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From yesterday 400 high profile brands including Coca-Cola and Starbucks pulled advertising from Facebook.

The month-long Stop hate for profit campaign wants Facebook to do a better job of dealing with hate speech, bigotry, racism, anti-semitism and calls for violence.

Some of the advertisers are also worried about Facebook’s promotion of wild conspiracy theories.

Facebook pushback

Other social media sites have faced similar advertiser pushback. But the focus a the moment is very much on Facebook which seems unwilling to tackle hate speech and far right extremism.

Stop hate for profit is a response to calls from civil right groups. Campaigners and members of the public have contacted brands when their advertising appears next to extremist material asking if they endorse the content.

Things moved up a gear following the George Floyd killing, the subsequent protests and the fast growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Among others things the advertisers want Facebook to give refunds to companies whose ads show up next to hate speech and other offensive comment.

Responsibility

They also want Facebook to take responsibility when people experience severe harassment online. This includes letting them speak to a Facebook employee. At the moment Facebook makes it hard for victims to contact the company.

According to media reports there were last minute talks between Facebook and large advertisers taking part in the campaign.

It turns our Facebook refused to budge, all the company would do was point at its recent press statements.

Now the boycott is underway there are calls for a new meeting. Apparently the advertisers have asked for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to face up to the meeting. It is clear that he calls the shots on these matters.

Facebook says Zuckerberg will attend a meeting next week.

It may not be conciliatory.

In a leaked address to Facebook staff Zuckerberg says: “We’re not going to change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue.”

He went on to say: “…my guess is all of these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough”.

Policy

Facebook has made some recent changes in policy. It says it plans to label content in the same way that Twitter has started doing. But it hasn’t said when it will do this.

It also says it uses artificial intelligence to remove hate speech. The implication in this language is that the AI is already working. Yet there seems little has changed in practice.

Zuckerberg’s confidence that Facebook can ride out the boycott isn’t just chest thumping. Social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are now the preferred route for big advertisers to reach mass markets. It has replaced TV advertising.

Dependency

Some of the biggest advertisers use Facebook to build their brand. Little long-term harm is done if branding stops for a month. Others sell direct. If they don’t advertise, their revenue dries up. A month of low revenue during a global pandemic that is already depressing sales would be hard to stomach.

What about Zuckerberg’s claim the boycott only affects a small percent of revenue?

Last year Facebook took $70 billion in advertising. About 20 percent of that comes from the top 100 advertisers. This group doesn’t necessarily align with the boycotters.

It turns out that only three of Facebooks biggest advertisers have joined the boycott. The company says if all the top 100 advertisers joined, revenue would only drop 6 percent. There are around 400 boycotters, so a ballpark estimate says revenue will be down around 10 percent for one month. That’s likely to be around one percent of annual revenue.

On that basis Zuckerberg’s claim is probably right.

And yet there’s more to this than a small one-off revenue drop.

Turning point?

Some in the advertising sector see the campaign as a turning point. It hits Facebook where it hurts most. There could be more to come.

In the past Facebook has dealt with criticism of its failure to deal with extreme content in two ways. First, it issues press releases outlining the action it is taking. As we can see, this approach no longer cuts it with many critics. There’s been a lot of talk but little evidence of real change.

The other tactic has been to zero in on the most visible and offensive recent outrage and mop it out. That gets headlines and creates the impression the company is doing something.

This week it banned 220 members of the Boogaloo movement who advocate violence. The group overlaps with neo-nazis and white supremacists, but some members are gun lobbyists.

With anything involving business, it helps to follow the money trail. It turns out Facebook’s investors are relaxed about the boycott. On Friday the company’s share price dropped eight percent when the news first broke.

Earlier today the price had recovered. It was down about one percent on Thursday. Given the price fluctuates anyway, that indicates no one at Facebook anticipates much change.

At The Conversation Massey University lecturer Victoria Plekhanova writes: Google and Facebook pay way less tax in New Zealand than in Australia – and we’re paying the price.

She says:

While the internet has created new opportunities for media and audiences alike, those opportunities have come at a price. Traditional media organisations now compete with giant digital platforms, not only for the attention of readers, but also for the advertising revenue that was once their lifeblood.

Adding insult to injury, the digital platforms compete for audiences’ attention partly by distributing the news content that was first created and published by those now-struggling media organisations.

This not only damages the media and public discourse, it is harmful to taxpayers.

