Previously, on “The Internet”… three billion people entered the global network for the first time, thanks in part to powerful new phones that made getting online easier than ever. Access to this vast store of human knowledge leveled all playing fields, making the triumph of truth and the onward march of democracy inevitable.
Or so many of us hoped in 2011, the year of the social media-enabled Arab Spring. The internet had 2 billion users and optimism was in the air. Now, in 2021, we’re on the cusp of 5 billion. We know what happened in-between: The rise and radicalization of trolls. Massive harassment campaigns, particularly against women. Big Tech algorithms that rewarded extreme content, which in turn helped to elect authoritarian populists. Disinformation, weaponized. A genocide fomented on Facebook. And the world’s most dangerous Twitter user, whose self-serving lies brought the U.S. to the brink of a coup.
We have entered the era of unintended consequences on the internet, and they’re just getting started.
None of this is the fault of those 3 billion new users, of course. Nor is it entirely the fault of the tech companies who service cyberspace. It’s just that the echo chamber of the internet is so large now that any bugs in the system are instantly exploited and amplified by bad actors. Alternate-reality armies can form overnight. Think of the explosion of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Or QAnon: It began on an adolescent message board run by American expats in the Philippines, then gained millions of followers on Facebook.
We have entered the era of unintended consequences on the internet, and they’re just getting started.
As I wrote in my previous story in this series, the world may add up to 3 billion more internet users in the next decade or so. The global population is growing fast, and demographers believe it will cross the 8 billion mark around 2023. Internet access is growing faster, and is on course to hit 8 billion users around 2033. Given our recent history, you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit queasy about what could happen when the echo chamber has grown to the size of the entire Earth.
Of course, we can’t put the internet genie back in the bottle. Only the most repressive regime would want to do so. Access to the world’s storehouse of data (all of it, not the censored version in countries like China) is a basic human right. The digital divide is largely based on income; who are we to say that the world’s poorest 3 billion shouldn’t go online just because its wealthiest 5 billion made many messes?
Still, right now would be a really good time to learn more about what happens when billions of new users in the developing world get online for the first time. And few experts can explain this better than Payal Arora.
Are we not entertained?
Arora is an Indian-American academic who travels the world watching communities go online for the first time, from South America to Africa to Asia. She’s also the author of several books including The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West (2019). Her research has revealed uncomfortable truths for aid agencies and well-meaning entrepreneurs alike.
Their dream — that they could use technology to help the rural poor check crop prices, get an education, fill out government forms, and in general focus entirely on things that will make a measurable improvement in their lives — is foundering on the rocks of reality. Which is that human beings want to connect, to find love in all its forms, to be entertained. No matter where you look in the world, even among its newest users, the most popular sites and services are social networking, gaming, and yes, pornography.
“People who live in circumstances of scarce resources are, in the most fundamental ways, just like everyone else,” Arora writes. “They are proud. They are sexual beings. They look for love. They use humor as a powerful coping mechanism. They hunger for entertainment. They do not sit and wait for the market to recognize them as legitimate consumers of leisure. Instead, they creatively forge ahead, using whatever technology is available to them to pioneer novel (and often illegal) ways to gain access to the online hubs of happiness.”
Take the aid agency Arora describes in the TEDx talk above — one which handed mobile phones to farmers in South Asia, hoping they would use it to access and share better health information. In fact, the vast majority of data on those phones went to porn sites. When writing its report on the study, the agency fudged the numbers and focused elsewhere — because who wants to report back to their donors that they have funded porn?
Arora found the same attitude in agencies that wanted to provide internet access to refugee camps around the world — a fear that they might be seen to have assisted the use of porn in some way. “Some of their plans are crazy,” she says. “They wanted [the refugees] to watch a socialization video or fill out a survey every time they log on, like that’s a legitimate solution! Clearly, it’s not in tandem with this idea that the internet is a basic right.”
After all, no one is concerned about the world’s wealthy having access to porn. Arora explains this hypocrisy in historical context: In the west, we’ve often carried around the notion that leisure time belongs exclusively to the rich. Leisure time for the poor has long been demonized on the understanding that they would misuse it, which is part of the reason why workers had to fight so hard to cobble together two days off every week and call it a weekend.
