Amid a pandemic that has kept people indoors for months, with many of us missing personal interactions with friends and loved ones, we are all feeling a strong need to stay connected. This means that people are heading to social media a lot more than usual. At the top of the list of platforms frequented is Facebook, of course. It’s hard to imagine that what started as a simple project to connect college students has now become an economic giant worth more than $500 billion. In more ways than one, it continues to have a large positive, and sometimes negative, impact on communities worldwide. To know more about how Facebook has weathered this turbulent year and understand where the company and platform are headed next, eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata got in touch via Zoom with the Director of Media Partnerships Growth Markets (APAC, LATAM, MEA and Turkey), News at Facebook.
Facebook has really kept us connected throughout the pandemic and is also helping many communities in the region, most notably Beirut, after the tragic explosion. Tell us more about the vision behind projects to support communities like that?
Obviously, 2020 has been a rough year on everybody and was unexpected in many ways. We found ourselves at the centre of this, even more so than usual. Many people gravitated to the platform due to social distancing and quarantining. We have close to 2.5 billion people on the platform. It’s the largest communication platform in the history of humanity, and that gave people the option to stay close. We’ve seen a tremendous spike in usage, both in terms of voice calls and video calls across platforms like Messenger and WhatsApp, all the way to people expressing themselves by going live on Facebook or Instagram. They also stayed in touch with friends and families since they couldn’t leave the house. So, with that, we saw the opportunity to basically keep up with all that. We usually have a spike in usage around New Year’s, as people around the world wish each other a happy new year all at the same time, and that puts a lot of pressure on the platform. In 2020, we saw that spike remain consistent throughout the year, so in order to keep up, it really has required a massive effort by our engineers.
How big is the MENA team?
It’s not a huge team: MENA is about a 100 people. A lot of these efforts are global. We rely on the engineering team across the world, and our data centres are located in the most exotic places in the world. Being a global problem, I think COVID-19 brought us even closer together now. When the pandemic first started, I would call the Apac team in Hong Kong or Taiwan to keep them up to date. As the virus made its way through the world we learned many lessons from the experience they went through. Being a global platform gave us the opportunity to learn and convey lessons across the world.
With the US elections coming up, has Facebook figured out how to deal with falsehoods and possible foreign interference?
There are lots of efforts being made in regard to the elections. We regularly take down pod farms, and announce that on a regular basis. We are quite public about that. We take action towards parties that have done that and we also have embarked on an effort to provide transparency on all political actions, not only the US elections, but around the world. Sometimes we reject certain political ads which are submitted and will be on a portal where anyone can view it, like when Donald Trump submitted an ad and was rejected. We are also transparent on how each candidate is doing on the platform. We try to provide as much transparency as possible.
Has there been any product that or individual who, in our region, made an impact or a name through your platforms during this period?
Some of the stars have stepped up during difficult times, like during the Beirut bombing. We’ve actually announced a fundraising campaign for Beirut, where we said we’ll match a dollar for a dollar up to one million. We tapped our network of partners and celebrities to spread the word and hit the target; we raised more than $1.5 million in less than 20 hours and we’re still going. It became kind of a trending thing; every Lebanese actor, singer, fashion designer, makeup artist posted about it and others launched their own campaign and we supported that. Many international artists also joined, like Shakira and Will Smith. As for individuals, we saw many take advantage of our platforms and go on to become major celebrities and build empires, like Huda Kattan, in cosmetics. Salt Bae is another one. He was a butcher and then started a restaurant from his videos on Instagram. Now, he has an empire and a chain of restaurants around the world. That was through his ability to build his brand by advertising on our platforms.
Let’s talk about the future of Facebook in the region. We’re really excited to know the plan for the next five years.…
During this phase, the world is going through and the polarisation that we’re seeing in different parts of the world. We’re focusing on ensuring that people get accurate information and feel safe on the platform, and providing diverse points of view. We have partnered with over 50 organisations around the world in over 60 languages to fact-check. These are all independent organisations that we fund but they have complete independence; and anyone can flag a piece of news. If its questioned, it goes to a human reviewer who’s an expert journalist, and uses certain criteria to fact-check. If they identify it as fake news, it is removed.
How has all of this affected you personally?
It’s been a crazy time. I look after a very broad region, so historically I spend only a couple of days a month at home. My base is in Dubai, and now I’m home most of the time, I barely leave. I think the situation also helps you reprioritise. I have young kids and now they recognise me when I’m home. I think COVID-19 has allowed us to slow down a bit and get rid of a lot of the noise. It’s been a moment of reflection in terms of what actually matters. Not only that, but it’s also shown us the fragility of our lives and how we need to take advantage of every moment with the people who matter.
What was the biggest lesson you’ve learnt or come to appreciate this year?
Human interaction. It’s such a weird thing, but you know, you get to appreciate things like just walking in a crowd in the street. Across the region, we are notorious for being a very social culture. Sometimes when I talk with European colleagues who are like, “oh I got to meet my neighbors,” while over here there’s nobody who doesn’t know their neighbours. I miss the gatherings when I visit Egypt. It’s hard to be alone.
Speaking of Egypt, does Facebook have any plans for Egypt that we should know about?
Egypt is an incredibly interesting market for us and it’s very strategic. Earlier this year we announced grants for a partnership with the Kamal Adham Centre at The AUC, where we basically support journalists and newsrooms in Egypt. We recognise that they’re going through a hard time and also how important the work that they do is in the current climate. We’re supporting cultural events like El Gouna Film Festival and the Cairo Film Festival and we’re keen on supporting art and all sorts of ideas. Egypt has been a cultural and entertainment hub in the region for a really long time.
Do you have a positive message that you would like to convey to eniGma readers?
This too shall pass. These are tough times, but they came with some very important lessons as well. When we come out on the other side, we’re going to be a much better society and a much more thoughtful community. Please take care of each other a little bit more.