Plekhanova says Google paid A$426.5 million in Australian digital service tax in 2018. That’s 66.5 times the amount of tax paid in New Zealand: “Given the New Zealand economy is about a seventh the size of Australia’s, this is an extremely wide disparity”.

There are also rules forcing Google and Facebook to compensate publishers when they piggyback off their original content.

The idea of a digital service tax isn’t that unusual. Other countries have a similar tax.

All of this makes sense. We let the overseas media giants freeload here. Part of their income depends on services that have been provided by taxpayers. Some of that income even comes direct from government agencies which buys advertising on the two social media giants.

It amounts to a net transfer from the New Zealand taxpayer’s pocket to social media investors: some of the richest people in the world.

Ideally the OECD would deal with this problem. But that’s been a long time coming and the money continues to flow in one direction only.

Plekhanova comes unstuck when suggesting taxing or charging tech giants will help local media survive. The damage was done ages ago. Survival depends on more than taxing the giants and anyway, up to a point the main local media outlets depend on the tech giants to reach their audience.

So, yes, let’s tax Google and Facebook like countries tax extractive industries. And, at least, stop pour government money into their coffers. But let’s not kid ourselves this is going to fix our media problems.

 

A mandatory code being developed by ACCC will create ‘level playing field’ in media landscape. Josh Frydenberg says

Source: Facebook and Google to be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies | Australian media | The Guardian

From the original story:

Facebook and Google will be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies after the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, instructed the competition watchdog to develop a mandatory code of conduct for the digital giants amid a steep decline in advertising brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

This is the same steep advertising decline that has New Zealand media companies in a tail spin. Things have been tough for nearly 20 years. Depending on which set of numbers you read, Facebook and Google take as up to 85 percent of advertising revenue.

Media extinction event

Elsewhere pundits have described the Covid-19 pandemic as the extinction trigger for traditional media. The comparison is with the meteor that wiped out most dinosaurs.

Frydenberg said it was only fair that media companies that created the content got paid for it.

“This will help to create a level playing field,” he said.

The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the decision was about a strong and sustainable news media ecosystem.

If we are realistic, it is too late to talk about a “strong and sustainable news media ecosystem”. Today’s game is all about survival.

Level playing field

Likewise “level playing field” is a nice idea, but we’re talking about a playing field where one side has 85 percent and the other has 15 percent.

Yet Frydenberg is correct when he says it is only fair that the tech giants should pay media companies that create content. The same goes for small publishers and individual journalists.

It’s correct to say Google doesn’t take much material from media companies. Often it isn’t much more than a headline and an opening paragraph. Although that is where most of the gold sits in a news story.

Google gives something back in the way of a link to the original story. Yet often, once a Google reader has seen the head and the opening par, the incentive to click a link has gone.

It’s more complicated with Facebook. Sometimes people cut and paste entire stories into Facebook posts. That means when someone reads the story in that timeline, Facebook gets to sell the advertisement, not the publisher.  It means Facebook gets rich on someone else’s work. But then that is the Facebook business model.

Dependency

The flip side of this argument is that media outlets depend on Facebook and Google to deliver links to help readers find stories. It’s a form of dependency that means relying on the parasite that is eating you to also continue feeding you.

Australia’s approach may not be the best way of tackling the problem. Yet it is good to recognise that there is a problem and to attempt to tackle it.

If recent history is any guide, the big social media firms will resist. They will spend a fortune on legal and lobbying attempts to overturn the decision. By the time that fight draws to a conclusion there will a quite different media landscape.

“Some storytellers and influencers are also migrating from personal sites toward individual channels on Medium, Blogger, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. But there’s a risk here — those creating and sharing unique content on these channels can lose ownership of that content. And in a world where content is king, brands need to protect their identity.”

As you might expect, Morrison is keen on changing the downward trajectory for domain name registration, but he has a valid point – why would you put the fate of your business in the hands of a platform owned by someone else? Sure, use Facebook etc to engage with your customers, but why not maintain control over your own brand? It baffles me, especially as creating a website is so much easier than it used to be.

Source: Why businesses aren’t picking domain names | ITP Techblog

At ITP Techblog Sarah Putt sees the issue of using Facebook or another social media site as a matter of branding.

She is right. Branding is important.

Yet the issue doesn’t stop there.

A site of your own

Not owning your own domain name, your own website, means you are not master or mistress of your online destiny. It’s that simple.

If you place your trust in the big tech companies, they can pull the rug at any moment.

This isn’t scaremongering. It has happened time and again. In many cases companies have been left high and dry. Some have gone under as a result.

