Friday, February 19, 2021

Getting the News in the South Pacific

Following the reports about Facebook blocking access to news in Australia has been a disquieting experience. For the record, I have never used Facebook as a news site. Indeed, the only reason I have a Facebook account at all is because Blogger no longer notifies my readers whenever I create a new article. As a result I have created a “shadow” page, also called The Rehearsal Studio, which readers can follow to receive hyperlinks to new articles as they are published.

Furthermore, that limited use of Facebook was reinforced by Mark Zuckerberg himself, when he told a Congressional committee that the business of his company was advertising. Any “distribution of information” was assessed more on what advertisers would pay to share space with that information than on whether the information itself was accurate or willfully deceptive. Why would anyone want to get news from such a source, particularly in a setting that allows users to compare reports from different sources, either through a search engine or by maintaining multiple RSS feeds?

For the record, I have three such feeds for international news: Al Jazeera, BBC News, and The Guardian. I am writing this just after having read a Guardian article by Sheldon Chanel about the accessibility of news across the South Pacific. For the record, this article was written with financial support from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. The operative content of this article comes down to the citation of an observation made by Amanda Watson, a research fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs based at the Australian National University:

Facebook is the primary platform, because a number of telco providers offer cheaper Facebook data, or bonus Facebook data. Many Pacific Islanders might know how to do some basic Facebooking, but it’s questionable if they would be able to open an internet search engine and search for news, or go to a particular web address.

One reason for this limited approach to access appears to be that most of these individuals connect to the Internet through a cell phone, rather than a computer. (I should also observe that my own experience has taught me that the efficiency of search increases with the size of the screen displaying the results.)

My guess is that Tim Berners-Lee would have puppies if he encountered Watson’s analysis of Internet use in the South Pacific. He would probably accuse the Islanders of trying to ride bicycles on his eight-lane superhighway! I was reminded of the sobering experience I had when I once attended an advertisers’ conference. One talk began with a sobering observation:

We spend much of our time flying over the people we influence.

In other words the primary target of advertisements lies in those population centers that are not on the coast of either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

Internet usage is sort of the “flip side” of that proposition. Internet content is driven heavily by a handful of technology companies, and most of the drivers think that the whole world sees the Internet the same way that they do. This is, to say the least, a fatuous fantasy. As a result, we now have an extensive demographic that is likely to be deprived of timely news simply because Facebook is more interested in more revenue, rather than in seeing to the needs of one category of its user base. (It goes without saying that one of those needs is the distribution of content vetted for validity!)

Zuckerberg might want to give that proposition some thought, were it not for the fact that his only view of the South Pacific would probably be restricted to a luxury resort on one of the islands.

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