Google plays hardball in Australia over new publisher payment law

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Google users in Australia started seeing a warning pop up on their search pages this week: a yellow triangle with an exclamation mark inside it, and a message that said “The way Aussies use Google is at risk.” Those who clicked on the popup were taken to an open letter from Mel Silva, managing director of Google Australia, which warned users about a new Australian law that Silva said “will hurt how Australians use Google Search and YouTube.” According to the Google executive, the proposed legislation, known as the News Media Bargaining Code, “would force us to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk.” Silva said that the new law would force Google to “give an unfair advantage to one group of businesses—news media businesses—over everyone else” because the code would require it to notify publishers about changes to its algorithms. The head of YouTube in Australia also wrote his own post suggesting that paying big publishers for content would mean less money for other creators on the service.

The Australian government didn’t waste much time firing back. The country’s competition commission, which drafted the law after months of investigating anti-competitive behavior by Google and Facebook, released a letter accusing the search company of misstating the facts. According to the commission, Google’s statement contained “misinformation” about the proposed law: the company would not have to charge anyone for free services, it said, and would not be required to share any user data with news businesses unless it chose to do so. The proposed code would “allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services,” it said, and would “address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.” Free TV Australia, an industry body that represents the country’s over-the-air networks, called Google’s letter and marketing campaign “a cynical ploy” designed to “mislead and frighten” Australians.

So where does the truth lie in this back-and-forth? One thing that seems obvious is that Google sees what’s happening in Australia as a line in the sand, and is fighting with whatever tools it has, including a PR campaign involving its users, to soften the proposed legislation (discussion continues on the law until August 28, the commission has said). Just before the code came out, Google announced that it was going to pay publishers in certain countries, including Australia, but those payments have reportedly been suspended. The search giant also fought against legislation requiring it to pay publishers in Spain, Germany, and France, but it may be even more determined in Australia: the regulations in those other countries are based on copyright law, whereas Australia’s is a product of antitrust, which has the potential to affect Google in much more serious ways than copyright (US regulators are also currently investigating the search company for anti-competitive behavior). For its part, Facebook seems to be keeping its head down and saying as little as possible.

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The QAnon conspiracy cult is growing and the media is helping

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Stocks and bonds may be weak, but we’re still in a raging bull market for one commodity, and that is disinformation, thanks in large part to the fact that President Donald Trump creates and distributes so much of it himself, both through his Twitter account but also in his official statements and his increasingly rare briefings from the White House. Trump’s promotion of fringe conspiracy theories—like the one he repeatedly tweeted about involving former Congressional candidate Joe Scarborough and the death of a former campaign worker, or a video about a supposed cure for COVID-19 from a doctor who believes that some diseases are caused by demons—and similar behavior by Trump supporters and advisors, including his son Donald Jr., has arguably helped to fuel the continued growth of a digital disinformation ecosystem. It ties together “dark web” sites like 4chan and right-wing outlets like Breitbart, but also relies on giant digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and mainstream news outlets like Fox News, as engines of dissemination.

One sign of how large and potentially influential this ecosystem has become in just the last four years is the growth of the so-called QAnon conspiracy theory cult, something that seemed like a bad joke not that long ago—an often bizarre hodge-podge of beliefs involving a plan by the “deep state” to take down some or all of the government, Satanic child sex-abuse rings run by the rich and powerful in Washington, and even the existence of space aliens who walk among us. The idea that an anonymous government operative known only as Q would leave coded messages posted on 4chan discussion boards or in Reddit threads, containing details about the government’s plans to foil a supposed coup, might have been laughable just a few years ago, but now there are candidates for Congress who openly share some of these beliefs, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a Republican primary runoff in Georgia’s 14th district this week, and was congratulated by the president. “There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it,” Greene said in a YouTube video.

This week, NBC News reported that an internal Facebook investigation found thousands of groups and pages devoted to QAnon conspiracy theories, with millions of members and followers, according to internal company documents that were obtained by the network. The ten largest of these groups identified by Facebook reportedly contain more than one million members, and the total from all of the QAnon groups is about three million. It’s not clear how much overlap there is among membership of the groups, according to NBC, because most of them are private. Two unnamed Facebook staffers told the network that the company is considering a platform-wide crackdown on QAnon content that would be similar to the way it handles anti-vaccination content, which is to reject advertising from such groups, and exclude them from search results and recommendations (Twitter recently did something similar). A report by The Guardian says the paper found one hundred and seventy QAnon groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram with more than four and a half million followers.

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VOA turmoil continues as staffers protest new CEO’s remarks

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

A group of veteran journalists who work for the Voice of America sent management a letter of protest Monday denouncing the new chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and a number of other similar media outlets. In the letter, the staffers allege that comments made by Michael Pack, a Trump appointee who took office in June, “endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives.” As David Folkenflik reported at NPR, the comments in question came during a podcast produced by the conservative website The Federalist, and included Pack saying the agency was “a great place to put a foreign spy,” as well as joking about deporting his own employees and turning off the air conditioning or banning masks at VOA headquarters in order to help him “drain the swamp.” Pack also questioned whether the agency’s broadcasters were adhering to standards of balance. “Whatever CNN or any other network does is one thing,” he said on the podcast. “I have found egregious examples of flouting of those standards.”

In the Federalist interview, Pack also suggested that he has had to take strong action since he was appointed because of security lapses that occurred at the agency prior to his arrival. But his predecessor in the role of USAGM chief executive, John Lansing—now the CEO of National Public Radio—said that this is untrue. “Pack’s insistence that there were issues related to security in hiring at VOA is merely a smokescreen to avert attention from his blatant attempt to interfere with the legislatively mandated independence, or ‘firewall’, protecting the journalists of VOA from government interference,” Lansing told Folkenflik (a note on the NPR story said that because of Lansing’s previous job, neither he nor any other senior NPR executive reviewed the Pack story prior to publication). The letter from VOA staffers—including two White House correspondents, foreign correspondents based in Africa and Islamabad, and national security reporters—said that Pack’s allegations about security lapses at the agency were as baseless as the “Red Scare” conspiracy theories that targeted the Voice of America and other entities during the 1950s.

Since Pack took over the agency, he has made a series of dramatic restructuring moves, including forcing out the chief financial officer and the general counsel of the USAGM in mid-August, both of whom were placed on administrative leave and had their security clearances revoked. A statement from the agency that was sent to Politico and the New York Post at the time said these removals were meant to “restore respect for the rule of law in our work” after a review found lax vetting of journalists. But both of the executives said Pack’s actions were in retaliation for their whistle-blowing about what has been happening at the agency since he took over. Chief financial officer Grant Turner told a reporter for Voice of America that his removal was punishment for speaking up about “patterns of gross mismanagement” under Pack, as well as violations of the legal firewall that is supposed to protect USAGM journalists from political interference, and general counsel David Kligerman said he was sidelined “in retaliation for attempting to do my job in an apolitical manner and to speak truth to power.”

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