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Should tech firms pay more to help refugees?

Zulfikar AbbanySeptember 17, 2015

As you tweet away, sharing images and thoughts about Europe's refugee crisis, spare a thought for multinational tech firms, and ask yourself: what have they ever done?

Screenshot Spende Flüchtlinge Google
Image: Google

Let's start by stating the obvious: Europe's refugee crisis may be happening here, but its scale is international. Not only are refugees arriving in Europe from outside the region, but refugees still attempt to get to other parts of the world, too, such as Australia. Others are internally displaced and never seem to get anywhere.

Financially, though, the pressure has been on Europe to pay for refugee shelters, processing centers, transportation, food, sanitation, and security.

At the same time, much of the story has been played out and discussed on social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, using technology made or supported by Google and Apple.

They are all American tech firms - some of the richest in the world - and their interests are likewise global.

In fact, they are so rich there is even talk of their one day replacing traditional forms of government, which some Silicon Valley luminaries consider "inefficient."

It begs the question: why, then, don't they foot the bill?

Is #DoingGood really good?

You could say every little bit helps, and who cares about the motivation for giving. But that's not how some social media users have responded to Google's donations campaign for refugees.

First, Google offered €1 million to organizations helping refugees. Then, using its One Today platform, it wants to "make it easier" for you and me to donate ourselves - it promises to match each pledge, with the aim of donating a total "global goal" of €10 million. A small sum for Google.

The past few days have given rise to all that's good and bad on social media - the good being debate:

And the bad being of a wave of hate rhetoric:

It's not immediately clear how these offensive posts will help anyone, unless Google or Twitter step in with a fistful of social responsibility to moderate or block hateful users.

So what about Twitter?

Well, we emailed Twitter, asking whether the company had donated any money for refugees, and if so, how much, and to, or through, whom? Their reply redirected us to a blogpost from September 16, which "contains all our public information on the topic."

The blog post talks a lot about the success of related hashtags.

"As awareness grew," writes Twitter's Emine Etili, "our Twitter Data team reported that #refugeeswelcome was used more than 180,000 times in just two days."

It also says Twitter supports organizations through its "Ads for Good" program, which "provides pro bono ads on Twitter to partner NGOs for awareness-building, advocacy and fundraising purposes."

And elsewhere, Twitter highlights how such relief organizations use its service to advertise fundraising efforts.

But nowhere does it answer our simple question: has Twitter donated its own money?

And that at a time when it's just launched a service to allow political donations through its service, so people can tweet funds to American presidential hopefuls.

The company says it does not take a percentage of "tweeted political donations."

How about Facebook?

Allowing financial transactions for anything is seen as generally lucrative - say, for shopping. And the technology is there.

Screeshot Facebook Just Giving Refugee Council
Image: Facebook/Refugee Council

Facebook facilitates donations, for instance for the UK's Refugee Council.

In April, after an earthquake struck Nepal, Facebook even made a similar pledge to Google's.

But there seems to be a disparity between the way people have been using Facebook and its other services, such as Instagram, during this refugee crisis, and the level of its own public and financial commitment to resolving it.

In its second quarter report for 2015, Facebook says it had, on average, 968 million "Daily Active Users" in June 2015.

And in that same quarter Facebook cites its worldwide "Average Revenue per User" as $2.76. In the US and Canada, its ARPU was $9.30, and in Europe $3.36.

Infographic Facebook Average Revenue per User Q2 in 2015

Given those figures, you would think there was a little spare change left in the kitty - even after expenses. Especially as so much of their earnings are driven by average people posting pictures, text and video about the refugee situation on these platforms - without remuneration.

But the firms earn every time: every tweet and post - for or against - refugees, and every pledged donation, is market research in the bank. With every post, they know more about how you think and how much you're willing to spend.

It's not just the social media platforms, of course - it's also the makers of the devices we use to "engage" on social media. They are coming under fire, too.

Apple is another US tech firm, which almost never fails to publish hugely successful earnings reports. Yet it remains mysteriously silent over Europe's refugee crisis.

As Twitter user Bjørn E. Hestamar says, what's the difference between Nepal and now?