From getting jobs to winning elections, Facebook wields heavy influence in Mongolia
“In Mongolia you must accept two truths”, my friend Bolor-Erdene insists. “The first is that our nomadic tradition makes us very flexible. When the snow falls, you have to move your ger and your herd, no matter what plans you had already.”
“The second”, she adds, “is that we are all on Facebook.”
A remarkable 2.25 million out of Mongolia’s 3 million population are active Facebook users, representing the highest proportion of Facebook users for low income countries. This high usage rate results partially from Facebook’s Free Basics program, which enables Mongolians to access the platform for free on mobile plans with certain network operators. Because of its ubiquity, and the dearth of online content in Mongolian, Facebook has become a primary platform for Mongolians to access information and connect over long distances.
But is this connectivity reaping productivity benefits for most Mongolians?
During a workshop I attended in Ulaanbaatar, the Head of Digital Services at UNITEL, one of the largest mobile network operators in Mongolia, suggested that Facebook’s popularity derived largely from its entertainment value. ‘Many of the poor in Mongolian don’t know how to use the internet productively. They spend hours watching videos and chatting on Facebook instead of using the internet for education or for work,’ she claimed. Other business people and government representatives in the room agreed.
But my visit to Gerhub, an urban regeneration project applying low cost innovations to address infrastructure gaps in the ger district–a large peri-urban settlement that is home to over 800,000 Mongolians–tells a different story. When Enkhjin, the CEO of Gerhub, and her team were looking for construction workers for one of their projects in the 31st Khoroo of the ger district, they joined the Facebook group ‘Монголын Барилгачдын групп’, or ‘Mongolian Builder group’. This Facebook group has 164,000 members, many of them construction workers and project managers, and functions as a labour matching platform for casual workers, a majority of whom live in the ger district. Here construction companies and home owners post jobs and work opportunities, and workers post their phone numbers and make enquiries–a truly vibrant virtual market place. This, it appeared, was how the majority of the urban poor were spending their time online. Not on frivolous chit chat, or mindless scrolling, but on finding connections that can help them make a living.
Economic activity on Facebook isn’t restricted to job posting. The popularity of Facebook groups has sprouted e-commerce-like platforms, where people post materials they are selling, renting or bartering. These groups have even birthed a peculiar, uniquely Mongolian version online marketing. Administrators of large Facebook groups become ‘influencers’ by virtue of their position as membership gatekeepers and content authorisers, a model that has become so popular that it has burgeoned an industry of middlemen marketing agencies recruiting Mongolians to join these Facebook groups so that they can target them with product advertisements. In Mongolia it is not algorithmic product boosting that is all the rage, although this function does get some use, but this home grown advertising market that is an example of users finding alternative means to monetize the platform for themselves.
The rise of the administrator influencer isn’t a perfect story of ingenuity and creation of value from a platform often under fire for exploiting user data. Much like Facebook itself, these influencers are prone to racketeering.
In my home country, Lesotho, the locals will tell you that when an election is on the horizon, you can tell by the smell of fresh tarr. Election season seems to be when all the new roads are built. In Mongolia, the harbinger of elections is the rampant, almost spam-like posting of content that praises or vilifies certain candidates. Politicians are willing to pay influencers considerable sums of money to post praise materials for their own parties and candidates, or to spread smear campaigns against their opposition. ‘Politicians will pay upwards of 5,000 USD for groups with a couple thousand people on them,’ exclaimed Odgerel, a community organiser partnering with Gerhub on their community space project. Odgerel is the administrator of a Facebook group for residents in his apartment block in Ulaanbaatar. He created the group as an attempt to inspire civility in his neighbourhood, but now spends most of his time filtering content and deleting irrelevant posts. He scrolled down his screen to show me the slew of posts he had not approved, many from a particularly enthusiastic young man with bleached hair, pushing a pair of knock-off Supreme sneakers.
Not all administrators are like Odgerel. Many routinely sell the rights to their pages to the highest bidder, exposing users to speculation and disinformation. Even when there is no reason to suspect foul play, the problems of spamming adversely affect users, especially those with resource constraints, who rely on Facebook groups for access to vital information about jobs and opportunities.
In Mongolia, Facebook’s role has moved beyond its founder’s idea of creating connections and sharing content with loved ones, and there seems to be some imperative or responsibility for Facebook to both recognise its role and rise to the challenge of providing a better platform for its users in Mongolia. However the responsibility for creating content and providing functioning platforms cannot rest with Facebook alone. Users flock to Facebook because it is free, and because better options are unavailable to them.
In the absence of plans to diversify internet use by generating locally relevant and much needed content, or to improve the affordability of mobile and fixed broadband, Facebook’s shadow will expand unrelenting. For now, in a newly erected ger, a young recent migrant to the ger district scrolls past political propaganda posts, cat gifs, and that young sneaker-pusher’s video ad for knock-off Supremes in search for a post that could help pay for dinner.