Are Facebook’s Algorithms Up To The Task In Developing Asia?

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

The recent decision by the Sri Lankan authorities to block Facebook and other social media in the light of last week’s terrorist attacks has far wider implications both for Facebook, social media and AI as a whole than just a temporary suspension in a relatively small market. The suspension of Facebook by the Sri Lankan Government, in addition to Apps such as the Facebook owned WhatsApp, YouTube, and Instagram in addition to Viber, IMO and Snapchat are in response to the recognition that each of these can be used to spread hate speech, rumors, and fake news to their users.

In Sri Lanka, this has the effect of nullifying any untoward responses to what increasingly looks to be a religious-inspired attack on Christian churches. As ISIS and a local small Islamic extremist group have claimed responsibility meaning that repercussions aimed at the local Islamic community in retaliation would be extremely likely, and could lead to even more deaths and potentially deadly riots. These could spread and completely destabilize the country. There are already chilling examples in Sri Lanka, which endured a 30 year civil war based along racial lines until just a decade ago. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s bombing, messages already began spreading on Facebook containing the names and addresses of various individuals said to be responsible – completely unverified and before the Government intelligence services had commented on suspects. The Sri Lankan Government was completely right to immediately block Facebook access. The chilling question is this; is Facebook capable of fanning the flames of civil unrest and provoking riots? Sri Lanka has provided the answer: Yes.

Facebook however doesn’t recognize these problems. It is essentially an American controlled, English language biased algorithm aimed mainly, but not exclusively, at fulfilling the advertising needs of an American driven culture and commerce. It is not, despite its global reach, in any way operating a globally sympathetic or integrated system.

Facebook doesn’t even operate a user friendly system when it comes to fake accounts, a problem it has had for many years. A fake Chris Devonshire-Ellis account was set up back in 2010, the owner of that using it to post material online that was hostile to China’s leadership and others, in the hope of getting me into trouble with the Chinese authorities. It was also used to post offensive comments on blogs. At the time I was based in China and then as now, own a significant consulting practice. Even today there are people in China who are distinctly unfriendly towards me for reasons apparently to do with ‘personal online abuse’ on my part, leading me to wonder what else was sent in my name. It took seven years of constantly telling Facebook it was fake before they eventually listened and shut it down. I am sure other readers can relate similar experiences. ‘Customer Service’ just isn’t Facebook’s thing when the account user isn’t actually a customer but a commodity. Facebooks customers are its advertisers and those who pay it for marketing data.

On a macro basis, the Sri Lanka problem is that although Facebook has entered the local market and currently has about 5.5 million users in the country (about 90% of all internet users, and 30% of the population) its algorithms cannot adequately deal with the local language. Hence hate messages and fake information sent out via Facebook in either Singalese, Tamil, Hindi or any one of the other regional dialects cannot be picked up, allowing them to do their disruptive and potentially deadly work. This is why the Sri Lankan blocking of Facebook was so swift. Yet back in Menlo Park, Facebook’s California HQ it remains unlikely any of Facebook’s techies or senior management understand or even appreciate their platform is capable of being used to quite easily sparking a chain of events that could lead to civil war. They have their heads in the sand.

The worrying fact about Facebook is that this is far from being the only instance of Facebook being linked with civil unrest. The company knows full well its algorithms cannot cope with Asian or other global regions whose primary written language is not either English or a European derived mother tongue. In fact, over the past few years Facebook has had several instances where its network has been blocked, either permanently or temporarily. Best known of all these is China, where Facebook has been inaccessible since 2009.

China introduced its ban after learning Islamic separatists were using it to communicate in Xinjiang, and that the monitoring of its usage wasn’t under its control. In essence, Facebook was blocked in China due to security concerns. China has subsequently devised and launched its own equivalent, RenRen, which serves the same connectivity purpose yet can be monitored by the Chinese State.

Being that Mark Zuckerberg has subsequently met China’s President Xi Jinping and has an ethnically Chinese wife, his continuing failure in China must also call into question his and Facebook’s ability to understand Asian markets successfully. You don’t ask the President of China trivial issues such as suggestions for naming your next child when trying to leverage a foothold in market access, as Zuckerberg did in Beijing in 2017. Xi declined, and almost certainly thought it impertinent.

Iran meanwhile has also permanently blocked Facebook since 2009, primarily for similar reasons – to keep a lid on it being used for spreading unmonitorable political activities and undermining the Government. North Korea has also blocked Facebook, yet that is a quid pro-pro as very few North Koreans have internet access anyway. It is a moot point that China, Iran and North Korea are one-party states, yet opposition to Facebook has also come from democratic nations. In Asia, these include the following countries who have blocked or restricted access on a temporary basis:

Blocked: November – December 2015
Reason: Civil unrest
Blocked: 2016-2017, and ongoing periodic blocks for WhatsApp on a regional basis
Reason: Civil unrest
Blocked: February 2011
Reason: Civil unrest
Blocked: November 2007
Reason: Fake profiles
Blocked: May 2010 and November 2017
Reason: Civil unrest
Blocked: 2014
Reason: Political
Sri Lanka
Blocked: March 2018
Reason: Civil unrest
Blocked: November 2012
Reason: Slanderous content
Block: (threatened) 2017
Reason: Illegal content (subsequently removed)
Blocked: May 2016
Reason: Civil unrest

Readers may also note that Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Sudan, Syria have also imposed temporary blocks on Facebook access due to civilian unrest issues, while Germany imposed censorship in 2011 over immigration issues and the UK did the same that year over coverage of Prince William’s wedding to Catherine Middleton.

