Well, well. After having a face-off with China over the spread of covid-19, now the Aussie government is staring down Facebook and Google.
I was interested to read that a lot of people actually use Facebook to get their fill of news. I get my news fix in the more traditional ways: I read The Australian online and also articles from other news services. On TV, I watch the ABC news, seven or nine news, and SBS’s Al Jazeera service. Accordingly, I didn’t think Facebook’s blanket ban on Australians sharing news would affect me at all. Seems I was wrong. Here’s a little conversation on Facebook.
I wanted to share a link to a story about ‘guests’ in a quarantine hotel in Melbourne being moved with black garbage bags over their heads. But I wasn’t allowed.
Well, there you go. That’s me told.
I am ambivalent about this sledgehammer lock down. This from the editorial in today’s Australian.
“Facebook treated the public with contempt on Thursday, even blocking access to pages vital to public safety such as police and emergency services, information on mental health assistance, domestic violence prevention, weather bureaus and health authorities’ pages giving details about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. Some of these were later restored. But it was an astonishing abdication of responsibility that exposed Facebook’s real priorities. These have nothing to do with its users.” The Australian editorial 19 Feb 2021
This article in the Guardian newspaper summarises what this stoush is all about and where we stand now. Google and Facebook: the landmark Australian law that will make them pay for news content. Google is negotiating with news providers in Australia but while Facebook came to an agreement in the UK, that’s not happened here. Yet.
Facebook started out as a real social site, where people could share pictures of their cats and their dinners and discuss matters of mutual interest. I belong to several writing groups where we talk about craft and share ideas and marketing opportunities. Many of us are introverted types who don’t easily socialise in real life, so a platform like Facebook is wonderful. And people you meet can be from anywhere in the world. It’s a great way to keep in touch with former work colleagues, family far away, new friends and old. Reading posts from American friends gave an insight into what was happening to ordinary people during the turmoil of the last four years. Same with UK friends and Brexit. That’s stuff you never get from the news media.
All for no financial cost to the user. Let’s not forget that. Facebook is free.
Not entirely free, of course. Not since it went public. Now, like Google and Amazon and Microsoft and Apple (etc), it mines users for their information and targets ads to generate income. And it’s worth asking. How much would you be prepared to pay to use it ad-free?
But now, like many well intentioned social experiments, it has become too big and unwieldy. It has become the go-to publisher for pages such as those listed in the editorial, because there’s a wide audience and the platform is easy to use.
Facebook has been taken to task on fake accounts and the spreading of disinformation and its algorithms have been tweaked to try to weed out offensive material. It has also been taken to task about using other people’s creations without payment. And that’s what the current argument is about.
As an author, Facebook won’t let me sell my books on my profile (although occasional posts are apparently acceptable). I’m supposed to set up an author page and conduct my business through that. But Facebook expects me to pay to use the site to advertise my books, otherwise the audience that gets to see those posts is very, very limited, despite the fact that Facebook continues to harvest information from anyone reading those posts. I expect it would work a bit like Amazon’s algorithms – people who liked this also liked that.
They want to be paid for providing a service. That’s fine by me. And since I’m a writer, I accept that journalists should be paid for their work and the news sources that hire journalists should also be paid for the service they provide. Otherwise, they can’t hire journalists.
Google has come to the table with news providers to come to an arrangement. Maybe Mister Zuckerberg should do the same thing. He’s had to do it in UK, why not here?
There are two sides to every story, though. While I appreciate The Australian’s concern about “pages vital to public safety”, I don’t see the issue. If I’m looking for information about domestic violence, I wouldn’t be looking on Facebook. And by the way, do any of these agencies pay Facebook for use of the platform? As for an “astonishing abdication of responsibility” – Facebook is beholden to its shareholders, not the general public. Nobody is forced to have a Facebook account.
I suppose we all know that ex-President Trump had his accounts on Twitter and Facebook removed. Twitter and Facebook are both publicly listed companies. They have every right to deny service, just as any restaurant has the right to kick you out if you’re obnoxious.
But what Facebook is doing is very much a sledgehammer (or a spiked club if you prefer). I’ve just discovered to my astonishment that I can’t even post a link to my own website. This post will not appear on Facebook and neither will any links to my book pages. And yet I CAN post to Messenger. So maybe I’m not as sanguine about the whole thing as I was. Oh well. I guess I’m going to have to find other ways of disseminating my doings. There are other social media sites.
And just because I can, here’s a lorikeet version of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.