May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 2021

Facebook and Pacific news

  • May 10, 2021
  • Published in March

The importance of Pacific news on Facebook was thrown into sharp relief by the stand-off in January between the Australian government and Facebook over the government’s media code.

Facebook closed access to Pacific and Australian news and stopped users from sharing Pacific and Australian news. For a time, Australians were unable to access any news, including news from weather bureau, hospitals, emergency services, charities and schools.

The code, which Facebook and Google earlier said was “unworkable”, has established a framework which will see the tech giants to enter a binding arbitration process with Australian media outlets, so they can be paid for use of their news content.

After a week-long stand-off, Facebook backed down, restoring news pages and the ability of users to repost news. Facebook’s vice president of public affairs, Nick Clegg, conceded the company had “erred on the side of over-enforcement”.

As part of the backdown, Australian Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, agreed to take into account whether Facebook has already struck commercial agreements with news publishers before enforcing the code.

The founder of The Pacific Newsroom Facebook channel, Sue Ahearn, told Pacific Business that the compromise struck by the Australian government and Facebook looks like a win for traditional big media at the expense of newer, innovative outlets.

She says it’s too early to tell if the latest deal will have an impact on The Pacific Newsroom.

The site is an aggregation of the best news in the world about the Pacific - from newspapers, national broadcasters like the SIBC, Radio NZ Pacific, and NBC, Pacific bloggers, and development sites including DevPolicy and Lowy. *

“The Pacific Newsroom has become the town square of the Pacific where people can share stories,” says Ahearn.

“Our audience is just over 20,000 and there’s a steady number of new members every day.

On the first day of Facebook’s ban, the audience responded in their hundreds from the region and across the world, Fijians in South Sudan and Afghanistan, seasonal workers in Australia and Tongans in Utah, ‘all hungry for news’.

Amanda Watson, an expert on digital technology in the Pacific at the Australian National University, says that for many Pacific Islanders, Facebook is the internet. 

“Those who have worked out how to use Facebook may not know how to go to a website or use a search engine.”

She told The Diplomat that one of the major issues is that Pacific telecom companies offer Facebook as a cheaper data pack.

“For example, Our Telekom in Solomon Islands sells Facebook data cheaper than other data. In Papua New Guinea, Digicel has a 3-day data option for PGK10 that includes 300MB of data for general use plus 700MB for Facebook. Similarly, a 7-day option is PGK20 for 600MB plus 2000MB (2GB) of Facebook data.

There are varied figures for the percentage of population on Facebook. It’s highest In French Polynesia 59%, Tonga 49%, and Cook Islands 49% and lowest in PNG 7%, Kiribati 25% and Solomon Islands 11%.


“I started the Pacific Newsroom three years ago and Auckland-based Michael Field and I work as volunteers,” said Ahern.

“We share a commitment to public interest journalism. I could see technology was changing the speed of communication rapidly in the region and there was a void left by the ABC where I’d worked for 25 years. A senior executive told me there was no one in the Pacific and the audience was in India and China. I hope I’ve proved him wrong.”

“In the absence of accurate, trusted and timely information, rumour, speculation and innuendo fill the vacuum. I’ve seen this so many times in the Pacific,” says Ahearn.

*Islands Business articles also appear on The Pacific Newsroom

Pacific governments face a crucial dilemma with social media. How they react will define our future.

The decision this week by Solomon Islands' cabinet to ban Facebook is wrong, of course. It represents an unwarranted restriction on fundamental human rights. The Solomon Islands Constitution is clear about the "freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his correspondence."

It seems clear the Facebook decision is neither defensible, nor likely to survive judicial scrutiny.

The argument made by the Prime Minister and his communications minister is that it's a platform for people to 'abuse political leaders'. I'd argue only half-jokingly that democracy is designed to be a platform to abuse political leaders.

But just because they reacted badly doesn't mean they shouldn't react at all.

Facebook is self-evidently a threat to democratic societies. This is not a controversial statement. Its role in mis- and disinformation is well understood, and its effects are becoming alarmingly clear.

It has been less responsive than other social media platforms to calls to curtail its influence, and despite a 14-year litany of 'do better' statements, it seldom actually does.

If Facebook can be such a corrosive influence on centuries-old democracies like the UK and the USA, how can the Pacific's fragile democracies be expected to cope?

Investigative work by Bellingcat and the Vanuatu Daily Post exposed an external influence operation similar to Cambridge Analytica's now-infamous role in changing opinions concerning Brexit. Hundreds of accounts were taken down as a result.

Another more recent Bellingcat investigation shows that efforts are still underway to influence opinion on West Papua and the Indonesian government's special autonomy policy. The report concludes that, this time at least, the effort has been largely unsuccessful.

More challenges await though. Governments everywhere are coping—often poorly—with a second tide of anti-vax invective. Left alone, these currents generally devolve into meme-fuelled rants about how Bill Gates is the anti-Christ or similar QAnon-related madness.

But the situation isn't hopeless. It just needs to be managed. As an informal experiment, I posted to a prominent Vanuatu Facebook group, asking people opposed to vaccination to help me understand their rationale. I put one condition on the conversation: No memes, no links, just their own words.

The result was as conversation that was informative, mostly respectful and vastly more nuanced than we normally see from Facebook. But it was only achieved by turning off the virality that is Facebook's special sauce. The thread generated lively interest. Notably, it received more comments than likes or other one-click reactions.

Evidently, social media can be a medium that allows Pacific democracies to engage and inform themselves. So why doesn't it?

Social media executives care about nothing more than engagement. As others have noted, users aren't the customers; they're the product. That's a pat and not very useful statement.

Elsewhere, I've observed that "Walled gardens are dangerous. They create a disparity of information, in which the platform knows everything about us, and we know next to nothing about the platform, or how it works."

This isn't my idea. It originates from a landmark essay in the Harvard Law Review by Neil M Richards, titled The Dangers of Surveillance.

Engagement, understood properly, is intelligence gathering. The more you engage with your social media platform, the more the company learns about you. Its ability to leverage what it knows about you is its stock in trade.

That's way too much power to trust to a single company—or government. It's simply too much power to be put in any one place.

So what's the way forward? Can Manasseh Sogavare and other Pacific leaders curtail both their own desire to control the conversation and Facebook's as well?

First, tackling Facebook alone won't work. It's legally discriminatory, constitutionally questionable, and likely to be ineffective. Censorship in the digital age is like squeezing a balloon. Putting pressure on one point simply moves everyone to the next. The most obvious alternatives to Facebook in Solomon Islands are Twitter, WeChat and to a lesser extent 'alternative' platforms like the right-wing funded Parler.

None of these are any more desirable than Facebook. Despite recent improvements, Twitter remains open to continued abuse by meme-driven rage posters, and the others are far too easy to leverage against their users to restrict speech and ideas. Some MPs may like that idea, but they should realise they're not likely to be the ones doing the restricting.

Pacific governments need to start a dialogue, not just with social media giants, but with other national regulators too. They need to learn from others' mistakes, and leverage others' successes.

The Pacific Islands Forum would be a useful platform for engagement, and would allow NZ and Australia to assist without imposing. Assuming they agree on an action plan, there is no reason why they couldn't jump to the forefront of the global conversation, just as they've done with fisheries and climate change.

Dan McGarry is an independent journalist living in Vanuatu. The Pacific Outlook series is an initiative of the Pacific Hub

This item was originally published as part of the Pacific Outlook collection of the Griffith Asia Insights blog at the Griffith Asia Institute" plus a link to the original post:

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