In most of these cases, the reason was the same: Facebook has been used as a weapon with which hate speech can easily be spread and civil unrest consequently stirred up. The first time Facebook was blocked for this reason was ten years ago, and they have not yet solved the issue. This would imply Facebook are too focused on the commercial revenue development of the business, and not, as should be the case for a company claiming to be technology driven in its area, have a strong R&D division based in the science of human social behavior and the consequences for that society when disparate individuals within it are freely able to disseminate information to that same group. There is a name for professionals studying human behavior in society, they are called social and cultural anthropologists. I very much doubt whether Facebook employs such professionals familiar with the environment in Sri Lanka.

In addition to Facebooks social society woes, it has other product development problems too. Numerous appalling cases of suicide and in the recent instance of New Zealand, mass murder have been streamed live to a global audience. In the case of New Zealand, Facebook’s culpability is even more pronounced as the algorithm there is English driven and it has promoted its visual recognition capabilities for material uploaded both on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

The overriding evidence points to some stark realizations: Facebook has under-invested in improving its algorithms in non-mainstream languages; and in the social and cultural anthropology required to understand the impact of its services upon different societies. The latter alone should be of concern for its investors, as it implies Facebook doesn’t understand in scientific terms what it is doing and therefore cannot also maximize the investment potential of its users. If it did, it would have been able to develop protocols to prevent the spread of deliberate falsification and rumors.

Facebook has also ignored, or attempted to divert responsibility away from itself by pleading it is a technology business and not a media company, despite the fact its algorithms clearly have standards for content quality and it generates income from publishing advertising. Such double standards are both legally and morally debatable; Facebooks lawyers can and do argue this to avoid lawsuits and thus far, being categorized in a more unfavorable market segment than it currently enjoys. Scrutiny in the media business sector is typically far greater in national legislation than technology, which is often classed and even incentivized in investment terms as a desirable business sector. My firm is well aware of this as we process applications for foreign investment throughout Asia; of the thousands of businesses we assist every year with their investments, some of those are media and some technology based. We know from first hand experience how hard it is to obtain a license to operate as a media company as opposed to a technology company. If Facebook were reclassified as a media business it would not be in the position it is today.

The legal arguments over what sort of business Facebook actually is notwithstanding, this still however leaves the charges of global underinvestment. This has specific implications for Asia, currently the largest single emerging market where some 4.5 billion people live and where some 2,300 different languages are spoken. Clearly, Facebook is not up to the financial investment required to develop those linguistic algorithms to prevent misuse, maximize the financial return on social network investment, nor possesses the managerial and administrative responsibility to do so.

In terms of living under a ban, I have been based part of the year in Sri Lanka since 2012 and have been there these past few weeks. Although Chinese and Iranian hands will be familiar, what is life without Facebook, its Messenger service, YouTube or Instagram like? In fact, these relatively new mediums are not so ingrained as people generally imagine. The only part I have missed during the current blocking of Facebook in Sri Lanka has been the WhatsApp messaging; mainly to let people know I was ok. Instead, I just called them on my mobile instead. It brings home that ultimately, Facebook and the other Apps it provides are non-essential.

The Sri Lankan situation has meanwhile shown Facebook to reveal its true colors: an American ‘global’ business that has no actual depth, understanding, linguistic capability or back up in terms of real internationalization. If Facebook were a law firm, would you hire them in Asia given their background in handling regional issues? Are they locally regionally competent enough to entrust them with an entire nation’s social media platform in the local language(s)?
Answers to these questions will indicate the development paths for Facebook going forward lie in different directions. These seem clear, either Facebook offers the countries it operates in, viable local language algorithms to work with and shares user intelligence with the national Government, or national Governments themselves must develop their own algorithms to do so and create their own social media platforms for their citizens to use. As it is unlikely Facebook will concede to share algorithm intelligence with foreign governments, the only way ahead for it to survive in a global environment is for it to develop local language algorithms then lease them internationally for use by foreign Governments to use as they wish while cutting a deal on advertising revenues. Failing that, the company probably needs to be broken up and properly allowed to develop its business regionally, taking on board regional shareholders – which could be nation states – and responsible people familiar with the regional variants that being based from California simply cannot provide.

Facebook in its current structure and model is not up to the task as a truly globally integrated and sympathetic business. The problems that Sri Lanka has experienced with Facebook and civil unrest is just the latest in an on-going trend that Facebook has failed to correct. As I have noted in Facebooks historical involvement in civil unrest, such problems will occur again until either Facebook, which seems unlikely – or relevant, national legislation provide a solution.

There is an additional, and even larger concern – the truth behind Facebooks reliance on algorithms and AI also sound a profound warning for the AI industry itself. The data is only as good as you put in. While Facebook may have started life with worthy intentions, its usage has become corrupted, with the company seemingly unable to act. Facebook is purely a social media and advertising platform. Transfer that AI algorithm scenario to military, robotics or bio-science applications and the threats become even greater.

About Us

Silk Road Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the practice Chairman. The firm has 26 years of China operations with offices throughout China, Asia and Europe. Please refer to our Belt & Road desk or visit our website at for further information.



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