Facebook under pressure in SE Asia

Well before the election of Donald Trump forced Facebook to acknowledge its potential as a means of influencing US politics, its executives were already receiving early warnings from south-east Asia.

As reported in today’s FT Big Read from John Reed and Hannah Kuchler, the populist Rodrigo Duterte had relied heavily on Facebook in his election campaign earlier in 2016 – and after his victory, supporters began using Facebook to attack critics of his bloody war on drugs.

Among those targeted was Maria Ressa (pictured on the left above), chief executive of the Philippines-based news site Rappler, who warned Facebook executives of the growing problem in August 2016. “If you don’t watch it, Trump may win,” she recalls saying. “We all laughed.”

As Reed and Kuchler point out, the power of Facebook is being exploited across the region, notably in Myanmar, where extremist Buddhists are using it to whip up sentiment against the Muslim minority. In Cambodia, meanwhile, the authoritarian leader Hun Sen is reaching his 9.7m followers without having to subject his message to the filter of conventional media, even as he moves to shut down producers of critical journalism.

Facebook is now under pressure in the region to show that it is taking the political implications of its phenomenal reach just as seriously in south-east Asia as it does in the West. While its executives say it is doing what it can to stop its platform being used for anti-democratic or violent purposes, critics such as Ms Ressa say that it is holding back from truly tough measures in order to protect its growth.

Read the full story here.

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Tech tools you can use

Web users living under repressive dictatorships might want to take a look at Psiphon, a virtual private network service that can be used to bypass web censorship. The basic version restricts web speeds to 2 megabits per second, writes Mike Williams at Tech Radar, who also raises concern that Psiphon’s advertising partners may get access to user data. But it is available for free, and while its website — like those of many other VPN services — may be blocked in some countries, the company offers download links by email. A potentially useful option, then, for the dissenting web user on a budget.

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