LEBO MADIBA: Meta threatens to further entrench the digital divide

Africa’s economy might have to play catch-up with the rest of the world

Facebook’s rebranding presents the globe with the opportunity to partake in a multisensory world where ideas, online currencies and products are exchanged in a democratic manner. But its presence could mean Africa’s economy will have to play catch-up with the rest of the world.

Since Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, announced that his company will become Meta (Meta Platforms Inc is the full name), numerous media experts have concluded that the rebranding is an attempt to create some distance from the tarnished social media platform.

In 2013 Facebook was embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica data breach for political advertising. The scandal has prompted governments — including SA — to tighten data security on Facebook and most other platforms.

A few short weeks before the Meta announcement Frances Haugen, Facebook’s former employee tasked with preparing the platform for the US presidential election in 2020, disclosed tens of thousands of company documents to The Wall Street Journal and US Securities and Exchange Commission. She said the platform deliberately overlooks divisive content — which she further said is a betrayal of democracy. Zuckerberg denied accusations that the company puts profit before people, saying it spends millions on public safety.

Considering the rap sheet, experts are correct in thinking the seventh richest man in the world is trying to rescue his company’s cratered reputation with Meta. Yet, there is still a lot to be said about Meta’s real-world ramifications — how it will affect politics and economics across the world, particularly in Africa.

With Meta, Zuckerberg wants to build the Metaverse, which the World Economic Forum refers to as the next manifestation of the internet. This multisensory environment is an extended reality combining augmented, virtual and mixed reality with connections to the real-world economy.

From a tech perspective Meta will blur the lines between reality and technology and change the way we live, work, learn and play. But reaching the ultimate goal of the Metaverse has to start small — by improving audience engagement. This could be the reason for the brand overhaul.

Social media is a crowded space. To the throngs of young TikTokers, Facebook is the dusty old cloak better left to an ageing audience. Facebook now has the opportunity to adapt to a new generation of social media users and introduce its products back to them.

A change in strategy gives Facebook some space to continue to grow. It can better position itself to shape the rules, which is important if it is to mitigate the commercial impact of Apple’s continued privacy push on its existing advertising business.

Frances Haugen, Facebook whistleblower. Picture: BLOOMBERG/STEFANI REYNOLDS

From a marketing and data perspective rich data becomes the real metric when it comes to determining brand audiences and what influences their buying decisions. Meta could become the aggregator and integrator of user data from all of its platforms, therefore enhancing targeted advertising.

Considering the decline of print media and fragmented numbers on broadcast, the days of relying on traditional demographics for targeted display campaigns are gone. New media consumption trends call for hyperpersonalisation — allowing for the ability to leverage predictive and contextual audiences in a way that goes beyond the usual demographics such as age and gender.

The difference between Zuckerberg’s Metaverse and the internet is that no single individual or company owns the latter. Web 3.0 and the real metaverse — with their focus on open-sourced shared three-dimensional 3D worlds — are based on people taking back and owning their data. The former is the modern mutual ownership and governance of new decentralised systems of intelligence and dynamic economic incentives. Therefore, network participants can collaborate to solve previously intractable or “thinly spread” problems.

In an ITWeb article Mic Mann, cofounder of innovation firm Mann Made and CEO of Africarare, said the convergence between virtual reality and blockchain technology is enabling true digital ownership. Creators can then produce virtual products and sell them in the Metaverse. But he added that negative sentiments surrounding Facebook might turn people away from the Metaverse as they could believe it will be used as a nation-state to control them.

Mann’s Orwellian concerns bring to mind China’s social credit system, which collates an individual’s behavioural data from various real-world and online platforms and determines their citizen score. High scores can enable entry into a top university. Low scores might not even get you a plane ticket or a job.

Regulation is therefore inevitable, but it could be miles away as big tech innovations have outpaced legislation. As RHEST Creative Studio cofounder Kagiso Semenya said, Meta should ring alarm bells for global policymakers because the company — and Alphabet — are getting bigger and stopping them down the line will not be as easy as imposing fines.

Reports and opinions have largely touched on the ramifications Meta would have on developed nations. However, its effects on Africa — with its developing economies — are still to be determined.

Mobile phones

When it comes to adopting new technologies, it is believed Africa always lags behind the rest of the world. This might be true when it comes to computers and video gaming. However, the continent took to mobile phones seamlessly in the last 15 years. By 2018, almost 750-million people in Sub-Saharan Africa had a SIM connection and 44% had mobile subscriptions.

Mobile phone adoption grew because the technology became cheaper over the years. On the other hand, virtual reality hardware is costly for Africans, at least for now.

Meta might work for high-income individuals who wish to connect with a worldwide audience and become a part of a new online global economy. But the rest of the continent runs the risk of being left out of a global virtual reality revolution, and it could further entrench divisions and inequalities in an already unjust world.

So what do companies like Meta owe in terms of global social responsibility? The answer is still to come.

It would be short-sighted for Meta to overlook the opportunities the world’s youngest continent has to offer. About 60% of 1.38-billion people are under the age of 25. In 2018 its median age was said to be 19 years, and it is touted to remain that way through to 2050. The World Bank lists 26 African countries in the middle-income range and in July last year Mauritius became the first to move into the high-income category.

If virtual reality technology prices dip, coupled with Africa’s incremental growth in income, the continent could adopt the technology — and Meta — much like it did the mobile phone more than a decade ago.

• Madiba is MD of PR Powerhouse.

Originally Published on: www.businesslive.co.za