Sometimes a bad tweet is just a bad tweet. But sometimes a bad tweet can be a PR and business disaster for one of the world’s wealthiest companies.
On Tuesday, billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent the latter kind of tweet, writing, "Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now."
Andreessen was voicing his frustration at India’s decision to block a new Facebook platform called Free Basics, which would have given Indians who didn’t have mobile data plans free access to a suite of mobile apps, including a stripped-down version of Facebook itself.
Andreessen quickly deleted the tweet and apologized. And Mark Zuckerberg quickly released a statement disavowing Andreessen's remarks:
But the damage was done. Andreessen had given the unfortunate impression that not only does he believe colonialism can be helpful, but that Free Basics is an example of the kind of colonialism that ought to be embraced.
That's pretty clearly not what he meant. Still, it was an extremely unfortunate impression to leave, and not just for the obvious reasons, but also because it plays directly into the very critique of Free Basics that is causing problems for Facebook right now. And Andreessen isn't just any billionaire investor: He's also a member of Facebook's board of directors — which led Zuckerberg, the company's chief, to make a statement formally denouncing the tweet.
Here's what you need to know about the controversial tweet, Facebook's efforts to launch Free Basics in India, and the deeper clash of worldviews at the heart of this controversy.
Why this bad tweet is different from other bad tweets
For months, Facebook has been fighting to bring a free, pared-down version of the internet to Indian mobile users. It was originally branded as internet.org, but when the company came under fire for marketing a commercial product using the .org domain more typical of charities, it switched to the name Free Basics.
Free Basics would offer users access to a simplified, text-only version of Facebook's app, along with other applications designed with developing-economy users in mind. And Facebook would foot the bill for making it available at no cost to users who didn't have data plans.
That is potentially a very big deal for the millions of Indians who do not yet have internet access. But it's also potentially a very big deal for Facebook. Free Basics would have been a way to make Facebook's app the point of entry to the internet for those millions of people — effectively turning it into the default internet utility for them, rather than just a place for social networking. In the long run, that could give Facebook a very strong lock on a very big market.
But that worried net neutrality activists, as well as Indian regulators. On Monday, Indian regulators blocked Free Basics.
And then Andreessen started to tweet.
When is a bad tweet a really bad tweet? When it's sent by a Facebook board member and plays directly into a damaging criticism of Facebook.
2/To be clear, I am 100% opposed to colonialism, and 100% in favor of independence and freedom, in every country, including India.— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 11, 2016
Andreessen is on Facebook's board; he is also a prolific tweeter who champions the positive power of technology, so it's not surprising that he would weigh in on this. Nor is it surprising, given the nature of Twitter, that people responded to Andreessen by comparing Free Basics to colonialism.
But his response to those angry comments was very, very unfortunate. Andreessen sarcastically leaned into the critique, firing off the tweet that presumably set off some kind of a bat signal for Facebook's PR team:
"Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now."
It's not totally clear what Andreessen was trying to say there. There's no reason to believe he actually meant that India wasn't fit to govern itself and should return to being a British colony. But on Twitter, no one cares what you meant to say. And what Andreessen did say seemed to imply that he agreed Free Basics was colonialism but thought colonialism was a good thing that India should embrace.
And that is a big problem for Facebook, because Andreessen, a board member, was playing up exactly the critique that had caused problems for Facebook in the first place: that Free Basics was really a form of technological Western colonialism that would undermine India's progress in the long run.
Indian-American technology writer and venture capitalist Om Malik spelled out that critique in an article for Quartz. Explaining his strong opposition to Free Basics, he wrote:
Maybe I’m suspicious because my family has told me their personal story of the British Raj or maybe because I have read books that over and again detail how a commercial spearhead (The East India Company) came bearing gifts and made way for British imperialism. Regardless, I am suspicious of any for-profit company arguing its good intentions and its free gifts. Nothing—and I do mean nothing—in this life is free. You always pay a price.
But it's more than just about Free Basics feeling like a symbolic echo of colonialism. It would lock in a Western business's control over a valuable Indian resource — in this case, many millions of new internet users — and thus deny access to Indian firms that might have served that market.
Andreessen, by tweeting about Free Basics in the context of colonialism, didn't just suggest his ignorance of that critique — he gave a lot of people the impression that the critique is correct.
Just so we're clear, colonialism is definitely, definitely bad
And that matters. Above and beyond how the tweet might affect Facebook, it was also just very insensitive. Regardless of what Andreessen meant, he wasn't being very thoughtful in his discussion of colonialism, which has had and continues to have extremely negative consequences for much of the world, including India.
As Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post writes:
The reason tweets like Andreesen’s (and statements far more provocative than that) raise the hackles of those from the decolonized world is a simple one, but it needs to be spelled out.
Any defense or celebration of colonialism carries with it an implicit judgment: That somehow our peoples deserved subjugation to a foreign power. And that we didn’t deserve the same self-determination that people in the West take for granted and, indeed, constantly trumpet as inalienable.
That's the real reason Andreessen's tweet seemed so very ugly.
The deeper dispute behind this controversy
There’s a bigger clash of worldviews here. It is an oft-unstated but prevalent view in Silicon Valley that the world’s problems are only an app or a hack away from being solved.
Sometimes that’s just marketing — hence the running gag on the TV show Silicon Valley that every single startup claims to be "making the world a better place." But it’s also an extension of the genuinely held belief in technology’s near-unlimited power to solve problems and improve people’s lives.
In that worldview, making money from your tech company isn’t inconsistent with making people’s lives better, because the whole point is that technology exists to solve problems. From there, it’s only a small step to believing that expanding access to the internet and apps like Facebook so obviously makes the world a better place that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a charitable or commercial endeavor: Everyone benefits, so why quibble about who's making money?
Yes, it's a little silly to believe that web apps can really solve problems with roots that go way beyond access to technology — consider, for example, an app that promises to prevent rebel groups from committing war crimes with a series of mobile phone quizzes. But, even more than that, this thinking leads to the belief that it doesn't really matter who is profiting or whose interests are put first when it comes to tech companies spreading their products, because it always serves the higher good of tech as solution to all problems.
So perhaps the heart of the problem here wasn’t Andreessen’s tweet about colonialism, but the one he had sent the night before: "denying the world’s poorest free partial internet connectivity when they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong."
That message makes sense if you assume that more access to technology is an absolute and unalloyed good, even if it comes with burdensome conditions that give a single company tremendous power over the world's second-largest population.
But if you look at the situation from a different lens — one in which the East India Company’s access to India led to exploitation on a historic scale, for instance — then it seems dismissive and frightening. So perhaps the real problem here isn’t that Marc Andreessen didn’t think before tweeting, but that when he does think, he has too narrow a view of the world.