By now, most would be aware of the storm kicked up by Facebook’s botched attempt to face off with the Australian Government. As Google began efforts to find middle ground in light of Australia following through on legislation that will require social media platforms to pay for exhibiting news content on its users’ feeds, Facebook jumped the gun and switched off access to a large swathe of content that could be viewed and shared on its platform. While the intent was to continue playing chicken with the Aussies’ news media payment legislation, Facebook inadvertently roped in non-news content — including vital government public service sites — to its blackout zones.
Ironic that the term “news feed” was most — if not originally — associated with Facebook which pioneered the concept back in the early- to mid-2000s. Now it’s taken out the “news” from its feed and many other governments are now watching with interest what happens next. It does not help too that Facebook arch-rival Twitter got itself into a pickle after banning then-sitting US President Donald Trump from its site recently triggering alarm in many European countries where legislation curbing the increasingly disturbing power of Big Corporate Social Media is gaining traction.
But do people still use Facebook to keep track of the latest content coming from mainstream news media? The trouble with Facebook’s feed is that content does not come out as they are published. What is served to our eyeballs is the outcome of “curation” done by its now-infamous algorithm that decides on the basis of what content will most likely keep us scrolling for more.
As Facebook progressively automated more and more of its prioritisation regime, users became less and less conscious of how they were influencing this algorithm, and Facebook, became more and more presumptuous about what its users “wanted” to see. The algorithm relied less on users consciously telling it what to post more or less of and, instead, inferred these wishes from less conscious and less deliberate behaviour. We now call this unconscious behaviour “user engagement”. The methods and tools used for inferring user preferences and predicting user behaviour based on “user engagement” data is a lucrative endeavour in the field now known as “analytics”. From there, the rest is history.
Most users of Twitter will have likely seen a similar algorithm that tailors how content appears based on what it “learns” about our preferences implemented on that platform as well. Fortunately, Twitter allows its users to revert to the original feed that displays tweets in chronological order as they are posted by users we follow. This is likely why Twitter had come to be preferred over Facebook by users who are serious followers of mainstream news.
Between Google and Facebook, a block on news sites implemented by the earlier would have been more disastrous to Aussies. Google, after all, is unmatched in its ability to serve relevant content to its users and most researchers rely on Google to find information from reliable resources. Facebook, on the other hand, is a “fun” site and consumption of its content is done far more passively than, say, on Google whose users actively search. And, perhaps, compounded by its opaque algorithm which makes what comes out on its feeds unpredictable, most Facebook users likely take what content they get out of it with a grain of salt.
Indeed, Facebook needs to tread carefully too when it comes to its Philippine operations. Its platform is given considerable preference by carriers such as Philippine telco giant Globe Telecoms (which is partially owned by giant Singaporean telco SingTel). Most Filipinos spend almost all of their Internet activities within the Facebook platform thanks to Filipino carriers such as Globe excluding much of the data accessed by Filipino users that originates from Facebook from data charges. Because Facebook data is free, most Filipinos’ online activities tend to be disproportionately confined to Facebook. Facebook is effectively The Internet for most Filipinos.
That essentially makes Facebook an entity of particular interest to Philippine regulators as well. It exerts disturbingly disproportionate control over Filipino citizens’ Internet activities and, even more importantly, their access to it. Its arrangement with carriers can even be regarded as collusive in nature. Carriers are a public utility and should be transmitting data and content without prejudice towards any one or other content producer or digital service. This arrangement with Facebook runs counter to such principles. This is another aspect of its operations in the Philippines that should be raising regulators’ eyebrows.
Coming back to its tiff with the Aussie Government, it is really Facebook that is the subject of this interesting experiment and people are watching what its users do next. Is it really that important a platform to news media and other publishers of serious content? If the answer to that is a “no”, then there is cause for other governments to start to consider taking bolder steps to cut the social media behemoth down to size.
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