What happens when Facebook slows down the flow of news

Residents of Thursday Island, a slick in the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, have for years relied on Facebook Inc. to learn about everything from cyclone warnings to crayfish prices and a recent parvovirus outbreak among the neighborhood pets.

The platform doesn’t consume data like other websites do, a priority for remote communities, where people often use prepaid phones. Newspapers and radio stations staffed by indigenous reporters post Facebook updates in local dialects, a key feature for those for whom English is a third or fourth language. It is everything the island can have in real time. By the time the mainland Australian newspapers arrive, the story is about a week old.

“The websites are our second stop,” said Kantesha Takai, a 29-year-old small business owner on the island. “We depend a lot on giants like Facebook.”

Kantesha Takai, a small business owner on Thursday Island, searches social media for critical updates about her remote community. “We depend a lot on giants like Facebook.”


Kantesha takai

Mark Zuckerberg cut a critical piece in the communication chain of such regions when Facebook blocked the news from the social media platform across the country, a drastic backlash to the Australian government’s plan to force the company to pay for news services for it. content shared on the site. Although the company reached a deal earlier this week, the experience of Takai and his neighbors in a small town on a small island revealed a side to the world’s largest social media platform that can be blunt and brutal when challenged. in a negotiation.

Its final week illuminates a new chapter in the 17-year-old company’s changing adolescence, one that turned the users who make up the platform into collateral damage in the battle between titans who run tech companies and those who wish to regulate them.

The effect of Facebook’s sudden absence was particularly felt among Australia’s indigenous peoples, those often remote communities who use the social media platform as a utility, especially at a time of climate change-induced weather patterns and a pandemic. Here are the places where Facebook’s goal of connecting the world has proven almost too effective: When the company got into a dispute with Australian government officials, residents like Takai were left without the most effective method of weather warnings. and Covid-19. information. After Facebook spent years defending the platform from allegations of conspiracy and misinformation trafficking, it plucked legitimate news sources from the continent’s most vulnerable populations days before a coronavirus vaccine was distributed.

Facebook announced an agreement with lawmakers Tuesday that will allow it to return news to the site. He agreed to pay some media outlets through settlements that he achieves on his own, although details have not been released. Still, the initial and dramatic response from the company also feels like a potential warning to lawmakers in other countries who are considering legislation the service might not like. Alphabet Inc.’s Google, the other company covered by Australian law, initially threatened to leave the country before agreeing to new deals earlier this month to pay some publishers for content. Those publishers included News Corp, owner of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, which was lobbying for the government’s position.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on the impact of the blackout on indigenous communities. In a company blog post on Australian events published on Wednesday, spokesman Nick Clegg wrote: “The events in Australia show the danger of camouflaging a cash subsidy offer behind distortions of how the Internet works.”

“It’s understandable that some media conglomerates see Facebook as a potential source of money to make up for their losses, but does that mean they should be able to demand a blank check?” added.

Facebook blocked people in Australia from viewing or sharing news articles while lawmakers debated a bill to force social media companies to pay for content. The legislation is being observed globally and could offer a model for other countries. Photo: Josh Edelson / Getty Images (Originally Posted Feb 18, 2021)

Those who run indigenous news sites admit that they don’t love giving as many eyes to Facebook, but the platform has become indispensable to those in the community for whom the priority is getting information out to the public. Almost half of Australia’s 25 million residents have a Facebook account, but the platform has a particular reach within First Nations communities. Communities make up about 3% of Australians and are descended from those who lived on the continent before the British colonized it in the late 18th century.

The indigenous people who moved to the city use Facebook to keep in touch with the people of their country; stories transmitted in oral tradition are uploaded and shared; and public health information is published in hundreds of local dialects.

The disproportionate impact Facebook’s demise had on Australian indigenous communities appears to be at odds with the spirit promoted by the company. You can imagine, at another time, Facebook putting Thursday Island fishermen and elders in a commercial about the beauty of interconnectedness.

Indigenous news outlets whose pages were blocked on Tuesday found it difficult to communicate directly with Facebook and instead have relied on lawmakers to press the case and be reinstated as soon as possible, said Naomi Moran, vice president of First Nations Media, the organization. leader of media at the service of the community.

“It’s about our people picking up the pieces of a problem that we haven’t caused. It’s ancient history when it comes to indigenous peoples from all over the world, ”he said.

The information vacuum Facebook caused was particularly irritating to those in the indigenous media business, as it came just as the country was preparing to roll out the Covid-19 vaccine, and indigenous communities have a higher rate of comorbidities than they can make the virus more deadly. .

Hannah Cross, editor of the National Indigenous Times, was surprised to see that all of her newspaper’s Facebook posts, which generally cover everything from Indigenous artist exhibitions to information on where to access social distancing guidelines in her local dialect, are erased from the page. Instead: a note that said: “No posts yet.”

“I didn’t know I woke up in Orwell’s ‘1984’,” he said.

A February 23 screenshot from the Facebook page of the National Indigenous Times in Australia shows an empty news channel after Facebook banned news content in the country.


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Facebook’s response quickly took a hit when its machines swept through non-news pages and triggered temporary blackouts from the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, another source of cyclone warnings, as well as services like domestic violence hotlines. Independent bloggers with few followers were also eliminated.

Even with an agreement in place, the experience of waking up to no news on the world’s most popular social media platform will have long-lasting ramifications for those in Australia and for those observing a Menlo Park-based company that appears to operate further afield. any border or jurisdiction. His blackout was a response to a bill the Australian government was preparing to democratically pass. But the “battle of powers”, as Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg put it, cannot help but send a chilling message to other lawmakers seeking to regulate the service in various ways.

For those whose sites were caught in the blackout, the week has taught them, in Silicon Valley language, to pivot. Ms. Cross has been pushing readers to her newspaper’s newsletter and website.

“We have learned that we cannot just trust Facebook,” he said.

And for those who make a living on Thursday Island, Takai said his fishing family can lean on natural instincts when they’re in the water and the cell phone isn’t working.

“We know the seasons and when the winds change, we know what that means,” Ms. Takai said.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at [email protected]

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