The relationship between government and Facebook is increasingly complicated.
I recently worked on a project with Big Finish Digital, a new advertising agency, looking at the rise in government requests for Facebook data around the world. The founders of Big Finish are interested in data privacy and the ethics around data in advertising, and gave a presentation discussing these issues and how they are impacting the formation of their company.
The data came from Facebook as part of its transparency initiative. You can easily download CSVs of the number of government requests for FB data around the world. If you’d like to analyze this data, you can save yourself some time downloading all the files and cleaning it and access the cleaned dataset from my google sheets account.
I hadn’t played with this data before, but it’s a fascinating subject. A few things really jumped out at me.
Governments are requesting more and more data from Facebook
This makes sense, since Facebook is growing and governments are figuring out how to use it for security and law enforcement. Still, it was striking to see the overall growth of requests worldwide:
A higher percentage of requests are yielding data
This could be because governments are better learning how to deal with Facebook and what sorts of data they can request and when. It could also be due to an easing in the data sharing culture at Facebook.
Western governments are requesting the most data
Top countries requesting FB data, scaled by number of Facebook users in that country:
Japan is a very notable exception
Examine the scales of the y-axes of the below charts. The number of requests by the Japanese government was so low I had trouble visualizing it in a chart with comparable countries; it was barely visible.
I don’t know very much about Japan, but it’s fascinating. Seeing this drastic a difference reminded me of this stat: “In 2014 there were just six gun deaths, compared to 33,599 in the US.” Just a staggering disparity between Japan and the United States.
Turkey is an interesting case study
I studied abroad in Istanbul and love the country. But it’s had a tumultuous few years, and its government is increasingly dictatorial.
The number of requests to Facebook in Turkey is an interesting lens through which to examine Turkish politics. There is growth right before the failed coup attempt in 2016, and then a noticeable dip in the second half of 2016 when the Turkish government throttled social media while cracking down on supposed dissenters. After that, growth resumes, and now it seems that the government is using peoples’ social media accounts as pretense to arrest them.
Tough moral problems for Facebook
This kind of thing poses really difficult moral issues for Facebook. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that Facebook data would be useful in stopping terrorist attacks and other violent crimes, or helping to solve crimes that have already taken place. On the other hand, what if the government claims a citizen is dangerous but in reality that citizen is just a dissenter? It is an enormous amount of power for unelected, profit-driven Facebook employees.
I generally think people are well-intentioned, but I know that I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable making these decisions.
A big thank you to Paul at Big Finish for his help with this.
If you have a view on government use of social media data, I’d love to hear it; reach out to me on twitter and let me know your thoughts.