Why journalism continues to fight the disproportionate influence of social media companies
Facebook banned Australians from finding or sharing news on its platform in response to a proposal by the Australian government to require social media networks to pay journalism organizations for their content. The move is already reducing the online readership of Australian news sites, with dire consequences for America and other nations.
Much like when Donald Trump’s account was blocked by Facebook in January, the dispute with Australia reignites the debate about the enormous control of social networks over people’s access to information. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says his country will “not be intimidated” by an American tech company.
My research into the history of international media policy has shown that a handful of rich countries have long had undue influence over the way the rest of the world receives its news. Facebook has 2.26 billion users, and most of them live outside of the United States, according to the company. India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines are home to the largest number of Facebook users outside of the United States.
Facebook’s share of the global social media market is staggering, but the company is not alone. Eight of the eleven most popular social media companies in the world are based in the United States. These include YouTube and Tumblr, as well as Instagram, which is part of Facebook. The geographic concentration of information technology puts these billions of non-American social media users and their government officials in a subordinate position. Big Tech’s business decisions can effectively dictate freedom of expression around the world.
Imperial origins of international news
Dependence on foreign media has long been a problem in the Global South – in so-called developing countries with a common history of colonial rule. It began in many ways 150 years ago with the development of Wire Services – the news wholesalers who send correspondents around the world to wirefeed subscribers’ stories. Each service recorded news in the respective colonies or spheres of influence of its home country, so that British Reuters would, for example, submit stories from Bombay and Cape Town and France’s Havas from Algiers.
The US-based Associated Press became a major player in global news business in the early 20th century. These companies conquered the global news production market and generated most of the content that people worldwide read in the international section of every newspaper. This meant, for example, that a Bolivian reading on events in neighboring Peru would typically get the news from a US or French correspondent.
The news monopolies of former colonial powers lasted into the 20th century. Some Latin American countries like Argentina and Mexico developed their own strong newspapers covering local and national events, but they could not afford to send many correspondents overseas. In the 1970s, according to my research, the North Atlantic Intelligence Services still provided 75% of the international news printed and broadcast in Latin America.
Cold War problems
Regardless, many world leaders outside the US and Europe also feared that these foreign powers would intervene in their countries ‘internal affairs by secretly using their countries’ media. That happened during the Cold War. In the lead-up to a 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, the agency secretly used Guatemalan radio waves and broadcast local news to convince the Guatemalan military and the public that the overthrow of their democratically elected president was inevitable.
After Guatemala, in the late 1950s and early 1960s many “Third World” leaders – countries that were neither allied with the United States nor the Soviet Union – began developing their own news and radio services. Cuban leader Fidel Castro founded a state international intelligence service, Prensa Latina, to enable Latin Americans “to learn the truth and not fall victim to lies.” He also founded Radio Havana Cuba, which broadcast revolutionary programs across America, including the southern United States. These were government agencies, not independent news organizations.
The leaders of the Global South also wanted to shape the international representation of their countries. North Atlantic intelligence services often portrayed the developing world as backward and chaotic, which justified the need for outside intervention. This tendency was so widespread that it earned journalism the nickname “coups and earthquakes”.
The leaders of the Global South also lacked full access to communications technology, particularly satellites controlled by US and Soviet-dominated organizations. In the 1970s, leaders of the Global South raised concerns about information inequalities with UNESCO and advocated binding United Nations regulations that would ban direct international broadcasts via satellite. It was a quixotic quest to convince the powers that be to give up their control of communications technology, and they didn’t get very far.
But these decades-old proposals recognized the imbalances in global information that persist today. In the past few decades, other countries have set up their own news networks with the express aim of challenging biased representations of their regions.
One result is Al Jazeera, created by the Qatari emir in 1996 to challenge American and British representations of the Middle East. Another is TeleSur, which Venezuela founded in 2005 in partnership with other Latin American countries with the aim of balancing US influence in the region. It was created after the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, which was supported by the US government and powerful Venezuelan broadcasters.
Why media are important
State-sponsored media companies were confronted with partially well-founded allegations that the reporting was biased in favor of their state sponsors. Nevertheless, their existence underscores the fact that it depends where and by whom media are produced. Research suggests that this concern extends to social media as well. Facebook and Google, for example, produce algorithms and guidelines that reflect the ideas of their creators – who are mostly white, male, and based in California’s Silicon Valley.
One study found that this can lead to racist or sexist search engine search results. A 2016 ProPublica investigation also found that Facebook allowed advertisers for housing listings to target users based on race, in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. All of this raises doubts as to whether Facebook or an international company alike can establish adequate rules to regulate speech in every country in which they operate. Understanding what accounts are dangerous enough to lock down and what is misinformation, for example, requires a deep understanding of national politics and culture.
In light of this criticism, Facebook set up an independent oversight body in 2020, known colloquially as the Supreme Court. The board is made up of media and legal experts from around the world and is really diverse. His job, however, is to uphold a “constitution” drafted by the American company by evaluating a handful of appeals against Facebook’s decisions to remove content.
Facebook’s current battle with Australia suggests that fair control of international news is still in the works.