[ Significant sections of this post-Gutenberg.com entry were edited for clarity on 2 November 2019 ]
The question of why so many famous newspapers railing against Big Tech failed to alert their readers to the Social Media Strike of 2019 — or report on it — has been answered partially, since the last post on this site. That answer could hardly be more depressing for anyone to whom free speech and objective, independent, media matter. Worse, it brings us closer to a real life equivalent of a dictator or other centralised authoritarian power running amok — that is, to the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
On Friday 25 October, Facebook announced that it will be paying millions of dollars to selected U.S. newspapers — the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post among them — for posting their stories (content) on its site.
According to an early August report in The Guardian that came up in search results for the query, ‘Facebook paying newspapers’ — following the accidental discovery of this news on the Wired site — the company started hawking its offer of million-dollar-plus subsidies experimentally, in April. Could publishing organisations trying to decide whether they should accept one have failed to cover the Social Media Strike set for 4-5 July for that reason?
It certainly looks like a strong possibility, even if different considerations were at work for each publication. The Guardian, for instance, might not have been approached by Facebook, even though it has a U.S. website. The explanation for its dissing of the strike could have been that the call to action was led by Larry Sanger, one of the Wikipedia’s two long-estranged co-founders. The other, Jimmy Wales, has been a member of the newspaper’s parent company, Guardian Media Group, since at least 2018.
Wired has already demonstrated that taking Facebook’s cash does not necessarily — or immediately — deprive a publication of the ability to balance its reporting about that platform. Its article on the subject quoted an activist working on behalf of traditional newspapers who described the Facebook move as ‘a “conveniently timed announcement that’s clearly meant to distract from Zuckerberg getting eviscerated on the Hill this week”’ — a reference to the founder-CEO’s grilling by members of the U.S. House of Representatives financial services committee in Washington DC.
Yet, because the magazine did not spurn Facebook, Wired’s overall characterisation of the corporation’s new sugar daddy role in the lives of newspapers must be interpreted as favourable — in keeping with one quotation in its report, about the cash infusions ‘having the potential to shift parts of the news industry from “pessimism to optimism”’. [ pG’s emphasis ]
Facebook is only giving some newspapers money, in a scheme it is still unfurling, effectively playing king-maker. Is it naïve to expect that in the future, the newspapers that have until now been exposing the social media colossus’s worst business practices — and demanding that it be made accountable to the public for those actions — will start competing to win favour from it?
How can these papers possibly cover it objectively when they are vying for larger cash handouts from it? It is hard not to imagine past leaders of newspapers proud of a tradition of reporting ‘without fear or favour’ turning in their graves.
In the U.K. and U.S., newspaper campaigns against Facebook’s data-stealing and privacy violations, among other offences, have been vital prods for MPs and legislators now investigating the need for closer government oversight, if not regulation, of Big Tech.
If traditional media’s interests become less and less distinguishable from the social media giant’s and they can no longer act as a check on its actions and powers, what happens next? Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately? And how could that fail to turn some of George Orwell’s nightmare visions into everyday reality?
The progressive centralisation of media financing and power, and of data collection about ordinary citizens, raises the risk of an authoritarian central force seizing control. It could make that a cakewalk. (The newly created Big Brother would not necessarily be domestic: it could easily be a hostile foreign government.)
Newspapers that have consented to taking Facebook’s coin should reverse their decision immediately — but are unlikely to do anything of the kind. By far the most thoughtful and intelligent reaction to the novel scheme came from a writer or writers on the Techdirt website in Redwood City, in the northern half of Silicon Valley. Crisply written, and with a critical historical perspective missing from every other commentary on that subject, Techdirt‘s take on the topic is essential reading. Its conclusion is in perfect harmony with pG’s (see ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated )’:
If we want to “fix” journalism, it will require a new path forward (i.e., innovative business models).
Accepting Facebook’s Trojan horse handouts would not be the right sort of innovation or improvement on the defective business model most widely used today. Here is (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, lamenting the effects of that model on his brainchild’s evolution, after its open and liberating early years:
The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors.
Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.
A year ago, Facebook acquired a key to opening doors to high government offices everywhere when it hired Nick (Sir Nicholas) Clegg — Britain’s deputy prime minister from 2010-15 — to serve as its head of global policy and communications. As the company’s capacious pockets are used to favour some venerable, still dominant old media powers not just with gifts of cash but — presumably — special treatment on its platform, old and new media seem well on their way to creating an even more unassailable Establishment. This could make a U-turn towards decentralising power ever more difficult and probably, impossible.