by Valerie Long Tweedie
What is going on between Australia and Facebook?
As you already probably know, news is very expensive to produce. Research, investigative journalism, and foreign bureaus with "feet on the ground" are expensive to fund. The main source of revenue for newspapers and news outlets is advertising, which has been declining since people have been getting more and more of their news on-line. News organizations that have gone on-line attract advertisers by keeping track of how many people go to their sites for news. But this is not enough.
Sadly, lots of small, local news outlets have had to go out of business and even the bigger ones are having to lay off journalists and other staff. This means the Fourth Estate and an independent media, which is the watchdog of our democracy, is in peril.
Facebook and Google, because they are the biggest beneficiaries of Australians linking news via their sites (FB made .7 BILLION last year off of Australians via advertising revenue but only paid a paltry 2.4% tax), have been asked to negotiate in good faith with the media companies to help offset some of their costs. Google, has done this. Facebook has been very belligerent about it from the start and threatened to cut all of Australia off of the FB platform.
What Facebook actually did on February 18 was block all news links not only coming out of Australia but also all international sources. So someone like me who links to U.S. sites in my FB comments has had all my links blocked. However, what they did that was really egregious was, in their efforts to take on the Australian government in a power play, they became very punitive. They cut off a lot of platforms like the Department of Health - right before we start our vaccine rollout on Monday.
Why is this important? Because after years of encouraging organisations to use Facebook to distribute important information to the public (from which FB benefits through the gathering of information on all of us and then targeting advertising back to us - for a profit), they cut off a vital source of information on where to go for vaccines and links to places to sign up for vaccines in the middle of a pandemic. They have also blocked sites where people can go to get help if they are being abused or suspect children are being abused. They have blocked weather platforms in the middle of the summer - which means bushfire season in Australia - again, alerts to where fires are and how to avoid them. Cottage business-people like Sally, who has a tiny home hairdressing salon, or the woman who makes Thai food out of her kitchen and takes orders for dinner or community organisations like the local little league groups have all been abruptly cut off.
After giving away a product for "free" - which people have all signed onto - many probably not realising just how much personal information FB has been gathering on them and selling on for a profit - Facebook has suddenly cut them off. Why? Because Facebook wants its users to pressure the government to stop trying to make them contribute to the news media sources they benefit from.
So why should most FB users care if they are only sharing shallow content memes, recipes and pictures of their dogs? Because others are using FB and Google to access and share information in this highly technical world that is often very hard for many people to navigate. We should all care that a company that is acting very monopolistic is flexing its muscle against a very reasonable request from a sovereign nation simply because it doesn't want to share a little bit of the vast wealth it is getting from the citizens of that very sovereign nation.
Right now, Australia is a test case on two fronts. China is flexing its muscle against us - and turning back our products like fresh lobster and lumber at the Chinese ports - because our government has had questions about the origins of Covid 19, spoken out against the corporation Huawei and most importantly, because the Australian government has spoken against China's incursion into the South China Sea region. In the same way, Australia is a test case for how a powerful multinational tech company like Facebook can influence a sovereign country's laws and policies. The reason FB is fighting so hard is because this highly profitable corporation doesn't want other countries with equally stretched media outlets to follow suit. In essence, it doesn't want the gravy train to end. But it isn't just Facebook. Other powerful tech corporations are watching the power game and will also follow suit - as will many multinationals - if Australia blinks. This is why this fight is so important to all of us who want fair and democratic countries.
The question is do we want a democratic government (as imperfect as it is) with politicians we can vote in and out of office making the rules and laws for our country? Or do we want giant for-profit corporations making the rules and laws?
Note: Many of you who read this will ask, "Why is she on Facebook anyway?" I admit, my links to relevant news articles seem out of sync with what most "friends" are posting. These people do seem shallow and naïve in their belief that all will be well if they keep an upbeat attitude.
But how are we to educate others about the important issues if they only get their news from Fox or CNN or Facebook? They can and are being completely cocooned in their echo chambers of friends who are like them. Sometimes I want to give up and quit. And then someone makes a comment that they like what I am posting and that it is informative. I don't think I am changing the world. In fact, I know most people probably see my posts and scroll by. But we who know better, know these are perilous times and if we can reach only one person each, we can together make a difference. When I first found Sardonicky, I was very naïve about politics. I thought the NYT was a great source of accurate information and that my government was pretty much protecting my middle class interests. Over time and because of Karen's essays (and comments in the NYT) and many of the seasoned commenters on this site, I learned what was really happening in the world. The truth is heavy and hard for most people to hear and accepting the truth is a slow process.
Now, having said all that against Facebook. The reality is the Liberal government (The Republicans of Australia) is caving into pressure from the big corporate media in Australia - think Rupert Murdoch. Google has made a deal to pay for content but only with the big players. - Which means the little players are left to struggle along as always. The other issue is just because the big media players are getting millions a year (Murdoch's corporations are getting 30 million a year), there is no guarantee that this money is going to go to journalism. So the fight for truth and justice via the media might be a red herring.
I still come down on the side of thinking we need to limit the power of Facebook. The corporation claims that cutting off non-new platforms like weather, vaccine sites and little ma and pa sites was just a glitch and will be rectified. But this corporation has been threatening to do this for months, and has had months to plan its execution.
I suspect that every step has been calculated.
(Valerie Long Tweedie is a teacher living in Adelaide.)