Middle East & Africa
Facebook and autocrats
With friends like these
The social-media giant has been bending to the will of Arab despots
For Sariya Al-bitar, an architect in Syria’s war-torn city of Idlib, the message was devastating. “Your account has been permanently disabled for not following our Facebook Community Standards,” read the note from the social-media giant. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to reactivate it for any reason.” Fourteen years of family photos, reminiscences and his diary of Syria’s civil war—along with his list of 30,000 followers—were erased. Mr Bitar had tried to be careful. He had not called dead rebels shahids (martyrs) or posted gore. He suspects Facebook silenced him for commemorating a Syrian football star who, after months of protesting, picked up arms and was killed by the regime of Basharal-Assad.
In a region ruled by despots, Facebook claims to give “free expression maximum possible range”. That has won it a vast following. The platform has more users in the Gulf states than anywhere else in the world, relative to the population. It is the main source of news for many Arabs. Some even credit it for the Arab spring protests of 2011. But since going public in 2012, Facebook has grown more mindful of the authoritarians who provide it with access, say critics, and less hospitable to activists. In recent months it has culled hundreds of users from Tunisia to Iran and deleted hundreds of thousands of posts. “Many people feel that Facebook is no longer a platform they can use to hold the powerful to account,” says Marwa Fatafta of Access Now, a pressure group. Add to that Facebook’s challenges in America, where it has lost a slew of advertisers over its failure to police hateful content.