This is a blog about Facebook, Newscorp, and the Australian Federal Government. It is a blog about why I have been steaming with rage ever since I woke up at 7am yesterday morning and found reports on Twitter that Facebook had blocked what it deemed to be news both to and from (and, notably, within) Australia some time during the night.
Let me be clear: I don’t like Facebook. I do have an account, although not for much longer. I use it to check in on a family member once every couple of months. Years ago, I was extremely active but grew disenchanted due to the platform’s continual mucking around with formats and the heavy-handed presence of its algorithm. In the years since I have been disgusted at various privacy scandals and also at the role the platform plays in spreading fake news, misinformation, and trolling activity. So, I won’t miss Facebook.
I also want to make it clear that I loathe and detest everything NewsCorp stands for. Here in Australia, they have used their saturation of our media landscape to stifle sensible and necessary discussion into issues like climate change, refugee and asylum seeker rights, Aboriginal Australian rights, industrial relations… Actually, the list is enormous. As in the USA and the UK they have damaged our democracy. As a Melbournian, I personally resent the way NewsCorp trolled and undermined those of us who complied with our State’s four-month lockdown strategy last year – a strategy that was responsible for preventing the illness and death of thousands. NewsCorp’s unrelenting abuse of our community was the most distressing aspect of lockdown for many of us. I consider the corporation to be a real danger.
The proposed legislation that Facebook is pushing back against is a badly designed confection of our federal government – as inept as it is corrupt – that, if passed, will ultimately line the pockets of NewsCorp. Our government (and, given that they do nothing that doesn’t advantage their corporate cronies, I use the word ‘our’ loosely) has a toxic and co-dependent relationship with NewsCorp. Two years ago, Scott Morrison sailed into an election leading a party with nary a policy to their name; unbelievably they won off the back of a wave of fake news, misinformation, and distorted commentary that was poured into our electorate by an unholy alliance of corporate trolls and village idiots. Facebook was an enabler, but it is NewsCorp that gets its government of choice across the line in every election and who has a vested interest in maintaining control of ‘our’ ‘democracy’. The legislation that Facebook doesn’t want a bar of is dodgy and driven by the venal and insular interests of our career politicians, Rupert Murdoch, and a few other legacy mainstream media outlets. The same legislations does nothing to improve the fortunes of the many small but important independent news publishers in Australia.
So, I am angry at NewsCorp – actually the English language doesn’t have the words to describe how angry – and I am angry at our government. I am pissed off at Google for caving and entering into a contract with NewsCorp – how I hate to see money going into that old menace’s coffers. At exactly the same time, I am angry at Facebook for its protest. I am angry at the way it was done.
In Australia, thousands of Facebook users went to bed on Wednesday night and woke up on Thursday morning to find their pages blocked and their content gone. Mainstream news companies found this but so did an astonishing array of other organizations who would never consider themselves to be news publishers. Private businesses, community groups, arts organizations, sports clubs, charities, hospitals and health organisations…. All found their information blocked. State governments and the Facebook pages they had set up to disseminate public announcements were blocked, including pages that broadcast information about bushfires – like the department of Fire and Emergency Services WA – or COVID-19. The Bureau of Meteorology was blocked. Domestic violence organizations and women’s shelters were blocked. Indigenous Australian community pages were blocked.
Even bloggers were blocked. I found I couldn’t post a link to this blog to Facebook. That’s actually no loss because I don’t use Facebook to promote anything, but… really? And pity the poor bloggers who run their blog as a sort of combination public-service and cottage industry like this one.
The effect was of having an entire country’s networks of communications – networks of community information, connection, resourcing, and outreach – censored and attacked. It was a stunning display of corporate thuggery. Facebook was less a renegade and more of a stand over merchant, less taking the fight to the Australian Government and more holding the Cat Protection Society NSW and the Asylum Seeker Refugee Centre and the Melbourne Fringe Festival hostage. It was disgusting.
To those cool cats who dismissively say “Oh! There are lots of alternative platforms / search engines / websites” and to just move to one of those: You are completely right, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.
To those lucky lofty aloof folks who condescendingly scoff that “If you rely on Facebook for your news then something’s wrong with you”: You are actually completely right, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.
To those policy wonks who point out that Facebook is just responding to badly written policy when it included a bewildering array of accounts in its definition of news outlets, you are completely right, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.
To the business-heads who point out that Facebook is a private corporation who has every right to back out of the unreasonable business practice that our federal government is trying to force it into, you are right, too, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.
To those shallow commentators who shrug and say “Facebook did warn you – they did say they were going to do this” I even agree with you, but you miss the point.
The point is that the action Facebook took showed a disregard for its own community of users that was breathtaking in its callousness. It was prepared to throw this community, who have spent painstaking care and effort on developing Facebook pages and groups of followers, under a bus to make its tantrum look just that little bit more spectacular. If the proposed legislation is passed, Bush Search and Rescue and Brain Injury Australia will never be eligible to enter into a commercial relationship with Facebook.
As others have pointed out, there were many pages that were suddenly blocked by Facebook that shared information that was time critical, for example, emergency and public health announcements, or information for domestic violence situations. Facebook suddenly yanked that from public view with no warning.
Consider, too, community pages that fill a niche for groups for whom information is not otherwise readily available like the Council to Homeless Persons or Women’s Legal Services Tasmania Inc. These pages may be run by volunteers or underfunded organizations, their content and follower-bases built up over time and with much effort. You can’t just transplant these groups to another platform overnight.
And what about the small businesses who have, with Facebook’s own aggressive encouragement over the years, incorporated the platform into their branding, marketing, sales, and customer service operations. Strangely, some of these were also swept up in Facebook’s algorithmically driven attack of spleen.
In Australia, we have Facebook and its arbitrary acts of bastardry on one hand, and our Government and Murdoch’s determination to profit from our polity on the other. I considered writing that this is like eating a shit-sandwich, but I feel like us ordinary folk are actually the shit stuck in the sandwich. The corporations and our political leaders have created a mess, all in pursuit of money and power, and we are the ones who have to wade through it. It’s an awful state of affairs.
Whether it’s through the marketing strategies of the tech giants, or the desire for expediency and cheap efficiencies of our government, we are all being herded onto the internet and encouraged (sometimes compelled) to channel more of our everyday activity through it. Today was a reminder that, while they want us to live digitally, they – the tech giants and our political ‘leaders’ – are also hell-bent on making our connection to the internet a precarious one. I wonder how long this will be tenable, and when it isn’t will the powers-that-be give a stuff?
In her excellent article Facebook vs. the media code: whoever wins, we lose, Lizzie O’Shea asks: “What does it say about tech policy in this country that the human rights of users were almost entirely left out of the conversation?”
We’re not supposed to be living in a society where corporations can ride roughshod over the human rights of their customers. But with a government that is, itself, entangled in the interests of corporate mates and sponsors how can we prevent this?
I can’t dismiss this. No “LOL I’ll go on MySpace” for me. I am mad at everyone involved in this mess. And I’m going to maintain that rage. There is too much at stake.