By David Søbæk Olsen
Six months before the publication of this blog post, I began my time as a Junior Researcher (JR) with the question “What interests me?”. I had recently completed a Bachelor thesis which focused on the use of digital methods in valuing cultural effects in the service sector. During the six-month project period, I was simultaneously following my interests in understanding the role of social media. What I was specifically looking for was a way to engage with social media as a research object as my prior training in digital methods was tailored towards network analysis of quantitative data samples scraped from social media. But these methods were not satisfying my inherent need for answers. To sum it up, the overarching theme of the thesis concerned what happens when technology, digitalization, and people collide in a variety of unexpected ways. Figuring out how technologies like the internet and its subsequent iterations (e.g Web 3.0) function to enable certain techno-futures was my object of study, something to seek out and try to understand.
I have since then played around with normative questions and visions such as, what role should technology play in the future? A large question, undoubtedly beyond the scope of this program, but embedded is an aspect I hope to draw attention to: the cultural and social layers within technology! So, to rephrase the previous question, what are the implications of technology for the socio-cultural aspects of society?
Problem identified, but how to approach complexities?
Finding a research object that could satisfy my interests while also having available data, proved to be a challenge that shaped my first ETHOS Lab meetings. Preparing for the project, I had some areas of interests I’d like to play with for my research project:
- Digital methods (Quali-quantitative)
- Social Media Platforms (SMP)
- Governance (or lack thereof)
Using this framework, I hoped to set out to apply digital methods to understand Social Media Platforms and then critique or discuss governance issues pertaining to the aforementioned SMPs. Lofty goals – goals informed by a critical perspective on the same three points over the last six years, beginning with the Cambridge Analytica story (2016-2022). As news stories of how SMPs entered the news cycle with issues of data leaks and fraudulent behavior with people’s data, my curiosity grew as it seemed impossible to directly fault at an SMP Company.
Policies such as the Communications Decency Act 230 from 1996, which protects mediators and platforms from liability arising from their customers’/users’ use of their product, allow such businesses to operate with few, if any, restrictions at a time when risks are low but profits are high (2016). These are not neutral points but are formed by my subjective experience and alignment with critical STS studies. negative externalities of SMPs are becoming more visible, it is no longer a unique point of view to hold. I decided to stay with my curiosity and interest in this issue, and thus needed to figure out a way to scope it into a project done at the ETHOS Lab.
Matching expectations – Scaling a project
My first attempts to convey my research interests at our Junior Researcher meetings elicited positive but distant responses, as questions about what should be included in this project arose. The project, in its raw form, seemed to be limitless and thus unattainable, with the scopes of a JR project being somewhat different than an ECTS-course at ITU. SMPs, governance, and how they intersected were all interesting in and of themselves, but without a clear problem statement, it would be difficult to corral all the good ideas into the foundation of a well-thought-out project.
These responses helped to inform me of the shortcomings of my efforts, while also reinforced my belief that there is enough material within these interest areas to last a lifetime of research, something I could see myself doing. This is a significant step forward in my striving for scientific self-improvement and the pursuit of my interests.
The case of Australia’s Facebook News Ban
The process of finding a case seemed to be a difficult task for me personally as just as I started narrowing the scope then a fruitful new concept emerged from the case which blew me in a different direction. In my initial exploration of my general subject of SMPs I consulted the Facebook Community Standards to understand how Facebook as an entity had described the practice of being on their platform so as to know how, if at all, a user would be sanctioned if caught breaching their standards. Ideas of user privacy, a felt sense of security and protections from foul speech, racism and hate was all to be described, albeit in a general and vague sense, in the community standards. These descriptions in their community standards prompted me to ask the question what role Facebook as a SMP has to play in curating ‘public’ discourse on their platform. If they could not be held liable for what users say or do on their platform should they even care to moderate discussion? Individual protections were central to Facebook’s services and this prompted me to look into democracy, and especially democracy in light of our current digitalization. As you, the reader, can probably already imagine this is no short endeavor to uncover how democratic ideas are related to a SMP and its community standards. Thus, the winds of inspiration took me down a scientific journal rabbit hole that despite being enjoyable was splitting my attention and made it unsustainable as a research project. I needed to capture lightning in a bottle – a phenomena that could be seen, felt, and heard.
I realized that the governance of SMPs could be explored by discussing how current and prior examples of policies and attempts at political interventions have been employed in relation to e.g., Facebook during the 2016 US election as the platform dealt with misinformation attempts and political ad targeting employed by the respective American political candidates of the 2016 election. From my research, I have, however, not found any government policies informing how SMP companies should work with the issues of ‘Fake News’ and misinformation. This inaction, or lack of institutional levers made me keen to understand why it is the case that nothing could be done.
Waking up one day to find a blank screen
On the 18th of February 2021 many Australians woke up surprised to find their morning coffee and Facebook routine interrupted as the majority of traditional news outlets were unavailable and would remain unavailable until the 26th of February. Traditionally you would be calling customer support with complaints as to why the service is unavailable or not working as intended but, in this case, it was an intended effect. Facebook had turned their lever in Silicon Valley, turning off availability of Facebook News in the country, and promptly several institutions in Australia lost one leg of their communication strategy.
The news ban came as a result of a long political strategy as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian federal government outlined their plans for a News Bargaining Media Code (NMBC).¹ This policy, a political lever, would in effect enable publishers and media outlets in Australia to force online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to negotiate with Australian publishers if the platforms are hosting any of their content.
This case contains governance of online platforms, and it represents one of the larger controversies between a government agent and SMPs. Similar policies like the NMBC are being drafted, such as the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act in the EU.
Social media platforms are part of the local and global conversation and as more people start to engage on these platforms it becomes a prudent area to research and understand how such platforms are shaping a new form of institutional landscape.
To address this, I am researching the 2021 Australian Facebook News Ban by exploring what events led to the eventual news lockdown. To investigate this topic, I will be analyzing the primary stakeholders, the Australian government, Australian media, and Facebook and compare their assessments of the news ban event up against each other. Who won the first round of negotiations? And how do they discuss the idea of success versus failure. Using Australia as an example, I’d like to discuss social media platform governance and the role it already plays and might play in the future.
ACMA. (2021, December 16). News media bargaining code | ACMA. Australian Communications and Media Authority. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://www.acma.gov.au/news-media-bargaining-code
Bruns, A., & Angus, D. (2021). Facebook’s Australian News Ban: Threat, Impact, and Aftermath. Association of Internet Researchers, 1(22).
Electronic Frontier Foundation. (n.d.). Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230
European Commission. (2020, October 12). Retsakten om digitale markeder: sikring af retfærdige og åbne. Europa-Kommissionen – European Commission. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/europe-fit-digital-age/digital-markets-act-ensuring-fair-and-open-digital-markets_da
European Commission. (2021, December 10). The Digital Services Act package. Shaping Europe’s Digital Future. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/digital-services-act-package
Facebook. (n.d.). Facebook Community Standards. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://transparency.fb.com/policies/community-standards/
Graham-Harrison, E., & Cadwalladr, C. (2021, September 29). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election