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Can Facebook Help People Oppose Government Corruption?


Protesters in Spain march in April 2017 against government corruption. Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket/Getty Images
Protesters in Spain march in April 2017 against government corruption. Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket/Getty Images

Facebook is great for watching cute animal videos, like dogs doing yoga or raccoons popping bubbles. But can it accomplish something loftier — for instance, fight government corruption?

The answer, say researchers, is a solid "yes." Facebook, in its role as a platform where people can openly share information, has become a tool against governmental corruption in places where press freedom is minimal. A new study, published in the April 2017 edition of the journal Information Economics and Policy, is the first to identify a link between social media and corruption in more than 150 countries, and to assert that social media can act as a governmental watchdog.

Anti-corruption protesters in Baghdad, Iraq, take to the streets in 2015 with a coffin representing a lack of public services.
Anti-corruption protesters in Baghdad, Iraq, take to the streets in 2015 with a coffin representing a lack of public services.
Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

In countries with oppressive governments, social media can do the heavy lifting — sharing both state-sponsored and user-generated news and events, and allowing a back-and-forth communication that is more difficult for governments to track and censor. This is especially true in countries that lack freedom of the press, where reporters face serious roadblocks and risk as they dig into government propaganda, fraud and other issues.

 "Social media provides a cheap and quick means of sharing information and reaching a larger audience to organize public protests against the corrupt activities of government officials and politicians," study co-author and Virginia Tech economics department head Sudipta Sarangi said in a press release. "It is therefore not a surprise that despotic governments favor controlling social media."

In 2012, Sarangi and the study's co-authors began investigating data in India, where social media was instrumental in organizing anti-corruption rallies. A year earlier, Facebook and Twitter users helped grow the Arab Spring civil movement in the Middle East, which led to deposed governmental leaders in Egypt, Libya, Syria and other countries.  

The Virginia Tech researchers went on to gather data from more than 150 countries. They used a falsification test (an economics tool to test alternate, most-likely untrue hypotheses to bolster the main hypothesis) to show the same results would not be true in the same countries during a pre-Facebook era. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found a link in the data: The more Facebook was used by the general public, the higher the likelihood that the public would oppose government corruption.

"This study underscores the importance of freedom on the internet that is under threat in many countries of the world," Sarangi said.

Other qualitative studies have looked at the effect of social media on corruption, but those focused broadly on internet or e-government portals and their impact on corruption. Few studies have specifically looked at social media's impact on corruption. As for now? Of the countries in the Virginia Tech study, the least corrupt was Denmark and the most corrupt was Somalia. The United States was not included in the study. 

In 2011, protesters in Bangladesh speak out against perceived government corruption.
In 2011, protesters in Bangladesh speak out against perceived government corruption.
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Getty Images