I think this year marks ten since I joined Facebook; after YouTube, it was the first online platform I signed-up for, and I’m pretty sure this happened in 2011. To begin with, what was for me the novelty of Facebook was reflected in the amount of times I used the site. Connecting with people in different parts of the country and indeed different countries altogether was a new sensation at the time, and I’m still in touch with a couple of people in Canada to this day courtesy of FB. Ten years ago, I used to post something at least once every 24 hours and also routinely commented on the posts of others; I was engaged with it in the way some engage with Twitter now. I guess it’s easy to forget how revolutionary having global communication at one’s fingertips for the first time felt; to me, this was like a space-age version of pen-pals. Of course, the initial novelty gradually wore off as my online life expanded to other platforms, and these days I mainly use FB for the messaging – a method of staying in touch with those otherwise unreachable, and I largely avoid public participation. I tend to post something no more than once or twice a month and even then it’ll usually be nothing more than a photograph I came across. I don’t really feel any affinity with many on there anymore, so use it sparingly.
Anyone familiar with Facebook will be equally familiar with the ‘newsfeed’, the section of the platform whereby the posts of those one follows are grouped together in one long scrolling session. Some rarely post at all – which makes their occasional missives worth waiting for – whilst others are serial posters, sometimes guilty of quantity over quality; but it’s possible to filter out ones who can clutter up newsfeed and simply leave the best of the rest. FB newsfeed is a strange place in which the latest fads and fashions of FB Friends sit alongside algorithm-generated suggestions, the majority of which bear no relation to anything I’m remotely interested in but are (I suspect) based on my age and the social demographic FB imagines me to belong to. Newsfeed is also littered with ads for both products and websites tailored towards one’s previous preferences, and ‘liking’ the odd post by a website you’ve never heard of before will immediately lead to an invitation to ‘like’ the FB page of the website, which – if you acquiesce – will then result in that being permanently incorporated into your newsfeed. There are some I honestly have no memory of ‘liking’ at all; but most of these are a quite pleasant distraction amidst the ads for cars I’ll never drive, holiday resorts I’ll never visit and clothes I’ll never wear, so I leave them there.
More often than not, these tend to be animal-related – heroic stories of dogs or cats that survived traumatic situations, and posts by zoos with various exotic beasts that can enliven a two-minute video. Following the horrific fires that engulfed Australia just over a year ago, I must have ‘liked’ a post by a wildlife reserve that cares for and has aided the rehabilitation of displaced koalas, for that has been a regular presence in my newsfeed for months; I’ve always had a soft spot for koalas ever since I briefly owned a stuffed cuddly toy of one as an infant, so that explains it. Even though I’ve yet to check, I do wonder if said posts will now mysteriously vanish from FB in the wake of a unique spat between a nation and the guardians of the big tech galaxy, one which could well be an interesting sign of things to come.
To ‘unfriend’ someone on Facebook was something I did myself once or twice a few years back, often arising from misunderstandings due to the tone of voice not always correctly perceived when written down. One cannot use italics, for example, and genuine sentiment can sometimes be mistaken for sarcasm, depending on the reader’s mood at the moment of reading. But the storms in my cyber teacup were nothing compared to events this week, when FB unfriended an entire country, i.e. Australia. A proposed law to make service providers actually pay for content on their platforms down under has resulted in Facebook taking its ball back. As of Thursday, Aussies logged on to discover the sudden absence of global and local news from FB – immediately impacting upon the approximately 17 million Aussies that use Facebook every month; this abrupt disappearing act also applied to anyone attempting to access any Australian news sites from outside the Southern Hemisphere. However, despite joining FB in condemning the proposed law as something that ‘penalises’ their platforms, Google pre-empted the dramatic move by FB and signed a deal with old Uncle Rupert’s News Corps in which it did indeed agree to pay for content. In one foul swoop, you have the schizophrenic ethics of big tech – Google standing alongside Facebook to criticise a law suggesting they pay for content whilst simultaneously paying for content. Ironically, it seems the one beneficiary of this spat is an organisation rooted in the very industry social media sites have helped bring to its knees.
Whilst most governments give the impression of being at the beck and call of big tech as much as they are beholden to the banks, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has taken an intriguing stance, stating that big tech companies might be changing the world, but that doesn’t necessarily equate with them running it. ‘I am in regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues,’ he said. ‘We simply won’t be intimidated.’ International condemnation seems to back up the Aussie PM’s response whilst at the same time Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan compared the behaviour of Facebook to that of ‘a North Korean dictator’. FB are clearly trying to hit Aussies where it hurts, but are coming across as incredibly petty as well as petulant; they’re not exactly accustomed to not getting their own way. The fact that the FB blackout also included government health sites meant the latest Covid info was no longer available to Australian users, something that was hardly going to win hearts and minds.
The digital cartel monopolising the flow of online information has grown in influence over the past half-decade as older mediums have been sidelined. Naturally, there is envy in the air, but there is also increasing concern that too much power rests in too few hands. Stoking the fear of big tech, Donald Trump heavily hinted this was an issue he’d be dealing with during his expected second term in office; and without wishing to delve into conspiratorial waters, the way in which social media dictated the narrative of the 2020 Presidential Election – the censoring of the Hunter Biden story being a prime example – seemed to suggest a concerted effort on the part of big tech to prevent this from happening. How relieved the digital overlords must be to have a fresh (ish) face in the White House with several former big tech employees on his payroll.
Before Google kowtowed to Murdoch, Australian Senator Rex Patrick attempted to call the bluff of the nation’s dominant search engine by pushing for the change. ‘It’s going to go worldwide,’ he said. ‘Are you going to pull out of every market?’ Interestingly, Microsoft has broken rank by supporting the proposed law, saying ‘The code reasonably attempts to address the bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and Australian news businesses.’ On the other side of the world, the EU has attempted to give news sites copyright on links that appear on search engines, forcing the latter to pay for the privilege, whilst France has also been trying to tackle the issue. Whether or not any of these efforts will succeed when big tech wields so much clout remains to be seen, but I suppose these all represent the first stirrings of official opposition when there has been so little so far. Perhaps in unfriending an entire country, Facebook has taken cancel culture to an extreme from which retreat is the only way back.
© The Editor