Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet

Using the internet or just Facebook?
Using the internet or just Facebook?
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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It was in Indonesia three years ago that Helani Galpaya first noticed the anomaly.

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Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.

In Africa, Christoph Stork stumbled upon something similar. Looking at results from a survey on communications use for Research ICT Africa, Stork found what looked like an error. The number of people who had responded saying they used Facebook was much higher than those who said they used the internet. The discrepancy accounted for some 3% to 4% of mobile phone users, he says.

Since at least 2013, Facebook has been making noises about connecting the entire world to the internet. But even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s operations head, admits that there are Facebook users who don’t know they’re on the internet. So is Facebook succeeding in its goal if the people it is connecting have no idea they are using the internet? And what does it mean if masses of first-time adopters come online not via the open web, but the closed, proprietary network where they must play by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rules?

This is more than a matter of semantics. The expectations and behaviors of the next billion people to come online will have profound effects on how the internet evolves. If the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook. That means they, too, must then play by the rules of one company. And that has implications for us all.

The data

Measuring Facebook penetration versus internet penetration is tricky business. Internet penetration numbers come from national regulators and from estimates by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body. These are generally months if not years old. Facebook numbers come from Facebook’s advertising platform. These can be tricky, too. Some people have more than one account. Some accounts are rarely used. And some people access Facebook through phones with only the most basic of online features, in which case it is hard to argue that they really are using the internet in any meaningful way.

In an attempt to replicate Stork and Galpaya’s observations, Quartz commissioned surveys in Indonesia and Nigeria from Geopoll, a company that contacts respondents across the world using mobile phones. We asked people whether they had used the internet in the prior 30 days. We also asked them if they had used Facebook. Both surveys had 500 respondents each.

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It would appear, on the surface, that more people use the internet than use Facebook, a perfectly sensible outcome.

But a closer look at the data (available in full here) shows that 11% of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they did not use the internet. In Nigeria, 9% of Facebook users said they do not use the internet. These are largely young people; the median age of respondents with this combination of answers is 25 in Indonesia and 22 in Nigeria.

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It would be silly to extrapolate this to the entire population of Nigeria or Indonesia. But the survey does provide replicable evidence of the behaviors described by Stork and Galpaya. Considering the substantial percentages—about 10% of Facebook users in our surveys—the data suggest at the very least that a few million of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users suffer from the same misconceptions. (Quartz commissioned limited surveys in just two countries; we encourage researchers and other journalists to conduct more large-scale studies.)

The effects of the misconception also are visible in the survey results. We asked respondents whether they follow links out of Facebook. In both countries, more than half of those who don’t know they’re using the internet say they “never” follow links out of Facebook, compared with a quarter or less of respondents who say they use both Facebook and the internet. If people stay on one service, it follows that content, advertisers, and associated services also will flow to that service, possibly to the exclusion of other venues.

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How Facebook became the internet

At Davos this year, Sandberg told the well-heeled crowd (paywall) that in the developing world, “people will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the internet in some places.” Or as Iris Orriss, Facebook’s head of localization and internationalization, has put it, “Awareness of the Internet in developing countries is very limited. In fact, for many users, Facebook is the internet, as it’s often the only accessible application.” (Emphasis in the original.)

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Facebook is “often the only accessible application,” as Orriss puts it, but that’s because Facebook—which did not respond to requests to comment on this story—has worked to ensure that it is the easiest and cheapest to access. The company backs internet.org, an initiative to “bring the Internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it.” Yet internet.org’s showpiece, an app now available in nearly half a dozen countries, provides free access only to Facebook, Facebook messenger, and a handful of other services (the precise lineup varies by country).

Most of these other services are well-meaning and related to development: Women’s rights. Jobs. Maternal-health information. An Ebola FAQ. The only concessions to the wider web are Wikipedia and Google search. But clicking through on a Google search result requires a data plan—and that must be paid for by the user. (Despite the name, internet.org is not a non-profit concern, but very much a part of Facebook Inc.)

Telecom operators across the developing world also contribute to the confusion—though this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mobile web users spend a lot of time on Facebook and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook). Mobile networks see this and offer these customers social-only plans.

In India, you can get a Facebook-only data plan for $2.50 a year (the cheapest full data plans cost about $10 a year.) In the Philippines, Facebook-only plans cost a fifth as much as data plans. In Ghana, telecom operator Tigo once sold a Facebook phone. It looked like a Blackberry with a big blue “F” as the central button. Even in America, Sprint offers a data plan (paywall) solely for access to Facebook and Twitter.

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Finally, there is Facebook Zero, which predates internet.org and allows users of basic phones to access Facebook at no cost. Mobile operators have grumbled about this particular arrangement. Let them. One day Facebook will beam its services from the skies with its fleet of indefatigable, solar-powered drones.

Why it matters

Facebook bosses generally dismiss suggestions that the whole internet.org project might be self-interested. Writing in Time, Lev Grossman was granted access to Mark Zuckerberg when the Facebook CEO went to India to promote internet access. When Grossman asks whether internet.org is self-serving, Zuckerberg allows only that it may, one day, several decades down the line, pay off: “If you do good things for people in the world, then that comes back and you benefit from it over time.”

Dave Wehner, Facebook’s finance chief, is more forthright. “I do think that over the long term, that focusing on helping connect everyone will be a good business opportunity for us.” If Facebook becomes one of the top services in these countries, he explained in a recent earnings call, “then over time we will be compensated for some of the value that we’ve provided.”

That is a fair goal for any profit-seeking company. And besides, isn’t some access better than none at all? John Naughton of the Guardian argues that this is not the case:

This is a pernicious way of framing the argument, and we should resist it. The goal of public policy everywhere should be to increase access to the internet—the whole goddam internet, not some corporate-controlled alcove—for as many people as possible. By condoning zero-rating we will condemn to a lifetime of servitude as one of Master Zuckerberg’s sharecroppers. We can, and should, do better than that.

Already services are starting to move away from the open web and to Facebook. And it’s happening not just in the poor world, but in poor parts of the developed world, where there also exists a sense among some that using an app isn’t the same as using the internet, which requires a web browser like Safari or Internet Explorer. Salix Homes manages government-owned subsidized housing in some the poorest parts of Salford, a deprived area in the north of England. Salix recently decided to accept complaints and rent payments from its tenants on Facebook.

“We took the view that let’s go where people are rather than force them to go to our website,” says James Allan, the firm’s marketing manager. As a result, interactions are up 90% while traffic on the website has fallen.

Allan is not in the business of deciding whether Facebook’s omnipresence among less affluent internet users is a good or bad thing. It is simply a thing. But as LIRNEasia’s Samarajiva says, “It has very serious implications. It’s a proprietary platform. It’s not the open internet that we love and cherish.” Yet he is optimistic that Facebook eventually will lead its users to that place.

“Maybe it will introduce them,” he says, “to the larger concept of the internet. They’re already on the internet. They just don’t know they’re there.”

A note on the methodology: The surveys of Indonesia and Nigeria used through this piece were administered by GeoPoll, which uses SMS to conduct real-time surveys without the need for face-to-face interaction in remote areas. This survey was conducted in late December in Indonesia and Nigeria, with 500 respondents from each country, equaling a margin of error of 4.38% at the 95% confidence level. For more information on this methodology visit research.geopoll.com. In addition, Quartz also commissioned surveys of India, Brazil, and Indonesia from Jana, whose members are reached via smartphone. Quartz asked Jana respondents, ”Do you agree with the statement ‘Facebook is the Internet’?” Quartz also asked a representative sample of Americans the same question using SurveyMonkey