As Facebook pushes into developing countries, it tends to be initially received as a force for good.
In Sri Lanka, it keeps families in touch even as many work abroad. It provides for unprecedented open expression and access to information. Government officials say it was essential for the democratic transition that swept them into office in 2015.
But where institutions are weak or undeveloped, Facebook’s newsfeed can inadvertently amplify dangerous tendencies. Designed to maximize user time on site, it promotes whatever wins the most attention. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, produce the highest engagement, and so proliferate.
In the Western countries for which Facebook was designed, this leads to online arguments, angry identity politics and polarization. But in developing countries, Facebook is often perceived as synonymous with the internet and reputable sources are scarce, allowing emotionally charged rumors to run rampant. Shared among trusted friends and family members, they can become conventional wisdom.
And where people do not feel they can rely on the police or courts to keep them safe, research shows, panic over a perceived threat can lead some to take matters into their own hands — to lynch.
“The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind.” On how the social media giant fanned the flames of a pogrom that lay waste to Muslim homes and businesses in Sri Lanka. Superb reporting by @amandataub and @Max_Fisher https://t.co/aHEXtyFePJ
— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) April 22, 2018