular social media site Instagram are prime examples of their position as a global media conglomerate.
If social media is just a means of communication that requires its users’ interaction to form a community, then how could it be capable of electronic colonialism? Despite international use and appeal, Facebook was primarily designed by the American Mark Zuckerberg. Despite globalization attempts and haphazard translations, Facebook remains in its most popular form, an English-language website promoting rules, advertisements, and infrastructure that is Western first, no matter the part of the globe that its use has been exported to.
Two Facebook initiatives that are easily recognizable as electronic colonialism are the Internet.Org project and Free Basics. Free Basics, according to its page on Connectivity.Fb.com, “[h]elp people discover the relevance and benefits of connectivity with free access to basic online services” (Facebook Connectivity, 2019). India banned Free Basics for its violation of net-neutrality, and accused Facebook of electronic colonialism directly (LaFrance, 2016). Facebook remained adamant that they were humanitarians. Facebook’s project Internet.Org is another systematic way in which Facebook is trying to bring internet to LCDs. According to Internet.Org, their approach is “[t]o share the internet’s knowledge and inspiration with the world, Internet.org is overcoming issues of accessibility, affordability and awareness—in hopes that one day, everyone will be connected” (Internet.Org, 2019). Facebook has imported its ideals, advertisements, and platforms to LDCs in a way that is nothing short of meticulous, and, “Free Basics makes Facebook a gatekeeper with too much leverage—so much that it conflicts with the foundational principles of the open web” (LaFrance, 2016). More internet users, particularly users with a favourable view of Facebook, who is “generously” giving them “free” access, means more users for advertising, and a world where Facebook has become synonymous with “The Internet”.
Through the Internet.org program, Facebook has introduced a systematic approach to transnationalization, and,“[i]n a world of deterritorialized or virtual space, the argument goes, the limits of national governments are constantly being tested and increasingly found to be lacking” (Calbrese, 1999, 314). Not only is Facebook importing its model to LDCs, it is actively engaging “would-be” users who are not presently part of the Internet landscape – it is hard to avoid a comparison to missionaries in Africa who imported Christianity to the ‘underprivileged’. Like religion, internet is being used as a dogma to entice citizens of LDCs to become one with the Capitalist internet – shoehorned by none other than a major corporation, Facebook.
Governments, like India, may ban Free Basics for now – but the “humanitarian” argument proposed by Facebook could turn citizens of LDCs against their government and force them to accept the program. If Facebook is seen as the liberator from poverty, lack of services, and lack of information – it is a palatable option for citizens who might see little more than the free service that they are being offered. As the internet penetrates more lives in LDCs, the poorer members of society will likely support Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, despite its obvious drawbacks such as corporate ownership of communication-based services, and the free-reign Facebook then has of advertising space, with little regard if any to the temperament of the society they are now occupying. Laws can only go so far if the people turn against the government and back Facebook, effectively disenfranchising all attempts to prevent electronic colonialism.
Not all applications of Facebook are negative. The use of blogging platforms and Westernized advocacy have led to activists around the world using social media as a means of fighting for democratic control or open access to media in their developing countries. For example, “Asmaa Mahfouz … was called the “Leader of the Revolution” in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, as she used the Internet to call Egyptians to march to Tahrir Square” (Kimball, 2019). The internet, particularly free-to-access social media sites such as Facebook, certainly has disseminated communication across the globe. For better or worse, ideas are now spreading across borders at a rapidly expanding pace. The problem comes when cultures lose control of their own narratives because they have been replaced by the goals and needs of Facebook. Through advertisements, and an algorithm which displays content by arbitrary rules set by Facebook, ensures that Western dominance and abuse is easily achieved through Facebook’s policies and standard operating procedures. By the time governments fight back against the hegemony of Facebook, it might be too late, as their own infrastructure cannot catch up – and the minds of the people have already been forever changed by electronic colonialism.
Facebook is more than just a social media platform. Clearly, it takes its position as a communication service farther than anybody ever imagined in its inception. While Facebook is certainly connecting more people, it is also connecting more users to the platform and cyberspace that it has crafted for advertisers and controlling information across the globe. Through Facebook’s attempts to spread ‘free internet’ across the globe, it is exporting Facebook as the Internet of LDCs. An impoverished country has little incentive to say no to Facebook’s “generous” offer, and is therefore a prime market for expansion and electronic colonialism. The purchase of WhatsApp shows just how seriously Facebook takes their role as a communication system for the global south. More users for Facebook means more control, and helps the company become too big to fail. Governments, in time, will likely have little means to control Facebook’s content, advertising policies, or cultural dismantling. The open space of Facebook removes transnational borders, but there is still a domination of Western users who control the conversation. Facebook is a very powerful conglomerate that is effectively using electronic colonialism and contributing to the transnationalisation of global communication.
Calabrese, A.. “Communication and the end of sovereignty?” Info, 1(4), 313–326. 1999.
Chelaby, J. K. “From internationalization to transnationalization”. Global Media and Communication, 1(1), 28–33. 2005.
Kimball, Gayle (2019). “Media Empowers Brave Girls to be Global Activists”. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 20(7), 35-56. Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol20/iss7/3
LaFrance, Adrienne. “Facebook and the New Colonialism.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Feb. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/facebook-and-the-new-colonialism/462393/.
McPhail, Thomas. L., Global Communication: Theories, Stakeholders, and Trends. Wiley Blackwell: Hoboken. 2014. Print.
“Our Approach”. Internet.Org, Facebook, 6 Mar. 2019, info.internet.org/en/approach/.
“Free Basics.” Facebook Connectivity, 17 Dec. 2019, connectivity.fb.com/free-basics/.
“WhatsApp’s Popularity Abroad vs. In the US.” Panoramas, 6 June 2017, www.panoramas.pitt.edu/news-and-politics/whatsapp’s-popularity-abroad-vs-us.