CHICAGO – “The ugly American,” the title of a novel published in 1958 by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, entered the language to refer to rude American officials overseas who sought to improve the lives of natives without taking the worth learning their language, culture or needs.
A long line of ugly Americans, mostly politicians and government officials from both parties, believed that the application of simple formulas based on idealized versions of American institutions – democracy, markets, and human rights – could convert long-suffering places like Afghanistan and Iraq into Western countries. style consumer utopias. Inevitably, these Americans have done more harm than good.
Today, the ugliest of all Americans is not a public servant but a private citizen, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg has received an endless stream of criticism for Facebook’s dismal impact on American politics and culture.
Less attention has been paid to Facebook’s impact on foreign markets, which Zuckerberg recklessly penetrated without caring about the possible consequences of conducting massive social experiments in countries with weak institutions and histories of instability.
In 2015, Zuckerberg teamed up with musician Bono to defend a human right to internet access. The all too widely held belief among the American business elite that personal economic interest coincides with global good emerged as a cyberspace hymn the duo wrote for the New York Times:
In Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, farmers go online to get better prices, track inventory, and make mobile insurance payments in bad weather.
In Nigeria, citizens use BudgIT, a mobile application, to assess whether governments are keeping their spending promisesâ¦. In Guatemala, cell phones inform mothers about how to have healthy pregnancies.
In Kenya, women receive financial services through their mobile phones thanks to the successful M-Pesa microfinance program.
The reality turned out to be a little different. In Ethiopia, Facebook posts âencourage[d] mob violence, ethnic clashes, repression against the independent press or frank voices.
In Nigeria, Facebook users circulated grisly images of corpses, which were falsely presented to suggest that members of one ethnic group slaughtered members of a rival ethnic group and sparked a wave of killings horrible.
In a country with 24 million Facebook users, only four people were employed to check Facebook posts.
In Myanmar, Facebook accounts have been used to fuel ethnic violence against the Rohingya, tens of thousands of whom have been killed and many more forced into exile.
In India, Facebook users have sparked sectarian violence, including lynchings, against Muslims. Similar Facebook accounts used to stoke conflict and provoke massacres have been donated for Sri Lanka, Yemen, Iraq and Bangladesh.
And in many other countries, from Vietnam to Poland, governments or their supporters have used Facebook to target, harass and endanger dissidents, political opponents and vulnerable minorities.
In the Times piece, Zuckerberg was touting internet access, not Facebook itself. But now we know that Internet access and Facebook are closely linked, both in Zuckerberg’s plan and in reality.
In many countries, Facebook and its properties, Instagram and WhatsApp, are the dominant social media platforms, just like in the United States.
The internet and Facebook have both performed very well since this article was published. From 2015 to present, the percentage of the world’s population with internet access has increased from 41% to 66%, while Facebook’s monthly active user base has grown from 1.49 billion to 2.89 billion.
While the extent of Facebook’s contribution to the erosion of democracy and human rights during this time is unknown, the platform clearly played a role in some of the worst atrocities across the world. and in the degradation of political life almost everywhere.
But while Zuckerberg’s goal of “building a global community,” as he put it in 2017, sounds like American foreign policy (or at least American foreign policy before it was reduced to ashes in Iraq and Afghanistan), Facebook is of course a private entity.
It comes under US jurisdiction and not the other way around. The U.S. foreign policy establishment, along with Congress and the President, might question whether America owes the world to curb Facebook, to the extent possible, in countries that lack the capacity institution to master it themselves.
Some possible reforms are self-evident. The US Congress could pass a law requiring US social media companies to devote resources to monitoring and verifying content in foreign countries in proportion to the amount they spend on such activities in the United States. (Facebook is currently devoting significantly more resources to the United States.)
Another possible law would allow foreigners to sue in U.S. courts when U.S. social media companies disseminate disinformation and hate speech, as defined by local law.
While such a law would be challenged under the First Amendment, courts can give Congress more leeway to regulate speech abroad than at home, especially when it is shown courtesy to foreign countries.
And Congress could enact a law that imposes penalties on social media companies that have recklessly contributed to, or failed to stop, major atrocities facilitated by their platforms.
The title of Burdick and Lederer’s novel actually ironically referred to one of the few good Americans in history.
The negative meaning stayed because the shortcut was more useful: the bad type of American outnumbered the good. And now, thanks in part to Facebook’s foreign policy, the American ugly is everywhere.
Eric Posner, professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Chicago, is the author of How antitrust workers failed.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.