People in Australia, a democracy, woke up to find Facebook pages of local and international news sites unavailable, according to reports on Thursday.
Australia has been trying to get social media giants, where most people go for news these days, to pay for the content on their platforms. But Facebook has in essence declared war on Australia, in a battle of wills to see if a corporate social media giant can defeat a democracy.
It is not every day that massive corporations that distribute news content seek to go after a whole country, but social media giants have increasingly been flexing their muscles.
They have increasingly intervened in elections in places like the US, ostensibly to “fact check” or define what is “misleading,” but also to ban politicians with whom they disagree.
They tried to intervene in Uganda’s recent election as well, and have sought to monitor India and other countries.
Social media giants appear to assume that because they have sponged up billions of users worldwide, they may now adjudicate what laws countries pass and what users may see.
Although these companies seek to avoid taxes and payments, and also claim that normal regulatory rules for publishers do not apply to them, they have aggregated traffic showing that they can route people to certain pages using algorithms. This is important because social media platforms like Facebook are not just a free-for-all, and they are not exactly a newsstand where users just go to find news.
Media companies have pages and they may have “likes,” but the degree to which their content is seen across the platform is determined by the company. Over the years, the companies have tweaked their algorithms to make it so users remain on the platform and don’t click through to “clickbait.”
They also have changed how they reward people that go “live” or have long posts, as opposed to just photos. Social media companies have also cracked down on the ability of posts to “go viral” the way they used to. Many users report that they see posts only from a small percent of their “friends,” and not even from pages they want to follow.
Social media companies profit by keeping users on their platform, reinforcing a feedback loop and forcing companies and others to pay to boost content.
The changes are often hidden behind opaque methods, and how these social media giants monitor and delete content or show people what they want to see is often unclear. For instance, a user who “likes” a page will not necessarily see its posts. Companies can pay to boost their posts, but the power remains with the social media giant.
AUSTRALIA, LIKE many countries, is trying to figure out not only how to regulate giants like Facebook, but also how to make sure that news media companies are rewarded for their content. This is important because companies have seen advertising budgets change, and many journalists have seen salaries disappear and opportunities evaporate in most Western democracies. The challenge is different for dictatorships that may restrict social media use for their citizens or run their own propaganda state media arms that generate content for a foreign audience.
This means that in the modern world, it appears that social media giants are cracking down more on democracies than authoritarian regimes. Since the huge increase in social media use, there has been a rise in authoritarianism. Although the social media giants claim they want to defend democracy and elections, the reality may be the opposite. Obedient governments that want to use social media to inject propaganda into democracies tend to have an easy method to do it. Every once in a while, huge “bot” armies from countries like Turkey or Russia have been revealed and their accounts closed.
Millions of pro-terrorist accounts have also been closed.
However, the battle with Australia shows the stranglehold that these companies now have over what people see and read. Australians found that government and emergency pages were also blocked by Facebook, according to BBC. “Facebook later asserted this was a mistake and many of these pages are now back online,” the report said. Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan accused Facebook of behaving like North Korea.
The fact that with a click of their fingers a massive corporate social media giant can cut off access to all news media illustrates the power these organizations now have over people.
Surveys show around 20% of people receive their news from social media. That may increase in some democracies. This means that social media companies are one of the largest determining factors in how people think and what they do today. The idea that the company can cut off news for everyone, or decide that people will only see one type of news they agree with would be like a corporation controlling all the TV and radio channels and simply turning off all the news one day.
MOST COUNTRIES regulate TV and radio broadcasting, but do not regulate social media. Countries like Australia have found that their power may have been eroded vis-à-vis these corporate giants. The response of Facebook to punish Australians and Australian media shows that a true contest has now developed that likely will determine whether Western democracies survive in this century. Social media giants do not do this to totalitarian regimes.
They don’t mind if Turkey, for instance, imprisons people for social media posts, and they often cater to dictatorships that want information on users.
They sometimes, according to reports, even block activists based on demands from totalitarian regimes or based on mass “reporting” by locals who may be connected to totalitarian governments. They don’t always explain how and why they do this, but users report such actions. This gives authoritarians an advantage. They can regulate their own media and make it so that people only see propaganda from Iran, China, Russia or Turkey. Meanwhile in Australia, people cannot see the media of a democracy.
“It feels obviously very restrictive in what Facebook is going to allow people to do in the future, not only in Australia but around the world,” Sydney resident Peter Firth told the BBC.
BBC noted “Human Rights Watch Australia director said Facebook was censoring the flow of information in the country - calling it a ‘dangerous turn of events… Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable,’ said Elaine Pearson.”
FACEBOOK DECLARED war on a democracy on Thursday. Australia is one of the key Five Eyes countries. However “people outside the country are also unable to read or access any Australian news publications on the platform,” the BBC said.
Although Facebook and Australia may come to a compromise, this is a symbolic incident. It illustrates what will likely happen to many democracies. In future years, social media giants may work to get candidates linked to them elected in order to prevent regulation. They have already begun the intervention in democracies and elections. They do not treat totalitarian regimes the same way.