The big tech companies care no more about the small businesses who piggyback off their services than you care about the individual microscopic bugs living in your gut.

Media companies learned this lesson the hard way. A decade or so ago Facebook and Google have made huge efforts to woo media companies. They promised all kinds of deals.

Many of those companies that went in boots and all are now out of business. Gone. Kaput.

Pulling the plug

Google pulled the plug on services like Wave and Google+ almost overnight after persuading media companies to sign up.

Big tech companies change their rules on a whim. Some of those whims meant cutting off the ways media companies could earn revenue.

Few media companies ever made any much money from the online giants. Those who managed to survive in a fierce and hostile landscape had nowhere to go when the services eventually closed. Many sank without a trace.

Sure, you may have heard stories about people who have made money from having an online business presence on one of the tech giants’ sites. You may also have heard stories about people winning big lottery prizes. The odds are about the same.

Yes, it can be cheap, even free in some cases, to hang out your shingle on Facebook or Google. But it is never really your shingle. It’s theirs.

The case for your own domain name

On the flip side, starting your own web site is not expensive. You can buy a domain name and have a simple presence for the price of a good lunch.

It doesn’t have to be hard work. You don’t need something fancy. And let’s face it, most Facebook companies pages are nothing to write home about either.

Use WordPress. It is not expensive. There’s plenty of help around to get you started.

The important thing is the site is entirely your property.

I often hear one argument in favour of working with Facebook. It goes somewhere along the lines of ‘fishing where the fish swim’. It’s true, your customers probably are on Facebook. There’s nothing to stop you from going there to engage with with them… just make sure you direct them to your independent web site.

At the Guardian, Douglas Rushkoff says our technology is now an entire environment. We live there. We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control

He says:

“We may come to remember this decade as the one when human beings finally realized we are up against something. We’re just not quite sure what it is.

“More of us have come to understand that our digital technologies are not always bringing out our best natures. People woke up to the fact that our digital platforms are being coded by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. This is the decade when, finally, the “tech backlash” began.

But it’s a little late.”

It is a long essay and not easy reading, especially at a time of year when most New Zealanders and Australians have switched off their work brains.

Yet, if you have the time, it is worth reading it all.

Rushkoff knows his stuff and offers some powerful insights. In the essay he runs through the key issues.

Issues are not new

To cut it short, he starts out by saying surveillance capitalism and manipulation are not new. They have long been part our online activity and in our apps for ages. It’s being going on for 20 years now.

He says while these ideas are getting all the attention today, things have moved on. Surveillance capitalism and manipulation may no longer be relevant concerns.

Rushkoff argues we now spend most of how waking hours bathing in the waters of Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google. In other words: “We have been shaped into who the data says we are”.

Join the party

Until now, the common response has been about joining in. There is pressure for young people to learn to code. I’m all for motivated, interested youngsters learning to code, it remains a good career choice.

We don’t have enough people tackling these issues from a social science or art point of view. (Rushkoff talks about liberal arts).

Writers, journalists, movie makers, artists and others have an important role to play. We can communicate and understanding what is going on from a non-engineering or financial perspective.

It’s a complex, deep essay. You may find it too much to absorb in a single reading. I’ve come back to it a few times.

A disappointing omission is that Rushkoff fails to make a connection between this and evidence that our digital lives make us less happy.

Take back control

One thing we can do to mitigate the problems is to take back control of our online experience. If you like to spend less time bathing in what is, if not a toxic soup, certainly something less than ideal.

How to fight back? First, do all the obvious hygiene things. Quit Facebook, choose apps and operating systems where there is room for privacy. Use alternatives to Google.

Embrace openness in all its aspects, not only Open Source software. Be wary of products like Android which are surveillance tools with a little usefulness thrown in.

Be especially wary of ‘free’ services. The price you pay may be far higher than you think.

You don’t have to learn to code. Indeed, unless you have an aptitude or an urge to do so, I recommend you don’t. People like you can read more printed books instead. But when you do, write and talk about your experiences and ideas.

Declare independence

Try to develop an independent online presence. One that isn’t part of a commercial data collection operation.

Learn how to use WordPress. Write a blog instead of posting articles on Facebook or Linkedin. Share things. Investigated ideas like the IndieWeb or Microblogging, both are refreshing. Build links with humans, not corporations or bots.

Rushkoff’s optimistic finishing points echo those broad ideas, even he dresses them in different language. The key here is to seize back as much control as you can.

You’ll be happier.