Free speech up for sale

When I was planning to post this article a couple of weeks ago, Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter and take it into private ownership was looking unlikely to succeed. Musk had just declined to take up the offer of a seat on the Twitter board, following which the board adopted a poison-pill defence against a hostile takeover. And just as I was about to go to press at my usual time, the news broke that the original bid had now been accepted by the board, so I hit the pause button instead and waited a day to see what the public reaction was. What a difference 72 hours (and US$44bn) can make… It seems “free speech” does indeed come with a price.

Of course, the Twitter transaction is still subject to shareholder approval and regulatory clearance, as well as confirmation of the funding structure, since Musk is having to raise about half the stated purchase from banks.

Musk’s stated objective in acquiring Twitter was highlighted in a press release put out by the company:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Mr. Musk. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

This latest development in Musk’s apparent love/hate relationship with Twitter is bound to further divide existing users as to the billionaire’s intentions, as well as raise concerns about the broader implications for free speech. Musk himself has encouraged his “worst critics” to stay with the platform. Meanwhile, founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey has renewed his love of Twitter, despite only recently stepping away from the top job to spend more time on his other interests.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned that a platform such as Twitter is in private hands or under single ownership (subject, of course, to anti-trust rules, etc.). Far from creating an entrenched monopoly, it may actually encourage more competition by those who decide to opt out of Twitter. What I am less comfortable with is the notion that Twitter somehow acts as an exemplar of free speech, and as such, is a bastion of democracy.

On the positive side, we will be able to judge the veracity of Musk’s objectives against his actual deeds. For example, will Twitter actually introduce an edit button, make its algorithms open-source, exorcise the spam bots, verify users, and reduce/remove the platform’s reliance upon advertising?

On the negative side, what credible stance will Twitter now take on “free speech”, short of allowing an “anything goes” policy? If Musk is sincere that Twitter will be a platform for debating “matters vital to the future of humanity”, he may need to modify what he means by public discourse. Personal slanging matches with fellow-billionaires (and those less-able to defend themselves) do not make for an edifying public debating forum. Musk’s own disclosures about Twitter and his other business interests will also come under increased scrutiny. We know from past experience that Elon’s Tweets can move markets, and for this alone he should be aware of the responsibility that comes with ownership of the platform.

We have long understood that free speech is not the same as an unfettered right to say what you like in public – there are limits to freedom of expression, including accountability for the consequences of our words and actions, especially where they can cause harm. The broader challenges we face are:

  • technology outpacing regulation, when it comes to social media
  • defining what it means to “cause offence”
  • increased attacks on “mainstream media” and threats to freedom of the press

1. Just as the printing press, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting and the internet each resulted in legislative changes, social media has continued to test the boundaries of regulation under which its predecessors now operate. Hitherto, much of the regulation that applies to social and digital media relates to privacy and data protection, as well as the existing law of defamation. But the latter varies considerably by jurisdiction, and by access to redress, and availability of remedies. Social media platforms have resisted attempts to treat them as traditional media (newspapers and broadcasters, which are subject to licensing and/or industry codes of practice) or treat them as publishers (and therefore responsible for content published on their platforms). (Then there is the question of how some social media platforms manage their tax affairs in the countries where they derive their revenue.)

The Australian government is attempting to challenge social media companies in a couple of ways. The first has been to force these platforms to pay for third-party news content from which they directly and indirectly generate advertising income. The second aims to hold social media more accountable for defamatory content published on their platforms, and remove the protection of “anonymity”. However, the former might be seen as a (belated) reaction to changing business models, and largely acting in favour of incumbents; while the latter is a technical response to the complex law of defamation in the digital age.

2. The ability to be offended by what we see or hear on social media is now at such a low bar as to be almost meaningless. During previous battles over censorship in print, on stage or on screen, the argument could be made that, “if you don’t like something you aren’t being forced to watch it”, so maybe you are deliberately going in search of content just to find it offensive. The problem is, social media by its very nature is more pervasive and, fed by hidden algorithms, is actually more invasive than traditional print and broadcast media. Even as a casual, passive or innocent user, you cannot avoid seeing something that may “offend” you. Economic and technical barriers to entry are likewise so low, that anyone and everyone can have their say on social media.

Leaving aside defamation laws, the concept of “hate speech” is being used to target content which is designed to advocate violence, or can be reasonably deemed or expected to have provoked violence or the threat of harm (personal, social or economic). I have problems with how we define hate speech in the current environment of public commentary and social media platforms, since the causal link between intent and consequence is not always that easy to establish.

