In a discussion with journalism students about the news business, I was once asked what I thought about “citizen journalism". I joked that it was like “citizen dentistry”.
“I have absolutely no dentistry knowledge,” I said, “but if you open your mouth I’ll have a look.” My feeble humour had a serious side. Journalists should be paid. It’s a job, not a hobby. Moreover, blogs and social media posts from strangers can be interesting, but they may also include gibberish, lies and conspiracy theories. Once something is published in a respected newspaper, radio programme or TV news outlet, it tends to mean that it is news we can trust. On Facebook? Not so much.
Writers and broadcasters have plenty of flaws but they tend to have at least some expertise in putting together facts to create a story, and they know where to find real experts who do know the facts. With coronavirus you may look for guidance on social media, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Most of us trust scientists more than some random blogger telling a compelling but uncheckable story based on opinions rather than evidence.
That's why the row between Facebook and the Australian government is so important.
I use social media – mostly Twitter – with a heavy sense of caution. Bots, charlatans and anonymous liars are all out there. And social media is not “free". The US computer security expert Bruce Schneier famously noted: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.”
Facebook was created in February 2004. In 17 years, it has become the world’s most powerful social media platform through the sharing of information, an astounding success story for its founder Mark Zuckerberg. But with success comes scrutiny. Facebook executives have earned a reputation for arrogance by appearing to believe that they are too powerful to face challenges from mere democratically elected governments.
Now Facebook has decided in effect to unfriend an entire country by blocking Australians from posting or seeing any links to domestic or foreign news outlets on its platforms. That's because the Australian government wants to force Facebook and other social media platforms to negotiate with media companies to pay for news. Facebook points out that carrying news is a service to users who perhaps would not buy a newspaper or subscribe to a TV channel, and it therefore drives traffic to news websites.
Within that argument, Facebook appears to concede the truth of Mr Schneier’s observation that Facebook users are indeed “the product", being passed along to the news providers.
The row has now escalated. The Canadian government is considering becoming the second country to make Facebook pay for news. Other countries, including France, Germany and the UK, are watching with interest. British MPs have accused Facebook of arrogance after Mr Zuckerberg refused to turn up before a House of Commons committee in 2018 to discuss the impact of social media on the UK. One Conservative MP, Damian Hinds, said: "The danger with some of these large tech firms is that they don't feel accountable to any traditional jurisdiction."
Australia is, therefore, a test case that could transform the idea of regulating these digital behemoths. Two issues are key here.
The first is that news is itself a business. When it comes to information – as with any other commodity – you get more or less what you pay for. That’s why “citizen journalism” can be useful, as a news source, but it is no substitute for professionally run news organisations. It is hugely expensive for newspapers, including this one, to have skilled journalists based around the world. Facebook is not breaking any existing laws, but it is a parasite on this system. It is a basic principle that those profiting from the labour of others should pay for it.
Second, Facebook's total revenue was put at $7.9 billion in 2013 and grew to $86bn in 2020. That year, the social network accumulated a net income of $29.1bn, ranking it first among social media companies in annual revenues. To put that into perspective, the GDP of a country such as Jamaica is less than $20bn a year. Mr Zuckerberg is said to make between $3-6 million a day. Facebook can afford to pay for news.
It may be able to get its way with smaller countries and even in battles with individual richer countries such as Australia, but if nations work together, then even the world’s richest social media giant will get the message.
This clash, if settled amicably, could in the end benefit all of us. Facebook users would continue to have access to information gleaned from reliable news sources. Those reliable sources would be boosted by access to more funds to spend on gathering news. And those of us who believe that individual corporations should behave as good corporate citizens will be cheered that even Facebook, in the end, cannot always get its way.
Social media is great. Anti-social media giants are not.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National