Deconstructing Facebook Free Basics with Adult Learners
To practice deconstruction skills, adult learners critically analyze a controversial push for expanded 'free' internet in less developed countries by the tech giant, Facebook.
As an educator, I consider it vital that I connect with and reach every learner in the room, regardless of their political views or stances. Many of my lessons attempt to engrain this open and affirming mindset by asking learners to reserve initial judgment until they have fully researched, vetted and reflected on an idea. I think it's crucial to be able to converse and connect with people who may disagree with us, and I think this propensity for reserving judgment is key to that aim. My impact campaigns will never merely 'preach to the choir;' rather, they engage viewers outside of traditional documentary audiences to further the film and the message's reach.
One 3-hour workshop session, or 2 shorter sessions
This unit is designed to be used with adult learners; specifically, it was created to engage educators preparing to teach a Global Perspectives and Research course. The skills and frameworks highlighted in this lesson will be skills they, in turn, teach to their future students.
Learners will understand and model deconstruction skills, assessing the validity and credibility of arguments and speakers.
Learners will understand and empathize with diverse global stakeholders through an active learning activity.
Learners will come to a reasoned conclusion based on research and reflection.
This unit concerns the expansion of Free Basics, Facebook’s zero cost mobile internet platform. Free Basics has been marketed, piloted and expanded in 63 developing countries since 2015. Essentially an app that allows mobile users to experience a data light ‘slice of the internet’ without being connected to Wifi or using data, Free Basics has been both lauded as essential to global connectivity and criticized as “digital colonialism” since its release. Therefore, the unit centers more broadly on issues of net neutrality, equitable access to a free and uncensored internet, the manipulation of emerging markets by massive technology companies, and the complications of misinformation on a digitally naïve public.
Introduce the Concepts
Start the unit by posting this discussion prompt: should everyone have access to the internet? Facilitate debate over this prompt and the implications of internet access. Perhaps ask learners to define what access means—who provides access, what level of access, etc? Invariably, the discussion will veer into the benefits and drawbacks of our internet use, and the ramifications seen in more developed societies. Remind learners that it is not our job to paternalistically ‘take care’ of developing countries by somehow limiting their access, yet we can be wary of the societal changes widespread internet adoption can cause. The hope is that learners will open their minds to the negatives and positives of global internet adoption before introducing the Free Basics platform.
Then, explain some key terms for the deconstruction phase of the lesson. Deconstruction, in this context, is the process by which learners dismantle and analyze all of the components of an argument to judge its validity in the current debate. I find this acronym helps to solidify some methods to analyze the credibility of the speaker or stakeholder who is making the argument:
A=Ability to See
It’s important to emphasize and define some of the more complex ideas inherent here, specifically vested interest and ability to see. Ability to see refers to the extent to which a person has personally experienced or witnessed the subject of their argument. It devalues purely theoretical arguments with no connection to real life, thus prioritizing diverse viewpoints and assigning value to their lived experiences. Vested interest refers to whether a source is arguing for or against their own financial, political, or professional interest. We give less weight to a speaker who is merely self-promoting and more weight to a speaker compelled to speak out despite the cost to self.
Applying Deconstruction Skills
Using this framework, have learners watch the following video of Mark Zuckerberg introducing Facebook Free Basics. They should vet his credibility as a speaker using the RAVEN terminology, and debate the sincerity of his claim that connectivity is “a human right” and Free Basics is basically a charitable endeavor. Learners will, with any luck, note his immense vested interest and huge profit motive to engage developing economies on this platform. It can be argued that Free Basics entices users to a version of the internet mediated by Facebook and its partners in order to engrain these habits, promote brand loyalty and hook them on the platform. It could also be argued that Facebook is providing an invaluable service and helping the economic development of millions with no immediate profit.
