Facebook’s new strategy, sketched in a post by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, arrives as the corporation reckons with its outsized role in the digital ecosystem, and the limits of its capacity to police 2.3 billion users. The challenge was underlined within a fortnight of the memo, when Facebook scrambled to remove 1.5 million graphic videos of a heinous terrorist attack broadcast through its livestreaming platform.  

Mr Zuckerburg’s response is to reengineer a network based on permanent and public sharing towards ephemeral and encrypted communication. Commentators have pointed to Facebook’s lagging implementation of past privacy pledges, but also to the strategy’s practical hurdles. How can it effectively moderate or monetise encrypted content? How does it merge its platforms’ data, as previously planned? Where does Facebook draw the line when hosting data in territories with dubious human rights records?

The last question reveals the vulnerability inherent in Facebook’s global reach. As governments are flexing their muscles against Mr Zuckerberg’s platforms on competition, privacy and security grounds, they are likely to see ‘new’ Facebook through the same lens as Telegram; an encrypted messenger popular with privacy-focused users. This constituency encompasses both human rights activists evading censorship and adherents of the self-described Islamic State, making it a target of authoritarian regimes and democratic governments alike. Mr Zuckerberg likely envisages Facebook 2.0 as closer to Chinese tech-giant Tencent's WeChat, which intertwines messaging with lucrative payment services, but regulators are likely to draw comparisons to Telegram and act accordingly.

Facebook’s design choices, intended to “make the world more open and connected”, have already profoundly impacted political, economic and social activity in almost every nation; a fact that sits uneasily with the platform’s role in accelerating a global rejection of international norms and elites. Whatever Mr Zuckerburg’s intentions, it will take more than encrypted messaging to reverse that.

This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx