The robber barons are at it again

Thomas greets the first episode of the Small Data Forum to be “AT” – 1AT, indeed; the first recorded After Trump – with some cheer.

That said, this month’s often-passionate look at the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life doesn’t give us much cause for optimism that all that much has changed. In our VUCA world of multi-factorial problems, our Teutonic tipster bemoans the meaningless trend in which complexity is constantly reduced to in and out, black and white, this and that.

What is undoubtedly good news is a new format coming soon – perhaps even later this week – to @SDFPodcast: the first in a new series of interviews with interesting people.

First in the Nerf-Gun firing line is Professor Darren Lilleker from Bournemouth University, described by the BBC as “a man who watches Westminster” and by Thomas as “my doctoral supervisor”. His dissection of the state of permanent campaigning by the demagogues of modern politics will be well worth a listen.

Although it had been bubbling under for some weeks, breaking news on the morning we recorded this latest episode was that the fracas between the Australian Government and Big Tech has gotten serious.

The Mould of a Parasite

Fresh legislation down under compels social media / aggregating platforms to pay for the news content they post links to and allow to be shared on their platforms. This matters particularly for the dominant walled gardens, Facebook and Alphabet’s Google and YouTube.

Alphabet has come to a deal whereby it does pay local news companies – particularly the dominant Murdoch empire – for the right to share its content. Facebook has not, and Zuckerberg’s empire has leaned in and blocked all news content. Not particularly helpful, perhaps, given that increasing numbers of Australians (and many more besides) rely on the platform as their primary source of news.

For Thomas, this complex problem is – at least in headline terms – reducible to a battle of the bullies, Succession-style: Rupert vs Mark. Neville sees the kerfuffle as having truly global implications. The blanket ban of news content by Facebook is a heavy-handed attempt by the platform to show who’s in control, though it has had unintended consequences. These include charities’ news feeds and official government news on Covid-19 data being blocked and inaccessible to Australian citizens. ICYMI, the latest episode of Rory Cellan-Jones “Tech Tent” podcast is as good a place as any to get up-to-speed.

Granddaddy of the internet Tim Berners-Lee is outraged at Facebook’s hostile ‘act of war’ as it violates the principle of net neutrality – under which all content should be treated equally.

Political commentary in the UK focuses on Facebook’s hostile act to be yet another PR faux pas by the platform, while Google appears to have taken a more placatory approach – perhaps we might call it appeasement? – to keep its access to news channels open.

Sam has rather a different take on Zuckerberg’s latest mishap. For him, it has once again surfaced the lie that Facebook (and others) have long claimed: that they are not publishers, but rather merely disseminators of information – and often misinformation, as Neville points out.

The social platforms’ business model is predicated on stickiness and keeping eyeballs glued to their means of distribution. In this case, Facebook has been taking and using news content and sharing it on its platform and encouraging and enabling its users to do the same. This makes it a parasite, very much in the mould of Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant 2019 satire of the same name, making money from eyeballs glued to journalistic content created and paid for by news media for which it has paid nothing.

It’s true that the news media have largely failed to adapt to the digital age, and by failing to act until it’s far too late to protect their intellectual property, circulation, and online subscriptions, most will ultimately struggle to survive, with a few notable exceptions. The sheer scale of Facebook (2.74bn active, registered monthly users and rising) gives it unparalleled reach. News media didn’t see the future unfolding as Facebook knew it would all along, and by the time they needed their governments to wade in and try to turn back the clock, it was several years too late.

Modern Imperialism and Talking of Tax

Not for the first time, Thomas draws parallels between the ‘old skool’ robber barons – the Rockerfellers and the Carnegies – and the owners and operators of the FAANG five. Neville performs a deft “Squirrel!” and suggests that Facebook has done a huge amount in the developing world – particularly Africa – in installing data and tech infrastructure, to which Sam snorts this is simply empire building. The same motivations as the Romans and the British right around the known world and, more recently, the Chinese in Central Africa and beyond. The imperialist mantra is always about peace and opportunity.

But whatever the technology – from railroads and roads to information superhighways – for Sam the story, and the outcome, is always the same. And it’s not to the benefit of the people or nations that supposedly-beneficent empire-builders overwhelm. “What have the bloody Romans ever done for us, apart from aqueducts, sanitation, roads, medicine, viticulture, law and order?”

