Extending internet to the refugees: Facebook charity or marketing campaign?

In an announcement made over the weekend, Facebook claims to want to extend internet services to reach the hundreds of struggling refugees abroad. While some might be applauding the efforts made by the multi-billion dollar corporation for putting the smallest morsel of their time, energy, not to mention insurmountably large vat of expendable resources, into a charitable cause, the initiative seems to have an ulterior motive. Given the amount of money and people power it takes for broadband and technological resources to reach those within impoverished conditions – in this case the refugees – it would actually seem more reasonable, as well as considerate, to deal with the most fundamental, basic human needs first – such as food, water, shelter, ETC – over a superfluous resource such as internet connectivity. Granted, it is recognizable that in providing internet access to the refugees (the launch date for this service has still yet to be announced), it is intended be a tool for migrants to find ways to provide for themselves and locate resources on their own, better preparing them for living on the edges on western capitalism. However, there are a slew of euro-centric assumptions that are being made with the implementation of this initiative; not everyone across the globe can hop on the internet and understand how to take advantage of it, especially in a country that is not their own.

What might be more of service, Mark Zuckerberg, is to actually use your vat of financial resources to help foot the bill for more shelters to open, which could then become educational hubs for in-person workshops and lessons to provide refugees with information about survival within a different country. This would be preliminary. After food, shelter and a basic in-house survival training for the migrants is taken care of, only then would a resource, such as the internet, be of use; by this stage many of the refugees could understand more about their role in a new country, how they can contribute, what type of discrimination they will likely receive, as well as what organizations would provide aid and help for them, in addition to other information regarding next stages of the assimilation process. It would be at this point that the internet would become advantageous. Before this comprehensive understanding and basic needs are met, internet resources might actually cause a surge of chaos, at least initially, exacerbating a feeling of inadequacy, yielding more anarchy.

However, Mark Zuckerberg will not be providing survival tip workshops and lessons for refugees, let alone will he himself ever have an in-person encounter with these folks. In fact, Facebook might actually have little interest in helping with the refugee crisis at all. The globally reported migrant issue seems to be more of an opportunistic moment for Facebook to merge their Internet.org campaign with the highly politicized story, in effort to piggy-back off of the boarder-to-boarder media coverage. Simply put, the company seems to be exploiting a traumatic situation and co-opting it for their own financial gain.

Mark Zuckerberg is blatantly taking advantage of the refugee scene to advertise Internet.org, one of his newest projects released in 2013. Internet.org is a project that hopes to bring internet to some of the four billion people world-wide that do not have a voice online. While this might seem like a admirable initiative, it is rampant with cultural insensitivity, ethnocentrism, and concerns related to cultural relativism. However, I will refrain from divulging in a long-winded harangue about that here and instead, end this with a letter to Mark Zuckerberg:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, or Mark if I may,

While I acknowledge your enthusiasm in providing internet to the refugees is coming from a place of wanting to leverage some of your privilege for those without any resources, perhaps I can offer you some advice regarding your charity efforts. For one, it is important to be sensitive of the demographic you are attempting to help. Acknowledging that sitting down in a big plush chair with a $5 wet latte to dive into eight hours of internet research is not on the top of every citizens’ list. It is important to be considerate that time to utilize the internet as a resource is a privilege in itself. Two, if you really wanted to help out I would suggest you fly yourself over there (of course on your company’s tab) and actually become involved with the culture of individuals you are are seeking to extend your services to; this way you would be able to better tailor the technology for the specific demographic for which it is being offered. Lastly, be honest, are you using the refugee’s disadvantages to leverage your newest project – Internet.org? Yes, perhaps this is one way to reach the 4 billion people who currently don’t have an online voice (and have you ever thought to yourself that there are in fact communities out there that are vehemently opposed to adopting western technology), but don’t you think there are other demographics you could launch it to first? Maybe societies where people actually have a stationary place of residence? Just some thoughts. I respect that you want to give back to your global community, but may I suggest using a bit more discernment.