The winds of change are blowing through the media everywhere.

Even in lock-down, now for more than three months, you can feel it.  The media, both the traditional media and social media are feeling it. Clearly, in Bob Dylan’s words, ‘The times they are a-changing’.

Just after the Manning Community News deadline last month, News Corp’s announced the decision to publish its 92 regional and community mastheads only online.  That decision became effective in the last week of June, mainly affecting rural and regional Queensland newspapers some 100 years old.  Estimates of job losses range from 600 to 1,000, most in Queensland.

On the brighter side, however, new start-ups are popping up, Ararat in Victoria and Naracoorte in South Australia among others, have new community newspapers.  There are hazards here:  the old regionals came from a journalistic tradition, some were feistier than others but generally saw their role in the service to the community, all of the community.  The new start-ups cannot be just a mouthpiece, or worse, a bully pulpit for their backers.  If they are not seen as serving the whole community, then the community support and the advertising that follows will see them fold.

Australia Community Media, which owns 160 regional newspapers including The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald, The Border Mail and Bendigo Advertiser, temporarily suspended a number of print publications, victims of the collapse in advertising. ACM staff  returned to work on June 29, but, for the moment, the fate of those mastheads publishing online, is unknown.

However, the distribution of the $50 million package to support public interest journalism across TV, newspapers and radio in regional and remote Australia has been announced.  There were 107 eligible applicants: 92 publishers; 13 radio broadcasters; and five TV broadcasters. Broadcasters have already benefited from a waiver of spectrum fees. Is this double dipping? How the Public Interest News Gathering grants will benefit the rural and regional public is yet to be demonstrated.

Truly, the next half decade will see a reshaped media landscape in Australia, but social media, too, is on the cusp of the biggest regulation changes in its short history. 

And though many of these changes are within US legal jurisdiction, their consequences will be felt word-wide, even behind the great firewall of China.

Social media has led a charmed life sheltered from the realities of being a quasi-publisher by the anodyne Section 230 of the United States’ Communications Decency Act of 1996.  In the infancy of the Internet, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, as the name suggests, was to restrict certain kinds of speech on the Internet.  What were characterised, by opponents of the legislation, as anti-free speech provisions were later struck down by the US Supreme Court, however Section 230 remained and proved vital to protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet.

The section says “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230), so insulating internet service providers and initiatives like Google, and later start-ups like Facebook, from any responsibility for what their customers uploaded to a site.

It has been behind this legal defence that the internet companies have grown rich, absolved of any need to be gatekeepers of the content they carry.  But the times they are a-changing, and one unlikely change agent is none other than President Donald Trump who uses the social media get-out of Section 230 with wild abandon.

It was Twitter’s decision to fact check of the President’s tweets about mail-in voting that lit the fire: Twitter then fanned the embers by flagging other posts with a note that said “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about abusive behaviour. However, Twitter has determined it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible”.

Angered, Trump said he’d delete his Twitter account ‘in a heartbeat’, but instead signed an executive order, after warning (on Twitter) that Republicans “will strongly regulate” social media companies or “close them down” if they continue to “silence conservatives voices.”  In essence, he instructed the Department of Justice to review the operation Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act.

Facebook has taken a different tack, insisting that the public, not Facebook, should be the judge of the accuracy and value of posting by politicians and their cheer squads.  Speculation has been raised that an accommodation between Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and President Trump was reached, informally at least, during a previously undisclosed dinner at the White House in October 2019. Zuckerberg was accompanied by Peter Thiel, one of Facebook’s seven board members, almost alone as a notable conservative figure in Silicon Valley.

But if that meeting shaped policy, Facebook is revisiting the matter, under pressure from that trump card, the advertiser’s dollar.

The #StopHateforProfit campaign was launched June 17 by civil rights groups including the NAACP, Color of Change and the Anti-Defamation League following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.  And it is getting support from big name advertisers: Unilever, Coca-Cola, Verizon, North Face, The Hershey Company and the Levi Strauss & Co, among dozens of smaller brands.

Facebook is the focus over the social media’s failure to remove hate speech and stands to lose more than US$7 billion in revenue.  The share price tanked 8.3% on Friday June 26, the biggest drop in three months.

Facebook responded to the hip-pocket pressure.  The same day it said it would start labelling political speech that violates its rules and take other measures to prevent voter suppression and protect minorities from abuse.

Time will tell if this is a real change or more window dressing for one of the richest and most influential media companies on the planet.

But things are moving on other fronts that shape social media roles and responsibilities.  Last year’s ACCC report on the digital platforms recommended that the social media giants be obliged to pay for content they take from other media, especially the print media and their online spin-off.  When voluntary progress was too slow, the government instructed the ACCC to force the pace.  Facebook has now refused to make any royalty payments but Google has reached some agreement with a number of smaller Australian publishers.

And (of course) President Trump has weighed in, warning France, the EU and Australia that any attempts to tax US social media companies on revenues within their national jurisdictions will be met with the imposition of trade tariff.

Don’t you just love the consistency of policy and the operation of the free market?

Vincent O’Donnell 

Researcher and Media Analyst

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