Thomas suggests that it’s all very well for companies to invest in CSR, but that may well be a smokescreen to cover other shortcomings. He recalls Rutger Bregman’s excoriating appearance at Davos in 2019 where he threw the issue of tax avoidance in the face of the corporate world. “It feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference,” he said, “and no-one’s allowed to speak about water … we’ve gotta be talking about taxes. All the rest is bullshit.”

This snippet video, for instance, shows Yahoo’s former CFO, Ken Goldman, trying to shut Bregman down, to no great impact. Particularly in light of the follow-up comment about poultry factory workers in the U.S. having to wear diapers because they’re not allowed toilet breaks … in the richest country in the world.

Talking of tax, Sam points the finger not just at Big Tech (and other new economy companies) for not paying tax. In the wake of the global economic meltdown of 2007-9, the former Celtic Tiger economy of Ireland invited any company that liked the idea to set up European HQs in the country without the need to pay corporation tax.

Most Big Tech players took them up on the kind offer with the result that, in 2016, Facebook paid less corporation tax for its UK operations than … Sam’s data storytelling consultancy. We had a good year, sure, but those data points are frankly ridiculous.

Top of the Pops for Insurrectionists

Inevitably, the conversation moves onto former President Trump, impeached twice but not prosecuted, and still able to launch a bid for re-election in 2024 as a result.

As Neville observes of the uber-powerful tech businesses, no-one ever willingly gives up power. The same may be true of Twitter exile Trump, though ever the weaver of narrative weft, Neville is interested in the  intersection of Trump and Facebook.

He cites an article from The New York Times – and another from Forbes – which report data from George Washington University researchers about which social media platforms the insurrectionists used to coordinate their attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021.

Of more than 200 seditionists tracked, none apparently used Twitter, eight the supposed right-wing hotbed of Parler, 20 Instagram, and 24 YouTube. Top of the pops? You guessed it. Facebook, with 73.

Sam points out that, with a user-base of more than a third of all living human beings, it’s inevitable that Facebook would feature. The only surprise is that it’s not more significantly. However many content moderators you employ in the Far East on a few cents per hour, you just can’t seem to get rid of all that pesky, undesirable content.

Thomas isn’t buying the frequent Sandberg-Clegg appeals to Facebook’s standards and transparency, and the data doesn’t seem to bear them out, either.

Thomas also rejects Sam’s (admittedly half-hearted) suggestion of Sandberg’s naivety, preferring to suggest that commercial self-interest x behavioural psychology is not an equation that serves the interests of people or democracy first and foremost. “She did it before at Google, and that’s precisely why she was parachuted into Facebook,” he argues.

As to whether the company’s founder is sociopathic, Thomas believes he may not have sufficient evidence.

We come towards the end of our ramblechat with some suggestions of how we might get out of the mire we find ourselves in.

Thomas thinks the Australian approach with which we started our discussion isn’t the right way, and he’d prefer a combination of legislation (like GDPR) and stern and active enforcement by the courts to reinforce the truth.

He’s encouraged by the court cases brought to the tune of more than $5bn by voter machine companies Dominion and Smartmatic against some of the B-list Fox News presenters and Rudy Giuliani.

Neville encourages the world to try harder.

Life Hacks

And then Sam pivots, lurches, jumps – maybe he even jumps the shark. You decide.

First he calls on the spirit of Sir David Attenborough, who this week encouraged us to cope with the stresses of the pandemic by spending ten minutes in nature. Attenborough borrows heavily from the advice of friend of the show Tim Johns – comms supremo at Unilever turned business coach and counsellor in his elegant lockdown book, Leading from Home – who recommends ten minutes in the garden over a cup of coffee, no devices, alone with one’s thoughts.

Neville chips in with his personal favourite of standing – glasses off – and staring outside for six minutes. Quick as a flash, Sam comes back with the 20-20-20  rule – 20 seconds every 20 minutes spent staring away from the screen at an outdoor scene 20 metres away. Not to be outdone, Thomas recalls a recent conversation in his garden with two robins and a blue tit.

Every business claims to have seized upon Churchill’s maxim of “never waste a good crisis” by using the pandemic for some fundamental transformation. Has the Small Data Forum suddenly become a repository of self-help wisdom, profound and helpful as all those pause strategies may be (try them – they really work)? Happily, no.

We just needed a bit of chiaroscuro, to move from ‘the depths of despair to the height of elation’ as progressive rockers Victims of Circumstance once sang. Loyal listeners should not be concerned. We’ll be back in the gutter, staring upwards, this time next month. And before that, Professor Lilleker will be lightly grilled by Thomas.

Watch this space.

Listen to Episode 44:

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