Jen Gerson: Facebook DGAF
This isn't about saving lives. It's about using an emotionally charged emergency to score points, to draw Meta into a PR war in retaliation for their failure to succumb to Pablo Rodriguez’s charms.
Look, I've largely said my piece on the Online News Act: it's poorly conceived legislation that risked terrible outcomes. It's pointless, now, with those terrible outcomes unfolding, to say “I told you so.”
But the response to the news that Meta has decided to continue blocking news — even in the face of devastating wildfires in B.C. and the Northwest Territories — has been such disingenuous dumbfuckery from every corner that I have failed to bestill my cursed fingertips.
Let's start with this quote from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who at a recent press conference, said: “Right now in an emergency situation where up-to-date local information is more important than ever, Facebook’s putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety, ahead of supporting quality local journalism ... This is not the time for that.”
Wait, a major global corporation that has been labelled as actually literally evil by both progressives and conservatives in recent years is putting its own profits and self-interest ahead of the priorities and values of politicians and pundits?
Sir, surely thou art in jest.
Is this government only now figuring out that major global corporations exist to extract profits; that whatever social corporate responsibility roles they may choose to enact, they aren’t a public service? Is Trudeau shocked — shocked, I say! — to just this very moment discover that Meta isn’t actually some combination of the Red Cross and Reuters?
I mean ... welcome to the adult world, I guess, and please leave your copy of Adbusters near the coat check at the door.
But if Meta is as evil as all that, why did so few politicos or pundits anticipate that the company would follow through on its explicit threat to block news if C-18 were passed? This is like watching an Allied general who says: “I think these Nazi fellows are the baddies!” and then gets flustered when the guys with skulls on their caps pull out their guns and start shooting in the midst of afternoon trench tea. “Well, I never. That’s hardly sporting!” This is some Black Adder comedy, friends, and we may be on the side of the angels, but our angels also happen to be a little slow in the head.
Oh, but surely Meta wouldn't block news to put their own self interest "ahead of people's safety," hmmmm?
With advance apologies, but is our antipathy toward Meta so intense that we're going to straight-face pretend that AM radio, FM radio, emergency text alerts and broadcasts, municipal and provincial emergency websites, formal and informal social media networks and chat groups, and local news broadcasts with websites that can be accessed directly through web browsers all just ceased to exist, simultaneously, the very moment that CBC stopped being able to post news links to Instagram?
If Facebook is actually putting lives in danger, that's an admission of impotence and incompetence from our entire communications infrastructure, including government, private and public media. It is an incredible and embarrassing self-own.
Are we really entertaining some fantasy in which a 60-year-old woman named Sally McGee from West Kelowna doesn't know that her town is burning to the ground because she only gets her news from Facebook? Is she sitting in her arm chair, right now, petting her cat, crocheting a trendy new sweater, totally oblivious to the coming hellfire rolling down the hill?
Fuck off with this.
Facebook is not and never has been a primary source of information during emergencies. Nor should it be. Remember when we are all told to keep an AM radio with a spare set of batteries handy for exactly this kind of situation? Totally regardless of Meta's profit incentives, internet and cell phone services can fail during catastrophes. This is why AM radio — one of the oldest, most reliable, and affordable technologies — has retained its shining role as a key tool in emergency planning.
I remember this, and I'm not that old, surely!
Google is a much bigger deal for news distribution than Facebook, frankly. If the search engine chooses to shut down access to news during emergencies — even if it finds ways to mitigate the harm by redirecting traffic to government sources — I think that's a bigger problem than what Meta's chosen to do.
Even so, humans are news-gathering apes. Staunch the flow of information from one source and we will seek it from another.
So cut the crap. This isn't about saving lives. It's about using this highly emotionally charged emergency to score points, to draw Meta into a PR war in retaliation for their failure to succumb to Pablo Rodriguez’s charms. It's an attempt to shame the company into complying with legislative extortion.
Think I'm wrong?
Well, noodle this one. Imagine Trudeau got up there yesterday and promised Big Tech an exemption to C-18 for the purposes of sharing news, maybe even only in certain geographic areas, during declared states of emergency. I'm willing to bet that Meta would lift its block, at least temporarily, under such conditions.
