How Facebook's Australian news stunt raises some deeper questions

CLOUDY: Facebook, with its highly selective news feed, has not made the world more transparent. Picture: TY Lim/Shutterstock
CLOUDY: Facebook, with its highly selective news feed, has not made the world more transparent. Picture: TY Lim/Shutterstock

A man walks into a pub, orders three schooners and, on their receipt, drinks them by taking sips out of each one in turn.

When he finishes, he orders three more schooners which he drinks in the same fashion.

The bartender asks him, "Mate, beer goes flat after I draw it; wouldn't you rather I draw fresh schooners for you one at a time?"

The man replies: "Well, you see, I have two brothers. One is now in Ireland and the other in Taiwan.

"When we all left home, we promised we'd drink like this to remember the days when we drank together."

The bartender and all the others in the bar liked this idea and left it at that.

After many years at the pub drinking in this fashion, everyone at the bar was confused when one day the man came in and ordered just two schooners of beer.

All the regulars noticed and fell silent, speculating about what might have happened to one of the man's brothers.

When the man went back to the bar for a second round, again of only two schooners, the bartender said: "I don't want to intrude on your grief, but I want to offer my condolences on your loss."

The man looked up, confused. The bartender added: "You're only drinking two beers instead of your usual three."

The man gave an embarrassed smile and said: "I can assure you that both of my brothers are alive and well, however I've given up beer for Lent."

I did warn you last week that I was giving up new jokes for Lent.

Back in 2013, a think-tank in Canberra predicted, among other things, that Facebook would not be a "big thing" in 15 years.

When the book on the demise of Facebook is eventually written and commentators explain how the global social media giant went the way of MySpace, it's likely the events in Canberra over this last week will appear in a significant chapter.

At the time of writing, the federal government and Facebook were still locked in negotiations over Australia's news bargaining code.

However, no matter how well these negotiations eventually turn out, Facebook will justifiably lose some face - and it all began in Canberra, Australia.

When Australians were last week blocked from accessing news - including emergency services - on their Facebook feed, it gave us some indication of what type of chef is feeding us.

Facebook is a great way to keep in contact with friends and family in Ireland, Taiwan or most of the world.

But again, we seem to have forgotten one of the first, and definitely the most important rule of economics: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

If Facebook does not have to pay for news, soon enough there won't be any news outside of government-funded outlets and conspiracy theory pages.

Google has attempted to live up the company motto of "don't be evil", signing deals with publishers to see journalists and authors remunerated for their work.

But Facebook followed through on its threat to remove all Australian news from our social media diet.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told radio station 2GB that "it certainly raises issues about the credibility of information on the platform".

Long-time critics of Facebook are finally being vindicated.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg once said "by giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent".

However, is that what Facebook has really been doing for the world over these past 17 years?

Apart from Facebook's obvious benefits of connecting us - and its obvious problems with livestreaming crimes, and storing and sharing personal data - Facebook has constructed filters, both seen and unseen, to create political bias and present the news the way it wants us to view the news.

Or, as is now clear, to not see the news at all.

It was a long time in the making, but perhaps we should be proud that it was Australia that stood up to Facebook for its un-Australian behaviour.

Let's hope that Facebook can learn to "share" how much Australians "like" a fair go.

Twitter: @frbrendanelee

This story How Facebook's Australian news stunt raises some deeper questions first appeared on The Canberra Times.