However, I think we can agree that the use of content to vilify others simply based on their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, political affiliation or religious identity cannot be defended on the grounds of “free speech”, “fair comment” or “personal belief”. Yet how do we discourage such diatribes without accusations of censorship or authoritarianism, and how do we establish workable remedies to curtail the harmful effects of “hate speech” without infringing our civil liberties?

Overall, there is a need to establish the author’s intent (their purpose as well as any justification), plus apply a “reasonable person” standard, one that does not simply affirm confirmation bias of one sector of society against another. We must recognise that hiding behind our personal ideology cannot be an acceptable defence against facing the consequences of our actions.

3. I think it’s problematic that large sections of the traditional media have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to their ethical standards, and their willingness to misuse their public platforms, economic power and political influence to undertake nefarious behaviour and/or deny any responsibility for their actions. Think of the UK’s phone hacking scandals, which resulted in one press baron being deemed “unfit to run a company”, as well as leading to the closure of a major newspaper.

That said, it hardly justifies the attempts by some governments, populist leaders and authoritarian regimes to continuously undermine the integrity of the fourth estate. It certainly doesn’t warrant the prosecution and persecution of journalists who are simply trying to do their job, nor attacks and bans on the media unless they “tow the party line”.

Which brings me back to Twitter, and its responsibility in helping to preserve free speech, while preventing its platform being hijacked for the purposes of vilification and incitement to cause harm. If its new owner is serious about furthering public debate and mature discourse, then here are a few other enhancements he might want to consider:

  • in addition to an edit button, a “cooling off” period whereby users are given the opportunity to reconsider a like, a post or a retweet, based on user feedback or community interaction – after which time, they might be deemed responsible for the content as if they were the original author (potentially a way to mitigate “pile-ons”)
  • signing up to a recognised industry code of ethics, including a victim’s formal right of reply, access to mediation, and enforcement procedures and penalties against perpetrators who continually cross the line into vilification, or engage in content that explicitly or implicitly advocates violence or harm
  • a more robust fact-checking process and a policy of “truth in advertising” when it comes to claims or accusations made by or on behalf of politicians, political parties, or those seeking elected office
  • clearer delineation between content which is mere opinion, content which is in the nature of a public service (e.g., emergencies and natural disasters), content which is deemed part of a company’s public disclosure obligations, content which is advertorial, content which is on behalf of a political party or candidate, and content which is purely for entertainment purposes only (removing the bots may not be enough)
  • consideration of establishing an independent editorial board that can also advocate on behalf of alleged victims of vilification, and act as the initial arbiter of “public interest” matters (such as privacy, data protection, whistle-blowers etc.)

Finally, if Twitter is going to remove/reduce advertising, what will the commercial model look like?

Next week: The Crypto Conversation

When is a print not a print?

Alongside drawing, painting and sculpture, print-making is one of the oldest forms of visual art. Although it wasn’t generally recognised as a fine art discipline in the west until the European Renaissance (with the work of Dürer, among others), the practice can be traced back to Paleolithic times when humans first made hand-prints on cave walls. It evolved largely through developments in paper-making and image creation, such as Japanese wood-block printing 1200 years ago, or metal plate engravings in the Middle Ages, and has developed alongside related technologies in lithography, etching, off-set press printing, photography, lino-cut and silk-screen printing, to name a few key methods.

Print-making in this “classical” sense uses a combination of mechanical, manual and chemical processes to transfer an image (created from one or more media) from one surface to another, using ink or paint to “carry” the image between the plate and paper or other printed surface.

While the printing industry has been using the same techniques for centuries (in the service of book publishing, newspapers, advertising, packaging, textiles, etc.) there are key differences between the commercial and the artistic.

First, traditional print-making still retains a high-degree of manual process, and the work is usually produced in limited numbers (sometimes in single editions), and even where multiple copies are generated, variations and differences will appear thanks to inherent “imperfections” of the process.

Second, despite the importance of technical process in print-making, the practice should not be seen as a mere mechanical exercise in reproducing an image – the resulting image is still far more important than the actual technique (i.e., content over form should be the order of the day).

Third, the role of “mark-making” in print-making is as significant as the brush strokes in an oil painting, and are part of the artist’s signature. Equally, choice of materials is also important, just as an artist working in oils will make specific decisions about their brushes, pigments, medium and canvass.

