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

It was in Indonesia three years ago that Helani Galpaya first noticed the anomaly.
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 forResearch 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.
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.
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.

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 isthe internet, as it’s often the only accessible application.” (Emphasis inthe original.)
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, an initiative to “bring the Internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it.” Yet’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, 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.
Finally, there is Facebook Zero, which predates 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 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 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.”


  1. You have Freedom of Speech...... just as long as you say only what is approved.

  2. Star_Spangled_EyesFebruary 10, 2015

    This retarded program is so gay!

  3. RJ O'GuilloryFebruary 10, 2015

    ...bullshit on the vaccination about letting millions of undocumented, potentially ill people across an unguarded border...and then going about ruining Disney's Reputation by claiming the outbreak occurred in one of their parks...what crap from our corrupt government...and of course...if The CC says must be

  4. Brenton TalcottFebruary 10, 2015

    People afraid of words(symbols), demonstrate their ignorant and simple view of language, when expressing their fear.

  5. Yup. Just curious how many have acquired Autism(1 in 70 born) and other neurological disorders as a direct result from vaccines?

  6. You Crackers must not say Heeb or Spook.

    The Hypocracy of UofM is unspeakable.
    Free Speech my "Charlie Hebdo"
    SELECTIVE bigotry by the LIMOUSINE Liberals

    Just how big is that pile of endowments & Trust Funds they sit on .... as they raise tuitions.

  7. The rats are underneath the piles.
    The "usual suspects" are underneath the lot.

    It's not illegal (yet) to say "usual suspects" is it?

  8. Tbo, this is really starting to get on my nerves. It's the freaking measles not the plague. The way the vaccine companies, via MSM, is trying to scare the public is ridiculous. The Ebola hype was bad enough but they gotta be some desperate to try to use the Measles as a scare tactic.
    With the information now coming out about the falsifying of information to get the MMR approved this is their last chance at making any cash off this vaccine before it's pulled.
    I really hope ppl don't fall for this crap any more then they already have... IT"S THE MEASLES... you have a better chance of being shot by a toddler then dying from the measles.

  9. Isn't that the same University of Michigan that produces the consumer "happiness" report, saying how grand things are looking...from the consumers eyes? What difference does it make what words you use when they are still lies(or the truth)?

  10. Even a broken clock is right twice a day..

  11. RJ O'GuilloryFebruary 10, 2015

    ...I read where previous records indicate that the Autism ratio used to be 1 out of every 2500 children being is now down to...(as you suggest)...1 out of every 65-70 children being born....but trust the vaccine manufacturers and corrupt government...(?)....that is why I ended my comment with..."idiots"....for those who couldn't get the RJ.

  12. When I was a kid in the 50s autism was unheard of. With the combination of greed and Agenda21 enthusiasts, it's amazing we're still here.

  13. The cattle must be controlled!


  15. Tatiana CovingtonFebruary 10, 2015

    Must be done by a buncha retarded coloreds. And gay trannies.

  16. How about the UofM F.O.

  17. Sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me.

    A crazy, insane, retarded, gay ,fag tranny has gypped an illegal alien raghead in the ghetto.

    Now I feel like I've been raped and I want to die.

  18. Where does "tyranny" fit into the mix? You can't use that word to describe the corrupt high levels of government? Is this a police state or what?

  19. Release the dogs !!
    The loonies have escaped from the asylum !

  20. RJ O'GuilloryFebruary 11, 2015

    ...they have been planning The North American Union for decades now..(if not centuries) go back to the old pedophile GHW Bush and his New World Order Speech if you want to stamp this treason with a birthdate....convict everyone in the Bush / Clinton / Bush / Clinton / Obama War Crimes-Treason Family...convict they and their little dogs..(Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice Holder, etc.) convict them for treason, confiscate all of their illicit wealth...and then hang them....let their bodies rot on the rope as their flesh drops to the ground and we let small animals eat them....

  21. I smoked a joint in public at the Ann Arbor Hash Bash in 1973. Last week in Ann Arbor, I smoked a cigarette in public on State Street. While enjoying my cigarette, I heard a few "unacceptable words" that were mildly "offensive" and certainly not "inclusive". I fully intend to report this "diminishing experience" to the U of M Inclusive Language police, immediately!


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