Religion & Liberty Online

How Australia regulated the news out of Facebook

An Australian Broadcasting Corporation page on Facebook is displayed without posts in Sydney on February 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Imagine a world where you log into your social media account and find pictures of babies, discussion of ideas, notifications from community groups with which you are involved, updates from family and friends, and cat memes. Curiously absent is any news. This is the world Australian Facebook users have been living in since yesterday, the product of the unintended consequence of government intervention.

Writing for the Financial Times, Richard Waters, Hannah Murphy, and Alex Baker give a good overview of these developments in their excellent piece, “Big Tech versus journalism: publishers watch Australia fight with bated breath.” They summarize the proposed Australian legislation which set events in motion:

The proposed law, at present making its way through the Australian parliament, would create a statutory code to cover bargaining between news groups and the most powerful online platforms. By addressing what local politicians claim is the excessive power of Big Tech, it is explicitly designed to make sure the platforms – initially limited to Google and Facebook – pay more cash to support local journalism.

Google responded by agreeing to licensing deals with a number of Australian media companies. Among those companies was Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation:

The News Corp deal enabled Google to avoid this “horrendous precedent”, said Aron Pilhofer, a former head of digital at The Guardian. Instead, it will pay for licensing content for a service called News Showcase and on YouTube. News Corp also suggested it would receive a larger share of the advertising revenue that flows to it through Google’s ad tech services.

Whether the pact will become a model for the rest of the news industry and what effect it will have on payment or journalism, however, are difficult to assess. Details of the deal were not disclosed, and critics said no other news organisation enjoyed the kind of political influence News Corp had in Australia, enabling it to extract the best terms.

In the case of Google, the legislation intended to limit the power of Big Tech has resulted in an alignment between a tech giant and a media giant securing a privileged market position for an already-dominant market player. This naked display of crony capitalism has resulted in regulatory capture, co-opting the legislation to serve commercial interests:

News Corp and other publishers had not given any guarantees about how the extra money would be spent and could easily just use it to pad their bottom lines, said Pilhofer. “I don’t think we’ll see any impact whatsoever on the ability of local news organisations to stay in business and keep journalists employed to cover local news.”

Facebook, however, by blocking the sharing of news on its services in Australia, has so far refused to strike any such Faustian bargain. Waters, Murphy, and Baker report Facebook’s refusal to play ball has cemented suspicions of the platform among news publishers:

For news publishers, meanwhile, the sudden end to social sharing fed a distrust that has been growing for a number of years. Facebook aggressively courted the news industry five years ago with promises to help it find a wider audience, and encouraged news companies to produce more video content for its services – before abruptly changing course and adjusting its algorithms to relegate news content.

While publishers had worried that Facebook wanted to marginalise their news on its platform, few imagined it would go through with a threat to stop it being shared altogether. The impact will be felt differently across the industry, with some advertising-reliant, mass-market publishers that depended more heavily on social sharing, such as MailOnline, looking vulnerable.

There are deep-seated problems with both mass and social media. Mass media manufactures reductionist narratives that often obscure just as much as they reveal. Social media weaponizes these reductionist narratives into mass hysteria and instantaneous response devoid of responsibility.

In his brilliant and terrifying essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days,” the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick prophetically describes what happens when such malevolent forces capture our attention:

The bulk of the messages elude our attention; literally, after a few hours of TV watching, we do not know what we have seen. Our memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blanks are filled in retrospectively. And falsified. We have participated unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality, and then we have obligingly fed it to ourselves. We have colluded in our own doom.

And – and I say this as a professional fiction writer – the producers, scriptwriters, and directors who create these video/audio worlds do not know how much of their content is true. In other words, they are victims of their own product, along with us.

Our debates concerning misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories spread in mass and social media cannot be resolved by legislation, let along legislation designed to funnel money into the coffers of mass media, which are central to the problem. The problem is one which is fundamentally human, the limits of both our understanding and attention:

We have fiction mimicking truth, and truth mimicking fiction. We have a dangerous overlap, a dangerous blur. And in all probability it is not deliberate. In fact, that is part of the problem. You cannot legislate an author into correctly labeling his product, like a can of pudding whose ingredients are listed on the label … [Y]ou cannot compel him to declare what part is true and what isn’t if he himself does not know.

Dick points the way out of this seemingly intractable problem, by returning to the human person, conscience, and the capacity for austerity, restraint, and self-control:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

The only winning move is not to play. Being good stewards of our time and attention involves rejecting what is ephemeral and destructive. That means investing our attention in things which we truly aim to understand with serious study. This understanding does not and cannot come through mass and social media. It also means investing our time and attention in things we plan to do something about, not merely what excites our passions through our screens. Legislation cannot give us the spirit of service required to “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Ephesians 6:7).

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.