Facebook, carbon tariffs and getting too big for your boots

Back in the day when Australian society reacted to tall poppies by characterising them as too big for their boots many of them escaped overseas.

Today, as Australia has become more multicultural and cosmopolitan, it is almost okay to be a tall poppy as long as you aren’t a woman, a trade unionist, ABC journalist, environmentalist, Muslim or critic of the Morrison Government.

What’s ironic though is that if the grandmothers of the author’s generation were around the people they would tend to call too big for the boots would be Scott Morrison, various Ministers such as Angus Taylor and bloviating journalists – particularly in the Murdoch media.

One of the best recent examples was the Government’s reaction to the growing prospect of US, EU and UK carbon tariffs. If Australia doesn’t get its act together on climate change the rebuff Morrison got over the recent UK conference, which was one of the lead ins to the November 2021 Glasgow United Nations Climate Conference, will be a very minor footnote to the list of problems which will arise if Australia does have to confront carbon tariffs.

Arguably the impact could be as great as that of Sir Otto Niemeyer’s deflationary recommendations were in 1930.

But faced with this prospect what did the Morrison Government do? Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, said Australia would ‘push back’ against such tariffs. Morrison channelled Howard about Australia making decisions about Australia and threatened action under WTO rules.

The Murdoch media was delighted by this tough stand but there was no sign that Boris Johnson, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, Joe Biden and others were trembling in fear. Indeed, there is no indication they even noticed that Australia was going to ‘push back.’

Indeed, it was further evidence that the country is, as it always has been, largely marginal to global affairs despite the beliefs of Australians and their leaders. Once again delusions about ‘punching above our weight’ will dictate policy here while being ignored elsewhere.

Then came Facebook. According to the Government and the Australian media this will be the catalyst for the global shaming and long overdue control of Facebook.

Now Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are among the uglier faces of modern capitalism. But let’s be honest with ourselves. What Facebook probably did was translate the words of the government’s legislation into an algorithm. The legislation’s explanatory memorandum defines news as: content relating to “issues or events that are relevant in engaging Australians in public debate and in informing democratic decision-making; or current issues or events of public significance for Australians at a local, regional or national level… There is no requirement that the content be produced by a journalist.”

The result – not Facebook’s first PR disaster, probably not its last and certainly not its biggest.

It was a PR disaster for three reasons: first, the algorithm was obviously a bit too literal; second, no one at Facebook did an issues management appraisal of possible consequences; and, third, the major recipients of Morrison media bungs could make a lot of noise and they certainly did.

The beneficiaries of the legislation shrieked outrage and were joined by a chorus of politicians and some justifiably angry community groups and public organisations – most of the latter who are now having their pages re-instated. Some of the latter are often reviled by the Morrison Government and the Murdoch media but are now conveniently portrayed as innocents wronged by a dastardly villain.

It got some traction around the world because there are a lot people around the world who distrust and dislike Facebook and other social media companies.

Nevertheless, putting side the fact that the FAANGS comprise companies which are too powerful, pay little or no tax, exploit workers and promulgate fake news and hatred, the Australian situation has some distinctive characteristics.

First, the Morrison policy has got little to do with encouraging journalism but is instead a means of giving money to supporters such as Rupert and his minions and the increasingly partisan Nine –  as shown by its political donations. As News has just closed 100 local and community papers, leaving its major right wing propaganda outlets,  the money is just another straight bung on top of the millions News got to cover women’s sport.

An organisation which needs help and can play a great role in boosting journalism in communities around the suburbs, the country and regional areas is AAP. Unlike News they will not do so well out of the deal particularly in the face of News’ effort to squeeze them out of the market.

Second, the money will probably go straight to corporate bottom lines while retrenchments of journalists will continue. It will be, like JobKeeper, another source of opaque Morrison corporate welfare.

Third, Facebook will desperately try to undo some of the immediate damage.  But the reality is that the company has 16.5 million users in Australia and 2.7 billion globally. Two of their other brands WhatsApp and Instagram have 17 million users in Australia and about 3 billion globally.

It is a fair bet that most of the 5.7 billion are neither aware of, nor concerned about, what’s going on in Australia. Many of them, if the US is any indication, don’t even know where Australia is.

Whether the Australian reaction will ignite an international determination to confront, harness and restrict Facebook is moot. In the US the First Amendment makes controls difficult and almost impossible in most circumstances. In the rest of the world the concern is more about getting the FAANGs to pay tax and block hate speech than anything else.

So, it is just possible that Scott Morrison and their media megaphones might just be getting a bit big for their boots rather than condemning Facebook to global damnation.

Declaration of non-interest: The author doesn’t have a Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or any other social media account.