Facebook is becoming synonymous with ‘Internet’ to global users

For many users around the world, Facebook might as well be the entire Internet. A new set of data collected by Quartz suggests that a number of Web-goers the world over report that they use Facebook, but they don’t use the Internet at large.

While Facebook would surely be pleased with its status as synonymous with the greater Web, it’s a revealing glimpse at how Facebook users behave on and perceive the service globally. 

The phenomenon, initially reported in Indonesia by researcher Helani Galpaya and then Africa by Christoph Stork, arises as a discrepancy between the percentage of respondents who say they use Facebook compared to the percentage who say they use the Internet. In Africa, such users accounted for 3 to 4 percent of those surveyed in Stork’s initial research. According to an account of Galpaya’s results in 2012: 

“She picked up an odd response pattern: negative answers to questions about Internet use that would lead us to conclude the respondent was not an Internet user but claims that they were using Facebook on the mobile. So it seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook.”

The results might not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Facebook’s efforts in the developing world. In fact, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made note of the behavior at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this year. “We know Facebook is one of the main drivers of why people buy phones, particularly in the developing world,” Sandberg said. “People will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the Internet in some places.”

In replicating the prior findings, Quartz found that 11 percent of 500 survey participants in Indonesia reported that while they do use Facebook, they do not use the Internet. In a survey of 500 individuals in Nigeria, 9 percent of the survey’s Facebook users do not identify as Internet users. 

It’s an interesting discrepancy, and while our instinct might be to assume these users are misguided—of course Facebook is part of the Internet—they might actually have a point. If your only online usage occurs within Facebook’s walled garden, are you really using the Internet or are you just using the curated bits that Facebook gives you access to?

The results only underscore Facebook’s mission to connect the world—but whether the company intends to connect it to the Internet or just to Facebook remains unclear. Facebook’s push with Internet.org has resulted in the creation of a Facebook app for every platform and free access to Facebook and a curated selection of other sites—but not the broader Internet—in countries like Ghana. In other countries, Facebook-only data plans are the norm. 

Facebook claims its enduring mission is to “make the world more open and connected,” and the Quartz report indicates that it’s indeed succeeding on one of those two counts—though perhaps only when it comes to being connected to Facebook.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Taylor Hatmaker

Taylor Hatmaker

Taylor Hatmaker has reported on the tech industry for nearly a decade, covering privacy and government. Most recently, she was the Debug editor of the Daily Dot. Prior to that, she was a staff writer and deputy editor at ReadWrite, a tech and business reporter for Yahoo News, and the senior editor of Tecca. Her editorial interests include censorship, digital activism, LGBTQ issues, and futurist consumer tech.