Facebook is creating a new digital divide — one that separates anglophones from users who do not speak English

ÉBBy Étienne BrownContributorFri., Nov. 19, 2021timer2 min. read

This autumn will go down as the worst season that Facebook has had since its inception. Last month, former employee Frances Haugen blew the whistle on the social media giant’s unethical behaviour. The public learned that Facebook systematically prioritizes profit over safety by maintaining a lucrative recommendation system which amplifies hate on its platform.

I’m a French-Canadian philosophy professor who teaches the ethics of technology to a highly diverse group of aspiring computer scientists in Silicon Valley. While Facebook’s impact on democratic politics in the U.S. is bad, its most devastating effects are felt in countries where people communicate in languages other than English. Facebook wants to bridge the digital divide, but it’s making it worse.

The expression “digital divide” typically refers to the material gap between the technological “haves” and “have-nots.” Yet, Facebook and other social media giants are currently creating a second digital divide, one that separates privileged anglophones from users who do not speak English.

When they log in Facebook, the posts to which anglophones are exposed have been filtered through Facebook’s sophisticated content moderation system, which detects misinformation and harmful content. Facebook’s algorithms are much worse at detecting bad content written in other languages, which places most of the world population at a disadvantage. This is because Facebook continues investing in English users while neglecting others. According to the New York Times, “87 per cent of the company’s global budget for time spent on classifying misinformation is earmarked for the United States, while only 13 per cent is set aside for the rest of the world — even though North American users make up only 10 per cent of the social network’s daily active users.”

Facebook’s leadership is likely to deny that its operations foster inequality between users. The company frequently boasts it has brought free internet service to thousands of users in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines. There is a significant downside to this benevolence. When users from developing countries access Facebook, they mistakenly believe they are using the same platform as English-speaking users. In reality, they are using a platform which fails to detect harmful content, including COVID misinformation and incitements to violence. Not all Facebooks are created equal. Some are in fact much safer than others.

We can no longer afford to ignore this digital divide. On a global scale, Facebook’s comparative neglect of non-English users has enabled violent speech to spread on its platform. Mark Zuckerberg has recognized that fake news stories diffused by state-sponsored accounts have played a crucial role in the genocidal killings and displacement of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. When it keeps prioritizing the interests of English speakers over that of all others, however, it unfairly penalizes users who — like many of my students and myself — were raised in a different language.

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