Donald Trump’s war on TikTok in U.S. and Rupert Murdoch’s on Facebook in Australia are not being seen for their true import: as government attacks on the people’s press, on freedom of expression, on human rights.
In Australia, Facebook just said that if Murdoch-backed legislation requiring platforms to pay for news is enacted, the company will stop media companies — and users — from posting news on Facebook and Instagram.
Who is hurt there? The public and its conversation. The public loses access to its means of sharing and debating news. Never before in history — never before the internet — has everyone had access to a press; only the privileged had it and now the privileged will rob the people of theirs. Without the people’s press, we would not have #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #OccupyWallStreet and the voices of so many too long not heard. This is a matter of human rights.
The Australian legislation is a cynical mess. It is bald protectionism by Murdoch and the old, corporate press, requiring platforms to “negotiate” with guns to their heads for the privilege of quoting, promoting, and sending traffic, audience, and tremendous value to news sites. It is illogical. Facebook, Google, et al did not steal a penny from old media. They competed. To say that Facebook owes newspapers is a white plutocrat’s regressive view of reparations; by this logic Amazon owes Walmart who owes A&P who owes the descendents of Luigi’s corner grocery who owes a pushcart vegetable vendor on Hester Street. Facebook owes news nothing.
This is a case of outrageous regulatory capture on Murdoch’s part. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about news and informed democracy. He, more than any human being alive, has been the scourge of democracy in the English-speaking world. The Australian legislation aims to give money only to large publishers, like Murdoch. If Facebook makes good on its threat and bans news, then the news business as a whole will suffer but the largest players in the field, who have brand recognition — i.e., Murdoch — will gain market share over smaller and newer competitors. Murdoch will be even freer to spread his propaganda. This is an attempt by the old press to impose a Stamp Tax on the new. Facebook is right to resist, just as Google was when Spain imposed its Stamp Tax on links (and Google News left the country).
Now to Trump’s war on TikTok. This, too, is a matter of freedom of expression. TikTok is, to my mind, the first platform to begin to make us rethink media and the line separating producer and audience, for TikTok is a collaborative platform where people do not just comment on each others content but create together. It is the one social network that Trump and his cultists have not managed to game. It is the platform that has enabled Sarah Cooper and countless citizens to mock Trump. So he hates it and wants to abuse his power to kill it.
If TikTok goes because of government fiat, so goes Sarah Cooper’s ability to criticize the man who killed it. What could be a clearer violation of the First Amendment? Why is no one screaming this? It’s because, I think, the old press still thinks the meaning of the “press” is a machine that spreads ink. No. The internet is the people’s press. It is a machine that spreads power.
Keep in mind that none of these platforms was built for news and their lives would all, frankly, be easier without it and the controversy and advertiser repellant it brings. Facebook was built for hookups and party pix. The people decided to use it to share and discuss news. Twitter was built to tell friends where you were drinking. The people decided to use it to share what they witness with the world, to discuss public policy, and to organize movements. Google was built to find web sites, not news, but it added the ability to find news when the people showed they wanted that. YouTube was built to stream silly videos. The people decided they would use it for everything from education to news. TikTok was built to lip-sync music. The people decided they would use it to mock the fool in the White House.
In every case, media could have built what the platforms did. They could have provided people a place to share what they witness and discuss public issues; instead, they provided dark, dank, neglected corners in which to comment on the journalist’s content. They could have provided a place for communities to meet, gather together, to share, to assemble and act. They did not. They could have provided a place for creators to collaborate but instead they care only about their own creation. News media blew every opportunity. Their publics— their readers, viewers, listeners, users, customers — went elsewhere to take advantage of the power the internet offered them. Platforms shared that power with the public. Publishers did not. The platforms owe the publishers nothing. The publishers owe their publics apologies.
Now, of course, cynical Murdoch and his media mates found an ideal foil in Mark Zuckerberg because, these days, nobody likes Mark, right? Why is that? In part, of course, it’s because Mark is incredibly rich and not terribly telegenic and because he cannot control the bucking bronco he is riding. But it is also because of media’s narrative about him: that he is suddenly the cause of societal ills that have been around since man learned to talk. Please keep in mind when you read media stories about Facebook that even if subconsciously, reporters are writing from a position of jealous conflict of interest. Murdoch, more than any publisher this side of Germany, has sicced his troops on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the internet, which they believe has robbed them of their manifest destiny and dollars.
Necessary disclosure: Facebook has funded projects related to disinformation and news at my school, some of them reaching an end. I receive nothing personally from Facebook or any technology company, other than free drinks at the conferences they hold to help the news industry. I am accused of defending Facebook, though Facebook does always not make it easy to defend and I’m often critical of it. What I am defending is the internet and the power it gives citizens at last. What I am defending is the people’s press.
I would like to hear First Amendment lawyers and scholars in the U.S. and human-rights advocates the world around defend the people’s press from attacks in the Philippines, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Hungary, Turkey, Belarus, Brazil — and in the United States and Australia.
None of this is new. Every time there is a new technology that enables more people to speak, those who controlled the old technology — and the power it afforded — try to prevent the people they see as interlopers from sharing that power. It happened when scribe Filippo de Strata tried to convince the doge of Venice to outlaw the press and the drunken Germans who brought it to Italy. Princes tried to grant printing monopolies to allies. Popes and kings and autocrats of late banned and burned books and the people who wrote them. England had the Stationers Company license and censor authorized publishing. Charles II tried to close coffeehouses to shut off the discussion of news in them. American newspaper publishers tried to have new radio competitors banned from broadcasting news. Each time, eventually, they lost. For speech will out.