Beware of Geeks bearing gifts (again)

Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg share an unfortunate character trait: An inability to accept the truth.

The former U.S. president’s response to being confronted by unpalatable reality is to fabricate large and elaborate lies. Facebook’s founder indulges in cynical diversion.

The scale and depth of Trump’s deceptions over the 2020 election was well-canvassed at the weekend in a two-hour special by CNN’s Jake Tapper titled Trumping Democracy: An American Coup.

Zuckerberg indulged in a massive rebranding exercise to divert attention from the revelations to both the U.S. Congress and British Parliament by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen that screamed out the need for regulation. The corporate Facebook has transmogrified into Meta, short for Metaverse – a vast expanse that threatens to take the world beyond post-truth to post-reality.

His abiding denial of truth, however, lies in diverting attention from Facebook’s appropriation without payment of media content for commercial gain. The company only faces up to that reality when it is forced to do so by governments (such as Australia) whose patience with the social media giant has run out.

Such setbacks have not diminished Facebook’s preferred narrative and last week the diversion tactic reared its head here in New Zealand with an announcement by Meta of “a four-part investment to help New Zealand’s news industry to thrive in a changing digital world”.

Full of grand promises of a pathway to a successful digital future, the company’s media release says it aims to help New Zealand publishers understand and build their audiences. It invites media organisations to apply to join an “audience development accelerator program”, a 10-week training and mentoring course which will apparently be open to “12 publishers from regional, digital and culturally-diverse publications”. The announcement mentions but gives no detail on investing in video and content innovation.

The accelerator will be assisted by a Meta Aotearoa News Innovation Advisory Group and has enlisted five people from different parts of the industry: Te Karere presenter Scotty Morrison, AUT academic Khairiah Rhaman, former News Publishers Association executive Rick Neville, former MediaWorks News Director Hal Crawford, and broadcaster Brodie Kane. I can only hope that their voices will be heard if they raise concerns about the initiative.

Meta rather disingenuously aligns itself with the government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund administered by NZ on Air, saying “we share the government’s commitment and believe by helping publishers reach people through free distribution, and investing in free tools and programs specifically designed to help build audiences and revenue, we can support sustainable business models for the long term”.

Call me an old cynic but I see Facebook’s fingerprints all over the realisation of that dream. “Free distribution” and ‘free tools” in their parlance means their social media platforms and “programs specifically designed to help build audiences” translates in my book to Facebook algorithms and its other commercial intelligence gathering methods. But, they will argue, the terms and conditions specifically say that those who receive the grants will not be required to use the company’s platforms. Forgive me for quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but that rather calls for the suspension of disbelief.

My cynicism is deepened by the fact that nowhere in the statement does it mention just how much money Facebook…sorry, Meta… will put into these initiatives. Whatever the sum, it will be a pittance compared to the amount that it extracts in New Zealand advertising revenue each year.

BusinessDesk editor, Pattrick Smellie, writing on The Spinoff in June did not try to disguise his disdain for the way Facebook operates in this country. Each year the company utilises its complex transnational structures to record tiny revenues and resultant losses in New Zealand which are met, in Smellie’s words, with “barely disguised disbelief”. That is because last year New Zealand’s digital-only advertising revenue (and for that you can read primarily Google and Facebook) amounted to $NZ1.2 billion or 55 per cent of the country’s total advertising spend.

The Meta announcement attempts to minimise the role played by news content. It says “news is a small part of the experience of most Kiwis on our platforms, including Facebook”. For a moment imagine those platforms containing no more than personal messages exchanged between friends. Would it attract the $US89 billion in revenue that Facebook/Meta racked up worldwide last year? To slightly misquote John Wayne: The hell it wouldn’t.

Following the announcement, a Meta spokesman said the company would not pay for New Zealand news content. It is, however, doing so in Australia after Canberra threatened a legislative shotgun.

I don’t doubt that some good things will emanate from Meta’s New Zealand initiatives but they are no more than an artful dodging around the core issue between the company and New Zealand media. Facebook/Meta should pay a fair share of the cost of production of every item of news carried on its platforms and return a proportion of the advertising revenue derived from it.

Victoria University of Wellington academic, Associate Professor Peter Thompson, has long advocated a levy on advertising on social media platforms and I believe that the tactics employed by both Facebook/Meta and Google/Alphabet are pointing inevitably in that direction.

Last week’s announcement also says the company will host a one-day virtual workshop for publishers on 26 November to discuss “sustainable business models”. It would be a short but successful gathering if Zuckerberg’s creature accepted the truth and started paying its way, thereby restoring a sustainable business model of New Zealand’s news media.

Six years ago I wrote a commentary for an international media industry body that urged caution over a number of initiatives by digital multinationals to placate growing anger among publishers about the appropriation of content and resulting transfer of advertising revenue. I referred to one of the great tales from Homer’s Iliad in which Odysseus’ crew were lured into the clutches of a witch by an invitation to a feast (half were turned into pigs). I called that commentary “Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts”.

Watch that space

The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court is expected to rule tomorrow on whether a landmark case that has massive implications for social media platforms (and others) can proceed.

In the case, an individual is seeking to take action against Google, claiming that between 2011 and 2012 Google cookies collected data on health, race, ethnicity, sexuality and finance through Apple’s Safari web browser, even when users had chosen a “do not track” privacy setting.

What makes the case hugely significant is the fact that the man is claiming on behalf of millions of unnamed users of the search engine. It is a first for the UK. Class actions there have been able to be brought only on an opt-in basis, meaning all those involved have to give their consent. This has either limited the number of claimants or resulted in lengthy delays while consent is sought from individuals.

After a long and arduous passage through the British legal system, the case now sits with the highest court, which will decide whether it can proceed without the potentially affected parties giving tacit consent.

The claimant, Richard Lloyd, told the BBC he hoped the case “could establish a form of fair redress for data misuse that doesn’t currently exist in this country”. He said it was “about giving millions of consumers access to justice when their rights are abused by global tech giants.”

The Court of Appeal ruled the claim could be filed. Google then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Tomorrow’s ruling may – or may not – start the substantive hearing of one of the most significant claims in recent English legal history.

Summer of cricket

We’ll be able to add the dulcet radio tones of Brian Waddle and Jeremy Coney to the sun and sand next summer. NZME has secured audio rights to the Black Caps’ Australian tour in January-February. The four games will be broadcast on Gold AM and will include ‘commentary’ by the Alternative Commentary Collective. What’s summer without cricket on the radio?



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