Pic: AP.

Six years after “the Facebook” launched as a social network for college students in the US, the nascent dotcom giant opened its first Asian office in Hyderabad, India’s tech mecca.

That was in 2010, and it would prove to be an auspicious move. More than three years on, as Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary Tuesday, the social network’s monthly active users (MAUs) in India have ballooned from 8 million to 93 million – or one in three internet users there. Researchers at eMarketer predict India will become Facebook’s largest market with 152.4 million users this year, surpassing the 151.1 million forecast for the US.

The strong growth has been mirrored across Asia, now home to almost one in three Facebook MAUs. A number that will only increase as the US & Canada and European numbers continue to stabilise.

Facebook India’s head of growth and mobile partnerships Kevin D’Souza told AFP the majority of new users in India are joining Facebook using cheap non-smartphones. In many cases the phones are the first internet-connected device many have owned.

D’Souza says ‘Facebook for Every Phone,’ an app specifically designed for these basic handsets, is used by more than 100 million people globally, and is a key driver of user numbers. The countries in which the app’s own Facebook page is the number one most ‘liked’ – such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and India – are revealing.

Leading technology researcher Vivek Wadhwa credits this spike in social media use with empowering India’s normally “docile” middle class to speak out against social ills – especially the country’s endemic corruption.

Facebook’s growth in Asia has been driven by the take-up of cheap handsets using a simplified Facebook app. (Source: Facebook/Shareholder.com)

The phenomenal rise of anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal from obscurity to become Chief Minister of New Delhi came on a wave of social media support.

According to socialbakers.com, four of the five fastest growing political pages* on Facebook are based in India:

  • the Indian National Congress;
  • Gujarat Chief Minister Narenda Modi;
  • anti-corruption campaigner and New Dehli’s new Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal;
  • and Kejriwal’s party, Aam Aadmi (which has tripled its number of ‘likes’ to more than 1.5 million since December.)

(The fifth, by the way, is a little-known US politician called Barack Obama.)

Pew Research study in late 2013 revealed one-third of adults in the United States get their news from Facebook, whether they logged on for that purpose or not. If those numbers are repeated on the subcontinent, Facebook could emerge as a media giant. In a country with a newspaper circulation of 100 million copies a day and 110 million television sets, that may already be happening.

Despite the healthy figures, though, Facebook does face competition in the region, no more so than in China**, where it and other Western-based social networks have been banned since 2009.

The Chinese social networking site Tencent, along with its popular instant messaging spin-off WeChat, boasts 1,054 million users across the two platforms, a number that is not only growing at an extraordinary rate within China but expanding overseas also.

In Indonesia, MindTalk – a forum set up in 2012 that groups users by interests such as sport, celebrity and travel, has already attracted around 500,000 users.

Alongside India in the top 10 countries with the most Facebook users are: Indonesia (4th, 51 million); Turkey (7th, 32 million); and the Philippines (8th, 29.9 million) – who already lead the world in social media usage.

** An ongoing survey by the Global Web Index has extrapolated the number of Chinese Facebook users to be 87 million, and suggests users are giving the government filter the slip primarily with VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), and VCN (Virtual Cloud Networks). Facebook’s official figures, however put that number at a mere 611,640.