Facebook will beam the web to Africa – a vital first step in helping people connect

Facebook has announced that it is teaming up with the French company Eutelsat to put a satellite in orbit and beam the internet to millions of peopguardian logole in sub-Saharan Africa by 2016.

Beaming the internet from space sounds amazing – and it is. As Mark Zuckerberg says in a Facebook post about the project: “Connectivity changes lives and communities.”

Here at Internews, we wholeheartedly support the global revolution in information connectivity and applaud the market forces that are expanding information access around the world. We live in a world of continually expanding and improving technology, connectivity and access, from mobile to wearables, sensors, location-aware technology and things no one has even heard of today.

But the project also worries us. Why? Connectivity alone is simply not enough. Connectivity will not empower people with the safe, high-quality information they need to make good decisions about their lives and their communities. We see this every day in the many places where we work with information-poor and vulnerable populations.

Connectivity does not come with quality local content, particularly content in local languages. It doesn’t come with secure access, critical engagement and inclusion. It doesn’t come with the long list of things people need to participate in the miracle of global connectivity.

Let’s take the example of Myanmar. When the country emerged from military rule in 2010, the market was quickly flooded with cheap Chinese smartphones, and the price of a sim card dropped from $2,000 (£1,290) to about $2. The country went “straight from dirt to smartphone”, as numerous pundits have repeated. This raises a question: what happens when you inject modern, fully formed social media into a country with low literacy, a long history of ethnic conflict and no cultural experience of the civil mores around free speech and freedom of expression?

What happens is an explosion of hate speech.

Facebook took root early in Myanmar. The interface is easy to use and people were quickly able to understand how to navigate it. It also invested in the hard-to-render Burmese language font. Fast-forward a couple of years, and today the vast majority of Burmese people who are online are on Facebook, which quickly became a breeding ground for inter-ethnic hate speech.

Our partner in Myanmar, the innovation lab Phandeeyar, has been working on this issue through a series of positive online marketing campaigns. It has also been hosting Google “translatathons” to remedy another critical problem – a lack of Burmese content on the internet. That lack of content means that Google has very little to search and crawl, so search results are limited. In turn, this means that businesses and our partners in the media are reluctant to invest in building websites, so they set up Facebook pages. And the cycle continues.

Let’s take another recent example. Much has been written about how the refugee crisis in Europe has been enabled by smartphones. Thousands of migrants travel with GPS guiding their way. It has been claimed that many of these people can get to their destinations without the use of smugglers, which is a great thing. And they can stay in touch with family members along the route and in destination countries. 

We went to Lesbos to map the information needs of this population and discovered something crucial. The thousands of people landing on this small island have zero information to guide them on arrival. The harshness of the journey from the boats to the town is “epic” to quote our local sources – people regularly pass out from heat and thirst as they walk along steep goat tracks and roads, not knowing where they are going or what they will find at the other end.

So we are now in the banner business. We have erected banners that show a map of the island, marked clearly with “You are here”, and containing simple information about distances and destinations. Sometimes your smartphone just doesn’t have what you need.

Information matters. In fact, it plays an ever-more important role in helping the poorest and most vulnerable to advance their lives. That means we have to take seriously the idea that connection alone is not enough.

We need to understand that the real solutions for information-dark parts of the world will come from the grassroots, from local people building and developing safe and trusted, high-quality content in local languages. The solution will not just come from outer space. It will come from knowing “You are here”.

(Internews President and CEO, Jeanne Bourgault wrote this oped in The Guardian about the importance of local trusted news in online communities.)