Feb 26, 2021 - Technology

The sovereign state of Facebook vs. the world

Illustration of a blue flag with the Facebook "f" logo on it

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook's 3 billion monthly active users, its mountain of money and its control over the flow of information all put the company on an equal footing with governments around the world — and, increasingly, it's getting into fights with them.

Why it matters: Facebook's power alarms governments fearful that the tech giant could tilt the political scales inside their borders, and regulators around the world are seeking ways to rein the company in.

Driving the news: Facebook on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of banning the Myanmar military, which has recently seized power in a coup, from using its service.

  • The move follows years of criticism that the tech giant hasn't done enough to stop the military from using its platform to promote genocide against the nation's Rohingya Muslim minority population.
  • The ban puts Facebook "squarely on the side of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement," per the New York Times.

In the past, the tech giant has generally tried to avoid intervening in politics in ways that could make it look like it was taking sides, instead embracing a broad advocacy of free expression.

As a for-profit company with operations around the globe, it's also committed to obeying the law under many different forms of government and legal systems. That has at times meant bowing to political pressure from global leaders.

  • In Turkey, a new report finds that Facebook's top execs adhered to a request from the government to block the page of a mostly Kurdish militia.

Yes, but: Facebook also challenges governments when it's unhappy with their actions.

  • In the U.S, the company's ban of President Donald Trump last month sparked global outcry from leaders worried that Facebook's move threatened free speech — and also could threaten their own power.
  • Facebook's conflicts with governments extend into the business sphere as well, as with its recent battle with Australia over that country's effort to extract payments from the company for its use of material provided by news publishers.
  • Hillary Clinton likened dealing with Facebook to "negotiating with a foreign power" last year in The Atlantic.

Our thought bubble: Facebook talks about its users as a "community" and assumes good intent among most of them around the world. But many experts now argue that the Facebook platform is instead a battlefield on which conflicting forces vie for the power to organize movements, target minority populations and enforce partisan standards of truth.

  • Recent history is full of examples of leaders weaponizing Facebook's technology to maintain control, particularly in countries where democracy is under attack, like the Philippines.

Facebook has plenty of power to change that dynamic, as its move in Myanmar suggests.

  • But it faces limits if a government decides to simply pull the plug on the social network — or if Facebook itself decides that it can't operate under a nation's rules, as it did in China.

Be smart: Facebook would rather not be a player on the geopolitical stage — it sees conflicts with governments as distractions from growing its business and profits.

  • You can see this reluctance in Facebook's eagerness to dial back political content and its willingness to hand off tough political calls on content moderation to third parties, chiefly its new "Supreme Court"-like Oversight Board, which will soon rule on Facebook's Trump ban.

The bottom line: Facebook's action in Myanmar shows the company is willing, sometimes, to take a strong stand against a government that's harming its own people. We don't yet know how its intervention will change the story.

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