Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 18, 2024
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Meta Stasis

I began writing this on Tuesday 5 March, shortly after Facebook and Instagram experienced a global crash that lasted two hours. Although we’ve all gone back to “normal” by now, and perhaps even forgotten about it, the crash is worth thinking about: global corporations, monopolies, and communications are a bad mix. 

It brought to mind the bank bailout of 2008. They were supposed to be “too big to fail.” Newly elected President Barack Obama had to look into the dead eye of Wall Street, which had turned a deregulated financial system into a harvesting ground for short-term profits. When the money ran out, the banks started to repossess homes from vulnerable citizens. Faced with the imminent impoverishment of huge sectors of the population, the president had no choice. He had to bail out the banks.

The communications networks we all depend upon are the same.

Once Meta came back online, predictably, all anyone could post about was about how they couldn’t post. This may not have been a great loss. I myself didn’t notice it. I was busy interviewing someone face-to-face in order to write article for this antiquated print medium, the Picton Gazette.

One of the first posts to appear on the resuscitated Facebook came from Robert Reich. A well known public writer, he’s a prof at Berkeley, and the former Secretary of Labor to the Clinton administration as well as an advisor to the Obama administration. He reminded us that the inability to waste our time on social media is really just the tip of the iceberg: “When one big corporation controls three of the world’s biggest social media apps and the two biggest messaging apps, it risks all kinds of chaos if that company ever has a problem. This is just one more reason why corporate consolidation is dangerous.”

How much do we depend on media platforms for day-to-day communications?

This is a serious question. Remember the Rogers network crash of 2022? This event interfered with more than our ability to post ten-second videos. A quarter of Canada’s population lost its internet connection. The entire Interac payment system went down. Stores had to close. Multiple federal government services were unavailable. Hospitals could no longer perform routine operations. Traffic signals in Toronto stopped working. A huge concert at, wait for it… The Rogers Centre, had to be cancelled at the last minute.

Rogers is currently installing all those orange broadband cables around the County.

In the wake of the crash, the federal government introduced regulations about sharing essential communications among private network providers.

But, in general, the pace of technological development and the consolidation of its earnings among very few owners is far ahead of any single government’s ability to regulate. Or at least that is what this government keeps claiming.

These practical dangers to our communications system are the outward signs of a more pernicious ideological danger. Who controls public discourse? The ways in which we communicate affect what we say. Ultimately, they affect what we think.

Take, for example, Elon Musk’s post to the platform formerly known as Twitter the next day, on March 6th. Not for the first time, he circulated conspiracy theories about the Biden administration. This time, it secretly imported of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants on thousands of planes under cover of the night. 

He accused President Biden of treason.

All of his assertions are demonstrably false, and fact checkers do their homework to show this.

But Elon Musk has 175 million followers. He has the power to suppress factual information, and he does.

As we all know, Meta/Facebook/Instagram censors all news from its platforms in Canada. Legitimate fact-checked news from reputable sources. Why? Because the government here introduced legislation that meant it would have to pay for the way it exploits copyright by circulating in some cases millions of copies of a single news story through “sharing” and linking protocols without any compensation at all to the original source. 

Meta is also now doing the same thing in Australia. Pleased with the way nobody has blinked a single eye in Canada over the disappearance of legitimate news from its platforms, it just announced it will no longer allow news, or news “sharing,” on any of its platforms over there, either. The U.K., Europe, and the U.S. are next.

Recently, this newspaper advanced the argument that Meta, and Google, see legitimate news platforms as, quite simply, the last bit of competition in the online advertising market that nets them hundreds of billions of dollars every year. They merely need to flex their vast algorithmic muscles to squeeze out news because it is competition. 

Let the monopoly of fake news and propaganda proliferate. 

We do have a means of countering this.

Government institutions have an obligation to encourage and preserve competition within economic markets. Connected to this is the obligation to encourage and preserve multiple perspectives. The health of a democratic society depends upon it.

A reader recently asked me, “which should I read, the Gazette or the Times?” My answer was immediate: “Both!” We are lucky to have two independent newspapers in the County that offer different perspectives on subjects that matter.

The health of the County’s media culture is what we need to see at every level: provincial, federal and global.

Anti-trust laws are supposed to ensure that citizens and consumers have choice, freedom from price-fixing, and security that no single company’s troubles will shut down the nation. 

The spirit behind such regulation is not merely economic. The freedom to compete, and to choose in the marketplace is only one dimension of freedom of speech and thought, and, most importantly, that which comes with it, the moral obligation to speak the truth as best one can, in good faith.

To have one company, and in some cases, a single individual (I’m looking at you, Elon), in control of global communications platforms threatens freedom of thought and speech.

So, what do I think (while I still can)? The shock of losing Meta’s services for two hours should be a wakeup call.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 11 edition of The Picton Gazette
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