But in a world of 8 billion users, we’re going to have to accept that rich and poor alike get to choose how they spend their time online, a fact that Arora’s book helped bring home to receptive readers at agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Among many projects, she’s now advising UNESCO on a declaration of digital inclusion.
“I thought the aid agencies would hate me because I just bashed them like crazy,” Arora says. In fact, in the wake of her last book and the one she’s currently working on about design thinking for the next few billion users, “they’re telling me they’re not going to be looking for any utility-driven internet projects. Let’s just be open to whatever they do in these refugee camps.”
If you want to promote beneficial behavior on the internet, in other words, do it in a “come for the entertainment, stay for the government forms” kind of way.
Perhaps, as the next 3 billion get online, the moral panic about porn will spread to their governments. Plenty of them might want to use these usage patterns to clamp down on their citizens’ internet access, or at least censor it heavily. This is a threat in the developed world too: The UK may have shelved plans for a “porn block law” after spending £2.2 million ($3 million) researching it — but in 2021, the Utah legislature passed a bill requiring all phones sold in the state to block porn by default (although it only takes effect after the governor signs off and five other states enact a similar law).
Then again, the last decade has also shown that nefarious governments can get more mileage out of allowing citizens to be extremely online — then stirring their outrage for political purposes.
A dystopia of disinformation
Look how far the internet fell in just five years. We went from the so-called “Facebook revolution” of the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011, where social media was used to help mobilize opposition to a brutal regime, to the “Facebook genocide” in Myanmar, beginning in 2016, where social media was used by a brutal regime, in this case to stir up a murderous hatred of Rohingya Muslims.
Estimates of the death toll vary, but at least 26,000 Rohingya were killed, thousands more were raped, and nearly a million were forced to flee across the country’s borders. The UN called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
How did it happen? Because an army learned to manipulate our universal desire for entertainment. About 700 members of Myanmar’s military intelligence created a series of troll accounts that focused on celebrity news, including a fan page for a Burmese beauty queen. Together they gained 1.3 million followers, then started pointing them towards fake stories of Rohingya atrocities. The stories spread fast among this country of 18 million internet users, creating the pretext for genocide.
“We discovered that these seemingly independent entertainment, beauty, and informational pages were linked to the Myanmar military,” Facebook announced when it belatedly took the pages down. The company caught a lot of flack for not spotting the connection earlier. Although to be fair to Facebook, how many Silicon Valley companies have “need to combat sophisticated military intelligence operations” in their business plans?
Sometimes governments don’t even need to be that nefarious; they can just whip up a general atmosphere of hatred against a given group, then sit back and let a social media mob do its thing. That seems to be what happened in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has attempted to paint Muslims as non-citizens. Since 2018, there has been a virtual epidemic of lynchings — spurred by fake reports of child abductions, with video, spread over WhatsApp. Modi didn’t need to lift a finger.
If that makes you think of QAnon, which gained much of its violent Capitol-storming energy by spreading false stories of a vast international pedophile ring, you’re not wrong. “Save the children” is one of the most potent rallying cries any political movement can have, anywhere in the world. So if unscrupulous leaders can just make up Pizzagate-like nonsense about their political enemies holding children hostage in nonexistent basements, why wouldn’t they?
Arora’s point, about how all our online experiences are similar, applies here too. The American story of the 2010s — baby boomers discovering Facebook and YouTube for the first time, then going down rabbit holes of right-wing outrage that destabilize the entire political system — may not just be an American story. QAnon adherents, as well as actual on-the-street protests, were found in 71 countries in 2020. Purveyors of outrage the world over are taking note.
As are authoritarians. Vladimir Putin’s army of paid trolls, the Internet Research Agency, road-tested the spreading of fake news in Ukraine in 2014, then more famously used it in the U.S. elections of 2016. Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia followed Russia’s lead with their own disinformation operations. None of these governments have yet delved into the possibilities offered by a fake “save the children” campaign — but in a world of 8 billion internet users, it seems only a matter of time.
