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Facebook Unfriends Australia, Blacks Out Critical News

It started as a trade dispute but the growing power of Big Social Media to impose news blackouts threatens freedom of information, even safety

Last week, in a business dispute with the government of Australia, Facebook wiped news from Australia from its 2.6 billion users’ feeds. Michael Cook (pictured), editor of Australia-based MercatorNet, explains what that meant:

So when you checked your Facebook feed on February 18, you didn’t see anything from The Australian, The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph or, initially, the Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Western Sydney Health, South Australia Health, various state health services and some state Governments. This is in the middle of the fire season and a Covid-19 pandemic, for which many people rely on Facebook for updates.

You also didn’t see anything from MercatorNet or BioEdge, our related publication about bioethical issues. They’re news sources; they’re published in Australia; and they’re cancelled.

Basically, Facebook has screwed us.

Michael Cook, “Facebook stomps on small publishers” at MercatorNet

The government pages were later restored. Facebook says that that part was an error.

So what’s going on? The underlying issues are complex. The foremost is that traditional print media are slowly dying. They are now co-opting the government to fight back against online media, which — at present — consist largely of a few very large companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Cook, whose own online publications depend heavily on Facebook, offers some figures for thought:

Everywhere newspapers are losing circulation to internet news sources. Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed in the United States between 2004 and 2018, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies.

Between them, Google and Facebook have sucked up 81 percent of online advertising in Australia. News media only have about 19 percent.

Michael Cook, “Facebook stomps on small publishers” at MercatorNet

So Australian media, half of which are owned by a single press lord, Rupert Murdoch, asked the Australian government to pass a law requiring Facebook to pay for news links, to help keep the print media going. As Cook puts it, “Zuckerberg probably feels that Rupert Murdoch is using the Australian government to shake him down to subsidize a dying industry. He’s probably right.”

Cook’s concern is with the immediate, petty response on Facebook’s part: “The fact that Zuckerberg fails to face up to is that Facebook has become a quasi-public utility and now it is abusing its monopoly power.”

Of course, Facebook’s response raises the question once again: Are big social media companies publishers or public utilities (carriers)? In the United States, where most are domiciled, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives them a “get out of jail free” card, which means they never really have to choose. Other countries are, as we shall see, less indulgent toward these juggernauts.*

As Cook acknowledges, the topic is complex. For one thing, Facebook has a legitimate case, in principle, as globalization expert Salvatore Babones (pictured) explains:

Australia decided to put a price on news this week, and Facebook shocked the country by declining to buy a subscription. The Australian House of Representatives passed a new media law on Wednesday that would force Facebook and Google (and only Facebook and Google) to pay Australian media outlets for the privilege of linking to their news stories. Google is still talking terms. Facebook decided to pull the plug and will no longer allow Australian users to post news.

I’m with Facebook on this one. If Australians don’t want to pay for news about their own country, it’s hardly the responsibility of foreign companies to foot the bill for them. Government rhetoric around Australia’s new media bargaining code has consistently suggested that U.S. tech companies are reporting Australia’s news without paying for it. The reality is that platforms like Facebook and Google only show the free teasers that publishers use to draw traffic to their sites.

Salvatore Babones, “Why Facebook Is Right to Pull the Plug on Australia” at Foreign Policy

Essentially, the publishers want to be paid for the fact that Facebook links to their sites, thus generating traffic for them.

If all this seems strange, consider that, when newspapers ceased to be an important source of news for most people, their culture and the people attracted to them changed. Media that used to promote free speech and a free press are hot for censorship. Journalists, whose forebears in the industry were investigating slumlords and sweatshops, hang around in chat rooms, hoping to catch some kingpin using a forbidden word. Or they arrange hits, often misleading ones, on public figures they don’t like. Professional discipline and standards give way to providing a feast of welcome opinion for like-minded readers. It’s not clear why anyone other than those readers should be funding them.

Many sources of opinion who want help for these media do not reckon with that change in culture and purpose. For example, here are some thoughts from a Casey Newton (pictured), a tech writer familiar with Big Social Media, seeking common ground:

My good-faith effort to represent the publishers’ case goes something like this. For years now, Google and Facebook have benefited from being able to package and display links to journalism from publishers around the world. At the same time, the companies built a duopoly in digital advertising, bleeding publishers of revenue and leading to tens of thousands of journalism layoffs around the world. The Australian bill seeks to restore balance to this equation by forcing the platforms to compensate publishers directly for their work.

There are good reasons to want all sides to come to an agreement here. Google and Facebook both benefit from having high-quality news sources on their platforms. Journalism makes Google more useful as a search engine, and Facebook as a place to get updates on current events and discuss them with friends. The more high-quality news is on the platform, and the more that the platforms promote it, the less room there is for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and every other harm we talk about it around here.

Casey Newton, “Australia’s bad bargain with platforms” at Platformer News

Whoa! Google and Facebook did not drive the death of newspapers any more than the automobile drove the demise of the horse-drawn buggy. People switched voluntarily because new technology was more in tune with new lifestyles. Incidentally, I well remember when newspapers did their very best to avoid online publication instead of embracing it before the window of opportunity closed and they were caught playing catch-up.

Also, paying newspapers and other media for publishing their links will have no effect whatever on “misinformation, conspiracy theories, and every other harm we talk about it around here.” If the text truly is misinformation or a conspiracy theory — as opposed to useful information that Top People and their media courtiers would rather the public not know — it is usually embraced for psychological reasons that are impervious to public policy disputes.

True, Big Social Media have a great deal of power, often irresponsibly used:

Facebook consistently polls as a major news source in countries around the world. In poorer countries like Myanmar, it is virtually indistinguishable from the internet itself, which is why Myanmar’s government was able to successfully wield the platform to incite a genocide in 2018.

Rachel Bovard, “Australia took a stand against Facebook — and got silenced” at New York Post

But how does paying the legacy media — now largely an echo chamber for fashionable progressive opinion — help resolve catastrophes like that? The money from Facebook would simply keep dying print-based and other legacy media in business, no matter how out of touch they are. In Canada, such media already receive subsidies from the federal government to stay in print. Doubtless, they would welcome the boodle from Facebook too. But that hardly begins to address the serious issues around the way the global duopoly of Big Social Media affects the rest of us.

Perhaps we are evading a hard truth: Many people and organizations should stop being so dependent on Facebook. Social media addiction is costly, like any other addiction. There are many other sources of news on the internet and this problem would be dramatically lessened of more people just decided to patronize them instead. That would give us much more leverage in deciding what to do about the remains of the duopoly.

* Note 1: Other nations are less indulgent toward these juggernauts? Canada is contemplating legislation similar to Australia’s (and Facebook’s hard line against Australia may have been intended, in part, to warn Canada off). But also, Twitter is being sued for defamation in Canada, which has no legislation similar to Section 230 that would protect Twitter from normal liability. Mexico’s president, Poland’s government, and Hungary’s justice minister all want more protection for freedom of expression for their citizens than Big Tech appears to want to provide.

Note 2: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Disclosure: I have written many articles over the years for MercatorNet.


You may also wish to read:

“Disinformation”: Do we really need a “Reality Czar”? Canada dodged a bullet in 2014. The United States will not be so lucky if it adopts Big Tech’s new proposals against “disinformation” online. Proposals to entrench a reality czar are a one-way ticket to an authoritarian state that withers intellectually because only the approved people are allowed to circulate opinions.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Facebook Unfriends Australia, Blacks Out Critical News