Encourage Facebook to promote credible links — don’t penalise them!

Well it sure has been an eventful last few days in the online world. Facebook has taken steps against proposed legislation in Australia and blocked links to any media outlet in Australia. Not just media outlets. Emergency Services sites, the Bureau of Meteorology and heck, even its own page.

friendlyjordies put up a pretty good little piece on it, but it really has been making the news across the world. So why have they done this?

Because government has asked they pay the big media sites to link to their sites. That’s essentially it. At the moment they pay nothing at all when a person creates a link on a facebook post to a news site — or to anything really. And given most people get their news these days from social media — predominantly from clicking on links on Facebook posts — the results have been pretty dramatic for the media companies who have traditionally relied on advertising for revenue. Because Facebook is capturing that revenue before it ever gets to the news sites.

So the government here in Australia is looking to establish legislation that will require Facebook (and Google, but that’s another story) to pay those media companies. Sounds reasonable. Maybe. Actually, I’m not sure. Penalizing the social media networks for having links to credible news sites would surely encourage them to have people linking to non-credible web sites. You know, the types which spout things like how crazy vaccinations are, that there is no pandemic and climate change is a vast conspiracy theory made up by a bunch of academics to keep themselves employed.

If government is serious about ensuring high-quality information is making its way into the consciousness of people across the country, that the information they have is informed, then it should perhaps encourage the social media companies to do that, rather than fostering links to whacko websites — which is what they are suggesting now. The questions is, how to do that.

Easy.

Well, sort of anyway. Way back in the nineties, the founders of Google, Larry Page and what’s is name came up with a genius way of surfacing valuable information. They determined that the value of a web page could be determined largely by the number of links to that page and the number of people clicking on those links. I say largely because this only partially covers what is needed. Search engines prior to Google, such as Web Crawler, Excite or Yahoo developed great big indexes for web sites, but found a simple index wasn’t as powerful as understanding links — the secret sauce of Google.

In todays world, a web page with plenty of links to it, with heaps of people using those links certainly shows a web page which is popular. What it doesn’t do is help in determining whether or not that web site is credible. As a result we get populist web sites and populist news, not credible web sites and impartial news. So it seems to me the goal for the Australian Government is not to drive revenue to media companies (though the strong relationships successive governments have had with the Murdoch’s this), but rather to ensure the community has access to reliable information and knows when it is hitting sites that are more questionable. Legislation should be looking to achieve this. But how?

I think there are a few ways to play it. Government could encourage social media and search engines to:

  1. encourage social media and search engines to results from reputable, credible sources
  2. clearly document next to links the quality of the site to which the link takes the person

The more dodgy links, the more those links are clicked on, the greater the tax on the company.See what I mean?

Simple.

Well, not so simple. Who determines what is and what is not a credible site? Snopes? I don’t think so.

For me, I think the time has come for an increasing degree of sophistication around linking. Links that come from pages have been peer reviewed should be seen as reasonably credible. Especially if they are linked heavily to and from other credible sources, such as media organizations who can be held to account for what they do and say. Pages which have recognized peers reviewing them negatively would still be available of course, but credibility would be low. This credibility would not make them inaccessible, but it would reduce the page rank, and links to it would have comments on them stating the integrity of the page is under question. The technology exists to do this.

It just depends on how much we, as a society, value information sources of integrity.

Of course, the problem with this is it does not help the mighty news networks make money, so they won’t lobby for it in the same way they are lobbying now. Perhaps we need the Electronic Fronteers mob to up the charge?

So all up, what am I saying? I reckon that:

  • Government should not be forcing social media companies and search engines to pay to show links to credible web sites. By doing so, they are fostering behaviors that will lead to greater misinformation than ever before
  • It should instead be looking at ways to encourage social media and search engine companies to highlight and exemplify links to highly credible sites and pages. Give them some tax incentives or something…
  • Then it should actively be taxing them on the behaviors we don’t want to see from them. Linking to heaps of dodgy anti-vac sites and heaps of people are clicking through? Tsk tsk. That’s another 5% tax right there.

Simple?

Actually, I reckon.

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Christo Norman

Christo Norman

Thought provocateur, passionate about society and people. Lover of sports and the great outdoors…