Monday, February 22, 2021

Facebook Follies: Underhanded Down Under

 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.)


Mark Thomason said...

Many local news outlets got their non-local news from wire services. Those operated on subscriptions from users. Those tried to avoid offending any of their subscribing local news outlets. It was not exactly objective news reporting doing truth seeking, but it did try to avoid offending.

Before those, the BBC was seen as a major component of British influence in WW2 because it was believed by listeners to be accurate, truthful in what it said even when that was painful for Britain. In fact of course it was not a fearless truth seeker willing to damage British interests, but it did make an effort not to lie outright. It did censor out some of what Britain did not want to hear, or at least delay the reports. In that it greatly differed from the Napoleonic Era "Bulletins" which were a byword for lies, and the later Nazi propaganda that extolled the Big Lie that was sometimes wrapped in a bit of truth just to sell it.

For many years, British governments supported television with subsidy. It was paid by a license fee on TV's. Thus, a sound Western democracy did subsidize TV, and did run more or less honest news even amid a world war.

The public would now be well served by a similar subsidy of wire service reporting such as we once had. Nothing about wire services, subsidy, or even government involvement in something that remains truthful is entirely unprecedented. It is not easy or automatic, but it is also not impossible. It has all been done before, by the US and Britain.

If our recent past news model has become uneconomic, impossible to function, then we need something new. We could try something based on what has worked before.

I realize that Voice of America was originally said to be this, but was instead captured by right wing propaganda voices in the US. I repeat then that this would not be easy or automatic. However, we do need an alternative to "we know this does not work."

Jay–Ottawa said...

Thanks for your post, Valerie. Facebook is on many levels a danger to users. It’s like you to punch up and trust that some users may be open to conviction. I’m not so sure, though, about hanging in there on the chance of making rare conversions within the site. Either put FB down or tame it and, necessarily, in the short term.

The biggest animals in the wild –– the African elephant and the whales of the sea –– are mostly viewed as noble, at least by the humans whose only contact with such creatures is through film viewed from a couch.

Humans, on the other hand, think things and make things and do things that prove that they are biggest of all. Alas, in human society bigness rarely results in nobility. Look at the richest of humanity. Look at their giant works, like Facebook. The bigger they are, the harder they fall into dishonour.

Only by breaking them up might such institutions become, if not noble, at least less harmful. But the superrich have bought the operators who should have swung the anti-trust axe years ago. As for average people, they are blind or indifferent to the tricks of bigness. That’s why “accepting the truth is a slow process.”

I find it hard to believe that conversions in behalf of justice will come soon enough and in sufficient volume within Facebook to make a difference. Energy might better be invested otherwise. If anti-trust laws won’t be used to bring giant corporations down to size, boycotts by many of us Lilliputians would.

A determined siege of those giants through boycotts must by definition come from the outside, from people who temporarily step away from Facebook or who were already talking it up about the damage being done by great corporations to civil society, as well as the earth itself. Fighting the system within Facebook is unlikely to yield much.

Instead of pressing the Australian government to buckle before Facebook’s demands, why can’t FB users talk up a boycott on the site itself, at least till cut off, with the intent to shut FB down until IT bends to Australian wishes? I doubt FB can afford to banished from a continent. I understand the current Australian government is weak in that respect and will not flex its muscle as China does on the web. Is FB addiction in the West so numbing, users can’t do without it for a month, even when many other means of communication are available to stay in touch with friends? Baffles me no end why boycotts are not attempted as a solution to shrivel the giants of harm and suffering. Go for the juggler not the capillaries.

Valerie Long Tweedie said...


I agree with you on boycotts and have considered boycotting FB many times. A friend helped me set up a Facebook account ages ago and I grew disgusted with it almost immediately because of the trivial content. It was only later that I learned FB was selling my information. I also agree that there are only a few people who even respond to my links. But I am at a loss as to how to spread alternative news to people who only want to live in a happy place bubble. Do we just give up on these people?

In my school, I have tried to get a lot of good conversations going to no effect. Australians are people who avoid conflict and disagreements, so they have developed a non-comital attitude about politics. They also have had it pretty good economically and refer to themselves as "the lucky country" so other than a small slice of the Progressive Intelligencia there just doesn't seem to be any urgency in fighting injustice. For me, watching Australian politics and neoliberalism is like one long deja vu.

There was some good coverage on the Facebook issue in Australia. Our nationally funded Australian Broadcasting Corporations (the ABC) - which is far better than PBS, did a decent job covering the issues around the ban - including the Liberal (Republican) party's taking from Peter to pay Paul/the Australian MSM. There was definitely talk of establishing a public forum that would deliver a lot of the same opportunities as FB - which I entirely support. Aside from people like me who have contacts with people overseas, most Australians are communicating with other Australians on social media so it makes sense. There was also talk of taxing Big Tech. My concern is that the money Google and FB are paying might not even go to journalism.

At the same time, I just would like to see any reining in of Big Tech's power. I mean, Australia is treating FB like a country we are negotiating a trade deal with. It is very disturbing. And everything I have tried to post on FB to inform my Australian "friends" has magically disappeared from my feed.

What to do?

VLT said...

Just a follow up on the saga of Facebook. According to the so called experts in Australia, Zuckerberg blinked first and there has been some kind of negotiated deal. And the law forcing Big Tech to pay Big Media for content passed both houses of Parliament.

The big talk in progressive circles and on progressive blogs in Australia is where does that leave the little news outlets? If the law says Big Tech has to negotiate with major news outlets, it pretty much leaves little players out in the cold. At least, this is getting some press. There is also the issue of this money paid by Big Tech actually going toward journalism (keeping - particularly investigative - journalists employed).

While I am glad FB lost this one - and perhaps other countries as well - I see it as a sign of the times. The big players in every industry are pushing the little people - people like you and I - out of a job and out of our chosen vocations. My husband and I are in our late fifties and early sixties, so when this really won't destroy us. But I worry terribly for younger people.

There is a great video on GPE News about this very issue. We need to look beyond our own borders and realise the Coup d’État is worldwide and multinational. It is not just America that is on a crash course for a dystopian future.