(Headline USA) For years, Facebook has been in a defensive crouch amid a slew of privacy scandals, antitrust lawsuits and charges that it was letting hate speech and extremism destroy democracy.
But increasingly, the leftist efforts to work the refs at the all-too-sympathetic Silicon Valley company have let Facebook to become increasingly more authoritarian in its own crackdowns.
Its censorship, like that of other social media companies, was on full display during the US presidential election last year, when it used leftist fact-checkers as the basis to qualify user-generated statements and suspend or ban many right-leaning accounts.
Now, the megalithic tech company is taking its overreach to the next level, by trying to ban an entire country’s news content after the country sought to rein in the company.
Early Thursday, Facebook abruptly took the offensive in Australia, where it lowered the boom on publishers and the government with a sudden decision to block news on its platform across the entire country.
That power play—a response to an Australian law that would compel Facebook to pay publishers for using their news stories—might easily backfire, given how concerned many governments have grown about the company’s unchecked influence over society, democracy and political discourse.
But it’s still a startling reminder of just how much power CEO Mark Zuckerberg can wield at the touch of a figurative button.
Although American leftists yawned at the censorship when it only affected their domestic political opponents, the pivot to an international stage, in which it is more difficult to rationalize Facebook’s self-serving agenda, may prove an eye-opener to many.
“Zuckerberg’s flex here shows how he can disrupt global access to the news in a heartbeat,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and professor at Syracuse University. “No company should have this much influence over access to journalism.”
Facebook’s move means people in Australia can no longer post links to news stories on Facebook. Outside Australia, meanwhile, no one can post links to Aussie news sources such as the Sydney Morning Herald.
Facebook said the proposed law “ignores the realities” of its relationship with publishers that use its service to propel their stories across the world.
To be sure, it is a symbiotic relationship in some aspects, with Facebook being one of the most viable means for a story to go viral (so long as it approves of the story and does not attempt to throttle its success with blacklists, shadow bans or algorithmic tweaks).
However, many within the media have long blamed the predatory nature of Facebook and other social media for poaching their advertisers while refusing to pay then for the content that the company generate traffic and engagement away from the content-producers’ site.
The platform also has led to more stratified news consumption, with users able to choose what they do or do not see, which has fed into the hyperpartisanship and rise in disinformation within the mainstream media.
But despite the problems created by Facebook’s tightening grip on global policy and commerce by monopolizing the media stream, open-internet advocates continue to complain that regulation of the industry may, itself, lead down a slippery slope.
Timothy Berners–Lee, the British computer scientist known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, told an Australian Senate committee in January that the law’s precedent could ultimately wreck the internet by requiring payment for links that have always been free.
The law hasn’t gone into effect. Negotiations between the tech companies, the Australian government and the country’s media giants—most notably, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—may result in changes to the final version.
What can’t be changed, though, is Facebook’s dramatic, if ham-handed, attempt to force the issue.
The company provided no warning of its decision to block Australian news and applied the ban so clumsily that it blocked many innocent bystanders.
“As the law does not provide a clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” said Facebook spokeswoman Mari Melguizo, who added that the company would unblock any pages that were blocked by accident.
Facebook’s reaction was not justified even if there are issues with the law, including the fact that it stands to benefit media giants like News Corp., said Elizabeth Renieris, director of the Notre Dame-IBM Technology Ethics Lab.
Facebook’s show of strength is “really going to wake up regulators around the world,” she said.
“If it is not already clear, Facebook is not compatible with democracy,” Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who heads a House subcommittee that has urged antitrust action against the company, wrote on Twitter.
“Threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly power,” he said.
On Thursday, Democrats announced they would hold new hearings to curb online platforms and update antitrust laws.
Billions of people around the world rely on Facebook for essential information—not just news, but charity and government pages, emergency announcements and other important channels.
Facebook’s news blackout swept up many of these, including humanitarian organizations like Foodbank Australia and Doctors without Borders in Australia, who found their pages temporarily disabled.
The ban affected articles from large international news organization and small community newspapers or radio stations alike.
Those restrictions potentially deprived many Australians of basic information on Facebook about COVID-19 or the country’s fire season—from a company that bills itself as committed to building “connection and community.”
The tech company has faced years of criticism for allowing misinformation around politics and the coronavirus to fester on its site. Critics said they fear that stripping Australian users of legitimate news sources will only worsen that problem.
“Playing this game in Australia is going to fill peoples’ feed with misinformation,” Tama Leaver, an internet studies and social media expert at Curtin University in Australia, said during an interview Wednesday with Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Perth.
But a news-free Facebook might also be a more pleasant experience for many people, said Drew Margolin, a professor of communication at Cornell University.
Facebook would have been better off if it had given Australians a choice to opt out of news, he suggested.
If many did, the company could have used that for leverage with the government and publishers.
“What happens when they say we’re ready to turn it back on and we say please don’t?” he said.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press