The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Facebook has stumbled. But let’s not forget the real good it has done across the world.

Apps for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social networks on a smartphone in Chennai, India. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
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Christopher M. Schroeder is a global venture capitalist focused on emerging markets.

Some years ago, while meeting with tech entrepreneurs in Amman, Jordan, I visited an extraordinary community center. It was working to support Palestinian refugees by supplementing education and offering job and technical training, mental health support and other services.

To my surprise, among dozens of young children and adolescents I met there, each had a good and not particularly inexpensive smartphone. These were not wealthy families. But they had saved up, often over long periods, to ensure their children had phones. Small apartment buildings were also saving to ensure digital and WiFi access for all. The center’s founder asked the teens why this was so important.

To a one, they said: “Because of Face!” “Because of Whats!”

They were, of course, referring to Facebook and WhatsApp. It was clear they used these services as people in the United States do: to connect, make plans with friends, share photos, express their identities. But that was only a piece of it.

Anyone who has worked with communities wrestling with grinding poverty — including in the United States — knows that the community’s reality can sometimes be no more than a few blocks or a square mile long. For children in these places, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are avenues to other possibilities. The technologies enable opportunity — to seek something different from a world their users otherwise would know almost nothing about, and to profit from connections they otherwise wouldn’t make.

Right before the covid-19 pandemic, I visited a tiny, off-the-beaten-path jewelry store not far from the Khan el-Khalili, the largest bazaar in Cairo. The shopkeeper’s daughter, who looked to be in her early 20s, saw I seemed a little lost. “If you don’t see what you like here,” she said, “we have a large inventory I’d like to show you.”

She took out her phone and explained that she had recently put up her father’s business on Instagram. I noted that it had more than 83,000 followers. Were these all customers? Many were, she said: “We reach so many people we never reached before. Dad’s business has new customers all over Egypt and beyond since I put us on Instagram.”

I spend a lot of time with tech companies around the globe trying to offer services to small mom-and-pop store owners, which can comprise 50 percent to nearly 90 percent of retail sales in rising markets. Almost everyone on every continent I visit is using a Facebook (now Meta) product to better their lives and businesses.

For instance, five months ago, I had a Zoom conversation that underscored the scale of fragmentation of small businesses in India and how desperate owners are for digital tools.

I was introduced to the owner of a small shoe manufacturing business who began to market his wares on Instagram. There, he said, he heard from buyers he had never met. He would reach out via WhatsApp, and they would begin a negotiation on the app. The buyer would then go to the post office, photograph a physical bank check and confirm with another photo that it was being sent to the seller. The seller, in turn, took photographs of the inventory and shipping boxes at the post office and sent them to the buyer on WhatsApp. They effectively jury-rigged two Facebook-owned social media experiences to their new buying, selling and verification needs.

WhatsApp, the shoe seller said, “took care of trust.” Since he’d joined social media, his business had increased 38 percent year over year.

I’ve heard a hundred stories like this. One of the least understood shifts in the global economy is the phenomenon of hundreds of millions of customers who, after gaining access to new technologies for the first time, are entering the economy nearly overnight. Financial inclusion at this scale could have the greatest impact on raising people out of poverty in history.

As PwC noted in a 2016 study, “The key factors shaping this transformation will be the impact of technology, shifting customer expectations, changing global demographics, the rise of e-commerce and the growing impact of regulation.”

I’m not an expert in the controversies Facebook is navigating today over the spread of misinformation and when and where social media can contribute to real-world harm, or over the ways its algorithms contribute to polarization. I believe thoughtful debate on how we can communicate responsibly and be better informed — and the role social media platforms play — is important and fair game.

Yet it’s also necessary to understand and acknowledge the significant impact Facebook and other social media platforms have had on real people, across the globe, trying to make their lives better. I encourage reasoned, fact-based debate on the weaknesses of any institution, including Facebook — as long as in that balancing, we appreciate it has also been central to helping an astounding number of people change their lives positively, from the bottom up.

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