I will note, however, that the government has made no move to offer such an exemption; almost as if it were putting the optics of a fight Big Tech "ahead of peoples' safety," as it were. And who, exactly, ought to be more responsible for the public’s safety, in this instance: Facebook, or Justin Trudeau?
But enough of the prime minister, because I'm not done. Let's move down the list of dumbfuckery, shall we?
Because we also have the Conservatives who are framing this whole mini-fiasco as an exercise in government censorship. Which somehow manages to take an idiotic bit of legislation and respond to it in a way that lowers the country's collective IQ by five points at minimum. It’s like the CPC’s leadership looked at this debacle and said, “Man, the Liberals are being really stupid … but I bet we can be stupider.”
It starts at the top, with Pierre Poilievre, who recently noted that Meta's decision to block news was "like 1984 ... the government is passing a law to make news articles disappear from the Internet."
Come on. There are about a thousand fair ways you can criticize C-18 and the utterly self-defeating idiocy that the Liberals engaged in to this point. That quote by Poilievre, though? It’s just bullshit. (And this, Mr. Poilievre is why we still think there’s an outside chance the Liberals find a way beat you: every time you have a chance to critique Liberals, there’s about a 50-50 chance you instead say something snappy but obviously false.)
The CPC doesn’t like the media much, as you’ve noticed. This is a party whose former leader just accused the industry of collusion because he ostensibly doesn't understand that media outlets share news stories and headlines through a collective wire service. This is also a party that, as we’ve warned here before, is seeking confrontation with the media because they see political advantage in it, something that our media colleagues have been tragically slow to realize.
But I digress. The Online News Act is a poorly conceived piece of legislation that is backfiring. It is not government censorship. It would be just grand if the guy likely to be the prime minister would stop telling people otherwise.
Because the truth is still really bad for Trudeau and the gang. The Liberals tried to force Facebook to enter into negotiations with news outlets to pay for the use of journalistic content; Facebook decided that the conditions of the bill were financially untenable. The corporation pulled news to ensure their platform didn't come under the scope of the legislation.
Their decision was both rational and predictable. They warned us they’d do exactly this in advance. The Liberals didn’t believe them, the government overplayed its hand and Meta made a foreseeable (and foreseen!) business decision in response.
You want villains and heroes, I've got nothing for you here, just the terrible machinations of cost and consequences, of inevitability and karma.
My last observation before, hopefully, never weighing on anything C-18 related as long as I live:
Facebook is taking hits from Trudeau and his ministers; they may even be subject to a dubious competition bureau complaint as a result of all of this. And I can't help but notice that they're not putting up much of a public fight. There's just a lot of bland corporate boilerplate like this: "The Online News Act forces us to end access to news content in order to comply with the legislation, but we remain focused on making our technologies available, including our Safety Check …" Yada yada yada.
Every time someone tries to post now-verboten news content, Facebook is going to offer a link that will redirect its users to a blog post that blandly explains why it chose to block news. This will be repeated over and over again until C-18 is withdrawn, the platform collapses into disuse, or we all savour the ecstasy of the heat death of the universe.
What I see, here, is a government that is eager for a showy fight with a major technology firm, and a technology firm that doesn't care. What I see is an exhausted PM and his meh cabinet in a small media market; a government that talks big and does little, deciding to take on a tech giant that is probably more popular with Canadians than they are.
The PR war to date has not driven users from Facebook in droves. Quite the opposite: anecdotally, I've seen posts from users who actually find the site to be much more pleasant sans current events.
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has called for a boycott of Meta and Instagram over the next few days to respond to the news block.
I have no doubt that Meta will find this useful. They'll track how many users reduce their activity compared to baseline, and use that data to assess how much harm the government's PR campaign and residual public outrage is doing. From this, they'll probably be able to calculate, in hard dollars, how much this discontent is costing them in lost eyeballs and ad revenue; if that amount is less than what they fear they would have to pay out under C-18 (compounded by the probably impacts of similar legislation across global markets) then Meta will continue to not post our news.
That's really it. That's what it comes down to. It's not complicated. Facebook has made a calculated business decision about the value of its fucks.
These fucks are expensive. So they won’t give any.
Understand this and budget accordingly. And definitely keep one of those radios around. You never know.
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