“It’s an industry,” Arora says of the troll farms springing up around the world — whether to spread fake news and cyber-swarms along Russian lines, or to make money from the so-called “romance scams” pioneered in Nigeria (con artists who find their marks on dating sites defrauded Americans to the tune of $200 million in 2020, prosecutors say.) “It’s good money. It’s flexible hours. So it’s very understandable” that armies of scammers and fake news merchants could spring up overnight. The industry will only grow as billions more potential targets come online.
By the time we’re all online, psychological cyberwars of all kinds may have become the new norm, replacing military conflicts. “The best kind of war is one you can win from the safety of your home,” Arora notes. The same holds true for most kinds of crime.
Meanwhile, in true Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, the spreading of fake news by authoritarians is becoming a reason for authoritarians to clamp down on fake news — by which they mean anything they don’t like. Take the Anti-Fake News Acts passed in Malaysia and Singapore in 2018 and 2019, which allowed governments to fine and imprison social media users for posts critical of their leaders. One minister determined what was true and what was fake. (The Malaysia act was repealed; the Singapore one was used to silence opposition more than 50 times in 2020, according to Human Rights Watch.)
Save us, Silicon Valley!
In the face of these forces, the only substantial bulwark against bad actors is… Silicon Valley. “I think what worries me most is that I’m actually starting to think ‘thank God for tech oligarchs,'” Arora says with a bitter laugh. “They have more money than entire country’s GDPs. They’re the new states. I recognize their potential for exploitation. And yet given this hyper-authoritarianism, they are the only unifying global entities able to stand up to governments… Twitter can be the containing force against someone like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
Or indeed, against Donald Trump. His Twitter account’s removal after the insurrection in January may have raised fears of a chilling effect on free speech. But the sudden massive drop in fake news spread on Twitter immediately afterwards makes CEO Jack Dorsey look more like a slow-moving firefighter who belatedly tackled an arsonist. The decision could embolden more Silicon Valley activism in the future.
Of course, this kind of activism is also about protecting tech companies’ bottom line. Take the muddled situation in Australia, which recently passed a first-in-the-world law requiring more compensation for news outlets whose content Facebook monetizes for ads. Facebook responded with the hardest possible negotiation tactic: removing Australian news from the service. A compromise with the government, one that may in the long run require much less money from Facebook, was soon reached.
Australian internet users were understandably furious. Facebook, which I described as the honey badger of social media back in 2012, still doesn’t care. “We will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook,” a company spokesperson said when peace was brokered. Translation: Nice social network you’ve got here, it would be a shame if someone broke it.
Facebook isn’t going anywhere. User growth remains steady; the company will likely hit 3 billion active monthly users sometime in 2021. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going anywhere either, with his death grip on Facebook shareholder voting rights. To a great extent, the planet’s future depends on how much Zuckerberg likes authoritarian leaders and their online shenanigans. The signs so far aren’t encouraging.
And yet, even after this bruising decade of online extremism, Arora remains hopeful. “I cannot afford to be pessimistic,” she says. “Wherever I go, sometimes to the worst of slums, people are super optimistic” about their future online. “How can I be like, ‘oh, you poor thing, I feel so sad for you?’ The hope is a fuel for people to mobilize, and move, and cope, and the new leisure time on the internet is a fuel for that too.”
And Arora is seeing some positive effects of a pervasive internet, even if they are maddeningly slow to appear. For example, her FemLab project — an effort to help organize feminist labor groups in South Asia — has been looking at the garment industry in Bangladesh, traditionally run by women. Now the industry is getting online, the families of those women are having to relax traditional taboos on women talking to strangers, given that the internet is nothing but strangers.
“These are incremental changes, but also genuinely disruptive,” Arora says. “That’s the way most change happens. It took a hundred years for workers to get the right to a weekend.” In the end, getting people engaged in such struggles “is not going to have a technological solution. It’s going to be a social solution: How do we disrupt patriarchal societies? And we’re in for the long haul on that.”