We thought fake news was bad. Then Facebook banned real news.
The beginning of the end for a Silicon Valley giant?
The skirmish in Australia over a proposed law to “level the playing field” between news publishers and tech platforms went nuclear this Wednesday when Facebook took the unprecedented step of banning news on its platform.
Faced with the threat of having to pay publishers for news content, the company made what may prove to be a fatal misstep. Banning news content on the platform, the Silicon Valley giant is trying to make the case that users and publishers will suffer if the latter refuse to give away their content for free. But what Facebook is really proving is that it is a megacorp blind to its power, its responsibilities, and its disrepute.
In a remarkably disingenuous statement, Facebook paints itself as a friend of news publishers worldwide (conveniently failing to mention how they amplify false information, and how their online ad programs have drained news organizations of ad revenue all over the globe), and claims the proposed law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between [Facebook] and publishers”.
It would, however, be more accurate to say Mark Zuckerberg fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between Facebook and the public.
To be fair, news publishers all over the world dropped the ball on the internet. When there should have been innovation going on in these organizations, they were busy patting themselves on their own backs for managing to put their content up on websites. Before they had a clue what was going on, Facebook and Google had stolen the ad revenue from under them.
You could argue that publishers have nobody but themselves to blame for this, and that Google and Facebook won that market in fair competition. This presupposes, however, that harvesting of personal information and human behavior is fair game in the name of commerce. If we object that surveillance advertising should not exist in the first place, we can only conclude that Google and Facebook won that market because it was not yet regulated and they were exploiting this regulatory vacuum more rapaciously.
Politicians are to blame as well, for failing to regulate the internet in a timely manner. Showing up this late, asking for a do-over and handouts to tardy media corps may look like poor sportsmanship. Even so, it is hardly unprecedented, and as wise people say: better late than never. After all, industrialisation accelerated in the 19th century with few concerns about pollution and fair labor practices. Regulation turned out to be necessary, but it was only possible after fighting corporate attempts to suppress it.
The plucky Facebook that was once struggling to make a profit by edging into the ad business is long grown up, into an economic powerhouse. Together with Google it now controls 81 percent of Australia’s digital ad market. That’s the reality Mark Zuckerberg has to acknowledge in the discussions about paying publishers for access to content. He can delude himself all he wants, writing press releases about a righteous battle for freedom of speech and, well, whatever grand ideals he imagines Facebook stands for. Nobody is buying it.
The reactions to Facebook’s news ban are telling. Just to cite one voice among many, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch – who usually spends her time condemning military coups in Myanmar and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines – called Facebook’s news censorship an “alarming and dangerous turn of events”:
“Facebook is acting like an oppressive government, severely restricting and censoring the flow of information to Australians,” she wrote on Twitter, later adding that “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”
Facebook may still consider itself a scrappy, heroic innovator, persecuted by wicked politicians media incumbents. In the eyes of the public, however, Facebook is a ruthless and untrustworthy behemoth prepared to shut down the pages of newspapers, non-profits and public health organizations in the midst of a pandemic, just to flex its frightening muscles.
I have written previously of the need for a public service of the internet, a communal platform paid for by tax money, where we can come together without having our lives mined for data by manipulative algorithms. It’s a tough sell, as long as the private alternatives seem to be working okay. The one thing that can give the idea momentum is if the Silicon Valley giants themselves clearly show that they are not to be trusted as private proprietors of our internet commons.
This is exactly the path Facebook has now chosen. The world is watching.
They not only banned news, they also inadvertently banned some government public service channels too, which they said was a 'mistake', but I am sure was done to send a more sinister message. It just highlights the power that social media giants control and I hope that it leads to more debate and leads to more change worldwide.