In terms of art curation, print-making can get lumped in with other “works on paper”, which may extend to collage, photography, photo-montage, graphic design and illustration. Photography itself can be used in the course of print-making (e.g., rayographs), but a photographic print of a film-based negative is not the same as print-making in this context.

Likewise, the use of digital processes to capture, create, manipulate, transfer and reproduce an image on paper (or other medium) is further blurring the boundaries as to what constitutes a “print” as opposed to a “technique”.

This delineation between traditional print-making and image creation processes was further highlighted by the recent Experimental Print Prize organised by Castlemaine Art Museum in Victoria’s gold field region. While there were examples of etching, lino-cut, lithography, photographic and other techniques on display, the prize is intended to push the boundaries into more conceptual notions of “what is a print?”.

Examples included the use of light-sensitive paper to create long-delay images, a neon-light to generate an after-image on the viewer’s retinas, and a muon particle detector to track and plot their “image” onto a computer monitor. Although these are all interesting approaches, they perhaps over-step the boundary of permanence, which is usually a feature of print-making, to the extent that the fixed paper and ink endure long after the artist has made his or her mark. Nevertheless, the museum is to be applauded for bringing a new dimension to an ancient art-form.

Next week: Literary legacies

 

 

How digital brands are advertising

During a recent visit to the cinema, I was surprised to see adverts for major digital brands on the big screen, ahead of the main feature.

I’ve always thought of cinema advertising as falling into one or more of the following categories:

  • ads you don’t see on TV (often longer than their small screen counterparts)
  • luxury names and aspirational brands (travel, spirits, fashion, financial services)
  • local businesses (the pizzeria “just a short walk from this theatre…”)
  • movie tie-ins (highlighting the product placement in the film you are about to see)
  • seasonal themes (especially Christmas)

What struck me on this occasion were the ads by three DNBs (digitally native brands), featuring LinkedIn, Tik Tok and Audible. Despite the disparate nature of their businesses, I realised that there was a common element.

As the above-linked McKinsey report states, successful DNBs are really good at connecting with (and understanding) their audience, identifying and fulfilling very specific needs with unique solutions, and leveraging the very technology they are built on to promote their services and engage with their customers. Witness the well-timed “alerts” from food-delivery platforms in the early evening, the viral campaigns designed to enforce brand awareness, and the social media feeds designed to build customer engagement and loyalty. (Note that the report features Peleton as a poster child for its thesis, before the personal exercise brand ran into recent difficulties.)

If you look at most DNB campaigns, they are primarily generating demand via very specific human drivers:

1. Aspirational – the pure FOMO element (not unique to DNBs, of course, but they do it more subtly than many consumer brands)
2. Experiential – highlighting the tangible benefits (of mostly intangible products)
3. Socialisation – the paradox of building a trusted relationship through hyper-personalisation and constant sharing…

These three cinema ads each contained implicit “story-telling“. LinkedIn positioned itself as a platform for establishing our own narrative (telling our own truth?); Audible promoted its audio content (books and podcasts) as a means to find authentic stories that resonate with us (and this was long before the recent shenanigans over at Spotify); and Tik Tok used a well-known viral video as the basis for building community around shared stories.

Of course, story-telling is hardly a new concept in brand marketing, and has been eagerly adopted by digital brands (think of campaigns during the pandemic which have featured on-line connectivity and remote working). However, it has become an over-used technique, and is often cynically exploited in the service of corporate green-washing, jumping on social bandwagons, and blatant virtue signalling.

Call me jaded, but I’m old enough to remember the fad of consulting firms pitching their clients on building a “corporate narrative“, drawing on employee stories and customer experiences, as the foundation for those anodyne mission/vision “statements” – but they typically ended up as exercises in damage control in case the truth got out.

These particular cinema ads managed to use story-telling to create a human dimension (authenticity, connectivity, community, sharing, etc.) that is more than simply “buy our product” or “use our tech” (although obviously that’s the ultimate goal). It would be very interesting to read the briefs given to their creative agencies, given that the ads were all in the service of corporate branding.

