By Eliza Bacon, MA Global Media and Communications
2021 really has been the year of Facebook; the year of reckoning with the role it plays in our lives, and what little we can do about it. Why ‘year’ when we’re only in the early months of 2021? Because I predict this fire is only just heating up.
The latest feather in the tech company’s controversial cap is the Australian government. This stalemate brought to the fore many growing problems in news gathering today. How does the power of BigTech influence the relationship between journalism and democracy? What does it tell us about multinational corporations versus the nation-state? Whose side to take, Murdoch or Zuckerberg? Most importantly, the news shut-down proves yet again the problem of Facebook operating as both a private company and an essential service.
First, what happened? Social media has been draining traditional news media of its advertising revenue for years. Exacerbated by the pandemic, last year saw hundreds of Australian newspapers closed. Meanwhile, tech companies have been doing better than ever.
The Australian government drafted legislation to temper this imbalance, targeting Facebook and Google in particular. Tech companies must negotiate rates with news providers for publishing their news and a government-appointed arbitrator will set the rates if commercial negotiations fail. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher proposed that the new legislation ‘will ensure that news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate, helping to sustain public-interest journalism in Australia.’
Google has appeased the media companies by entering into a significant partnership with NewsCorp. But Facebook and Google are different beasts; one is a search engine that allows users to search for news gatherers, and the other is a social media site that doesn’t so much publish news as it enables users to do so. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, has argued that to start paying news providers for linking to their content is to disrupt the fundamental mechanisms of the internet. He makes a good point, though his pluralistic ideal is precisely what is threatened by the dominance of Facebook et al.
Perhaps more importantly in an increasingly hybrid media environment, choosing which sites count as ‘news providers’ is a very tricky business. Atlassian, an Australian software company, argues that ‘Legislation creating government-favoured categories of web sites will only disrupt neutrality on the Internet.’
So, Facebook refused the conditions. Instead, they blocked posts by Australian publishers from being seen all over the world and blocked all users in Australia from seeing any news content. To add insult to injury, faulty algorithms extended the ban to some key government information and nonprofit pages during its initial rollout. Accusations of censorship and outcry at threatening to withhold access to key information in the midst of a pandemic were understandably seen.
To be clear, Facebook was entirely within their rights to suspend these services. If they don’t want to pay for news links they should not have to. But, for a significant number of people, Facebook has become the information nexus. It’s time to start grappling with what this means.
The Big Ick of Big Tech’s opaque power was felt in January when various social media platforms banned Donald Trump’s account in the wake of the Capitol Storming. More recently, they have banned the accounts of the Myanmar military based on their human rights abuses.
What about Modi’s new legislation that aims to force tech companies to take down posts the Indian government deems contentious? The Indian Farmers’ Protests are just one example of the lifelines social media sites provide for dissent. We can’t always trust nation-states to produce legislation that regulates tech in the interests of free and fair democracy, but we can’t trust Facebook to judge this distinction either.
Eventually, Zuckerberg returned to the negotiating table and restored news in return for some concessions. It is yet to be seen whether the amended law’s proper installation will support good quality journalism; it will likely benefit Murdoch’s NewsCorp more than anyone else. Lizzie O’Shea of Digital Rights Watch has written that the changes will see both social media and news media empowered towards a data-extractive business model that yields great profit at great public cost. Depressing.
Either way, we should be deeply concerned by Facebook’s monopoly over our information ecosystem. It enables them to strip individuals and communities of communicative power in an instant. Whether used for ‘good’ or for ‘leverage’, it’s all power. Power that is not held to account. With more and more countries oiling up for the fight, it’s going to be one to watch.
Photo caption: Facebook login page. (Credit: Acidpix, Flickr)