Then, have learners do further research to round out their opinion on this service and the question of Western technology companies' expansion into the developing world in general. A particularly useful document is the Global Voices report on Free Basics adoption in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This in-depth resource combines investigative reporting from real users of the service in many different countries at different phases of adoption. The report questions the primacy of Western, for-profit company’s apps featured on the home screen of the Free Basics platform regardless of the country of the cell phone user:
Global Voices also challenge the assertion that this is not a marketing tool for Facebook, stating:
“Multiple researchers in the group were perplexed by the app’s emphasis on agreements with Facebook, given that the product was branded as “Free Basics” and that it includes a range of websites that are not owned or operated by Facebook. Ghana researcher Kofi Yeboah summarized his experience as follows:
'The user agrees to the terms of Facebook, instead of Free Basics…. This seems peculiar, given that one does not need to create a Facebook account in order to use the program. It is easy to imagine that a first-time user would be uncertain as to whether the Free Basics app is the same as the Facebook app.'”
As a counter point, learners should peruse the following report that details the noncontroversial and mostly accepting roll out of Free Basics in 30 African countries. While the author notes the possible colonialist aims of Facebook, he also evenhandedly quotes many African civil society organizations and leaders who are happy to have access to the service.
After learners have explored and taken in the nuanced viewpoints represented in the article and case studies, they will have more understanding to begin forming their own opinions on the issue. To take this stakeholder assessment one step further, and to add an empathetic valence to their data points, perform a Tunnel of Conscience exercise. A Tunnel of Conscience is an active learning tool that can be used for many types of debates and dilemmas, as it crystallizes the varying stakeholders on any debate in an impactful and immediate way. Arrange your learners standing up in two rows facing each other, with one volunteer poised to walk down this improvised tunnel of participants, stopping at each person to hear their point of view. Explain the following scenario:
Head of tunnel: you are the Prime Minister of Mali, a country that has a low internet use rate while countries nearby are adopting much more quickly. There are also ethnic tensions within your country that you worry may become enflamed on social media.
Facebook executives come to make a deal with the largest cell phone provider to allow access to Facebook Free Basics
Do you allow the deal, or do you attempt to block it?
Each member of tunnel: adopt a different role and line of reasoning. Try to convince the Prime Minister to say yes or no based on your role. NO REPEATS
Ex: “I am a rural farmer who wishes to learn about more modern agricultural methods and grain storage. I vote that you adopt it.”
The head of the tunnel must make a decision after hearing from all stakeholders and reflecting on their reasoning. The head of the tunnel should also state who was most convincing and why.
Remind participants that the stakeholders they choose to represent can argue for or against the expansion, and they need not be totally unbiased. Even biased stakeholders have a position that is worth hearing in this scenario. The most powerful aspect of this exercise comes in the reflection of the head of the tunnel after hearing from so many stakeholders. It is instructive to see the types of arguments that sway the debate, and the roleplay structure invites empathy with the varying viewpoints in a way that simply reading about them would not.
This lesson can be brought to a close here or extended by asking learners to reflect on their personal stance on the issue after considering it, reading case studies and participating in the Tunnel of Conscience. Learners can reflect on their viewpoint and how it has shifted from the initial discussion prompt about access to the internet. Hopefully, they will find that through this deconstruction process, the question has taken on much more complexity and nuance.
 Solon, Olivia. “’It’s Digital Colonialism’: How Facebook’s Free Internet Service Has Failed its Users.” The Guardian, 27 July 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/27/facebook-free-basics-developing-markets  Zuckerberg, Mark. “Free Basics” YouTube Video, 2:04, June 22, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIvYUft2wJM  Zuckerberg, Mark. "Is Connectivity a Human Right?" (PDF). Facebook. August 20, 2013  Global Voices. Free Basics in real life: Six case studies on Facebook's Internet "on ramp" initiative from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Amsterdam: Global Voices Foundation. https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2017-07/apo-nid100156.pdf  Global Voices. Free Basics in real life: Six case studies on Facebook's Internet "on ramp" initiative from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Amsterdam: Global Voices Foundation. https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2017-07/apo-nid100156.pdf  Nothias, Toussaint. “Access Granted: Facebook’s Free Basics in Africa.” Media, Culture & Society 42, no. 3 (April 2020): 329–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443719890530.