Next week: Doctrine vs Doctrinaire

 

 

 

Facebook and that news ban

On February 18 this year, Facebook decided to “ban” news content in Australia. This meant that Australian Facebook users (including media companies) could not post news content or links, nor could they access local or overseas news. The move was a preemptive strike (and a somewhat crude negotiation tactic) by Facebook in an attempt to circumvent the Media Bargaining Code, which requires social media and search engine platforms (specifically, Google and Facebook) to pay news providers for the use of their content. Despite the gnashing and wailing among some sectors of the Australian community, the world did not end. And while Facebook has somewhat relented (following some concessions from the Federal government), the story has generated some useful debate about the power of certain tech platforms and the degree of influence or control they exercise over what we see on our screens each day.

Image sourced from Wikimedia

Personally, I did not find the ban an inconvenience, because I rarely use my Facebook account, and I certainly don’t rely on it for news or information. Instead, I prefer to access content direct from providers. One result of the ban was more downloads for Australian news apps such as the ABC and Inkl. Another (unforeseen?) result was a block on information posted by public and voluntary sector bodies, including essential services, health, community and charitable organisations.

Regarding the former, this can only be a good thing. Seriously, if we are relying on Facebook for news content, THAT is the real problem. As for the latter, it suggests a lot of organisations have become over-reliant on Facebook to reach their audience.

Meanwhile, Google (which had already struck a deal with Australian media companies) was eagerly promoting the number of Australian “partner publications” it offers in its News Showcase. This was something of a U-turn, because Google had threatened to remove search in Australia in response to the same Media Bargaining Code. While that might have been drastic, nevertheless, other search engines are available.

It was also interesting to see Microsoft (no stranger to anti-trust action during the so-called browser wars) promoting BuzzFeed via Twitter on the day of the Facebook ban. I also received a number of e-mails from various organisations reminding me that I could still access their content direct from their website or via their newsletter. These moves to re-connect direct with audiences started to make Facebook look very silly and petulant.

Just as there are other search engines besides Google, other social media platforms are available – so why do so many people appear to be against the Media Bargaining Code, and would prefer to give Facebook a free monopoly over which content they read?

I have written previously about Facebook’s relationship with “news”. For those people who felt “cheated” that they couldn’t access news, they should realise that a “free” social media account comes with a price – the consumer is the product, and is only there to serve up eyeballs and profiles to be sold to Facebook’s advertisers. In short, Facebook only sees news as a magnet for its own advertisers, so it seems only fair that they should pay for this piggyback ride on someone else’s content. (And we all know what else Facebook does with our personal information, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed.)

Some commentary suggested that Facebook is providing a type of “public service” by enabling links to news stories – so much so, that they question whether it is equitable to force Facebook to pay for the privilege, under the new Code. In fact, some argued that Facebook should be charging the media companies for linking to their stories, since this drives traffic to third-party news sites, which in turn generate advertising income based on their own readership. But this overlooks the reality of the economic bargain being struck here: Facebook might like to argue that it is doing you a “favour” by serving up news content in your personal feed; whereas, the social media giant “curates” what you see in your feed purely to generate ad revenue.

Alternatively, if news content has no value to Facebook, why has it been happy to distribute it for “free” all these years? Because, I repeat, they know full well that without readers and content, they can’t sell advertising. Maybe Facebook should invest in journalism and create their own news content? Oh wait, they don’t want to be regulated like a newspaper. Remember in 2013 when Facebook said it wanted to be “the world’s newspaper”, but then they realized they’d have to comply with media laws (libel, racial vilification etc.) and quietly dropped the plan?

In short, Facebook is not interested in being a news publisher (nor being subject to relevant media laws) but they are happy to “leverage” third-party content. Now, they will have to pay a fair price to use that content.

The conclusions from this Facebook episode (and some clumsy messaging from the Federal government) are pretty obvious:

  1. There is no such thing as a free lunch – a “free” social media account comes with a price; and there is also a cost attached to using someone else’s content
  2. Taxation of tech company revenues like Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix and Amazon should be at the point of sale and consumption (i.e., where the consumer value is created and the income is generated, not where the revenue is recognised).
  3. Other search engines and social media platforms are available and content can be accessed direct from the source (but we’re probably too lazy to change our habits….)
  4. In part, this is about the continued demise of the 4th estate – no-one wants to pay for content, so social media platforms are getting a free ride having already destroyed the newspapers’ classified and display advertising business model
  5. But it’s also about the attention economy – consumers are the product when it comes to social media, so perhaps we should get paid more for our own time spent looking at ads?
  6. As ever, tech outstrips legislation – the law lags behind and is playing catch up
  7. And politicians really don’t have a clue how to go about this…..

Next week: Rebooting the local economy