Facebook expands ‘Community Boost’ digital skills training program to Europe



Facebook has announced it’s expanding a free training program that teaches Internet-skills, media literacy and online safety to Europe. It says its “ambition” is to train 300,000 people across six EU countries by 2020 — specifically in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland.

It also says it will be opening “digital learning centers” in three of the countries — Spain, Italy, and Poland — as part of the program (though it’s not yet clear where exactly the three centers will be located).

The company says the training will generally be offered to “underrepresented groups”. It’s not entirely clear what that means but Facebook points to a Berlin school it set up last year, in partnership with the ReDI School of Digital Integration, which teaches classes ­such as coding and professional development to refugees, seniors citizens and young people, as a template for its thinking here.

We’ve asked for its definition of underrepresented groups; details of the application process; and its criteria for granting training places and will update this post with any additional details.

Facebook operates this digital skills training program under the brand name “Community Boost”.

While the training is offered to target recipients for free, Facebook’s business clearly stands to benefit if more people become digitally literate after being introduced to the Internet by Facebook — giving the company the chance to add more users and gain more overall eyeballs for its ad targeting platform, as indeed the name of the program implies.

Media literacy is also of increasing importance to a platform that is now bogged down with accusations that its business benefits by fencing fake news.

Back in November Facebook announced a touring Community Boost program would be doing the rounds of 30 US cities in 2018. And, as you might recall, the timing of that announcement came hard on the heels of revelations that Kremlin agents had used Facebook’s ad targeting platform to inject all sorts of divisive disinformation into Americans’ eyeballs during the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to disrupt the democratic process. Putting Zuck under pressure to have some positive domestic PR to offset all the negative headlines.

In Europe, Facebook has also been facing rising political scrutiny and displeasure. Last month, for example, the French president announced an anti-fake news election law will be incoming this year — aiming to tackle the spread of online fake news during election periods.

While in the UK parliamentarians who are running a wide-ranging investigation into fake news have expressed increasing frustration with Facebook (and Twitter) for footdragging in the face of asks they more thoroughly probe the extent of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum vote.

So, in the EU too, Facebook is under pressure to offset a lot of bad PR. And funding some digital skills training is exactly the kind of feel-good initiative that’s positioned to play well politically — even while it also absolutely still aligns with Facebook’s core business goals of increasing online usage and thus overall eyeballs for targeting ads.

Digital skills is also a pretty woolly umbrella at this point. Facebook says — for example — that it could mean teaching coding to someone who already has “very strong skills” or helping someone else open an online bank account. It further specifies that the training offered will depend on the level of existing skills of the people being targeted — so it’s not necessarily going to be teaching much actual coding here.

To deliver the program, Facebook is partnering with digital upskilling firm Freeformers which will supply the training across the six EU countries.

“We will be using our Future Workforce Model to help individuals acquire the attributes to be employable, successful and productive in a digital world,” says founder and CEO Gi Fernando, in a statement. “These attributes will be aligned to the mindset, skillsets and behaviours industry needs in its future workforce.”

Facebook specifies there will be 50,000 training places going to target recipients in the UK (so it’s presumably going to be 50k places apiece in each of the six target EU Member States).

PRing the announcement at Davos today, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg trumpeted that the company is committing to train a total of one million people and businesses in Europe by 2020.

However she was rolling in figures from existing Facebook small business training programs, i.e. programs which are aimed at encouraging SMEs to adopt its advertising platform, to reach that politically expedient 1M figure. “These skills will help people thrive in today’s workplace and help small businesses grow and create jobs,” Sandberg added in a statement.

The company has also commissioned — and is today PRing — research in the EU markets it’s targeting which it claims show small businesses’ use of Facebook “translates into new jobs and opportunities for communities across the EU”. Though it has not released details of the methodology underpinning its findings. And, well, it would say that wouldn’t it?

It’s worth noting that not all the Community Boost training will take place in person. In the UK Facebook specifies that the program will reach 12,500 people through in-person training and 37,500 online. So if it’s replicating that split across all the countries then total in-person training places could make up just 75,000 out of the 300,000 total goal.

We’ve asked how much money Facebook is spending to fund the EU Community Boost program specifically and will update this post if it responds.

“Today’s announcements are part of our ongoing investments in digital training. Since 2011, we’ve invested more than $1 billion to support small businesses around the world. Our Boost Your Business program has trained hundreds of thousands of small businesses globally, and more than 1 million small businesses have used Facebook’s free online learning hub, Blueprint. More than 70 million small businesses use our free Pages tool to create an online presence,” Facebook adds in its blog announcement.

In a further move clearly aimed at trying to drum up positive local noise around its platform, Facebook says it will be launching a national ad campaign in the UK that will showcase small businesses that it says have used Facebook to help their businesses grow.

At the same time it is facing rather less positive sentiments from users in the UK, according to another piece of recent research…

Also today, Facebook announced a €10M investment in “accelerating AI innovation in France” — by increasing its AI research Paris’ PhD fellow places from 10 to 40.

It also says it’s funding 10 servers, as well as open datasets for French public institutions, and that it will double the team of researchers and engineers there from 30 to 60.

Companies investing in AI research are also of course investing in their own AI research departments, given the ongoing AI skills shortage and fierce industry competition for AI expertise. So that €10M for students in France is naturally positioned to help accelerate AI innovation at Facebook too.

Zooming out for a little more context, European Union lawmakers have been talking tough on tax reform lately and even entertaining ideas such as taxing digital ads. And ministers in certain Member States — including France — are very angry about tech giants’ habitual practice of profit shifting to lower tax economies (like Ireland, as Facebook has) as a strategy to minimize their overall EU tax liabilities.

Feeling the heat on that, in December Facebook said it would start to book its international advertising revenue in the countries where it is generated this year — i.e. rather than re-routing it though Ireland as it had been doing for all these years and benefiting from a lower corporate tax rate.

In the UK last year Facebook paid just £5.1M in corporation tax — despite its revenues in the market leaping up to £842.4M, for example.

And, well, just think of how many digital skills and AI upskilling programs EU governments could have invested in if Facebook had been paying taxes on its per country revenue instead of seeking to pay back the minimum possible.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images



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