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Peter Menzies: The media is boycotting Meta and nobody cares

Commentary

Meta’s bluffing, they said.

Facebook will never survive without news, they insisted. Users will demand it.

The web giants will cave in just like they did in Australia, they said. Just wait.

These statements tell you everything you need to know about how badly so many within the world of journalism, overwhelmed by bluster, misunderstand the economics of the online world and their business’s 21st-century reality. So far, the most vociferous backers of the Online News Act (Bill C-18) haven’t just been wrong about predicting its consequences, they have misjudged public sentiment in extravagant style. One wonders what they teach in journalism schools that so many could be so spectacularly and predictably wrong.

Today, they will continue that tradition with a cringeworthy call for the nation to rise in solidarity with them and mark Sept.15 as a #DayWithoutMeta. The date was chosen because it correlates to International Democracy Day. And, as we all know from reading the public prints and watching TV news, the foundations of society crumble without well-paid journos. Or so they say.

If you have come late to this story, Bill C-18 was based on the unproven allegation that Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and Threads) and Google “steal” content produced by news organizations and refuse to share the allegedly large profits their mischief generates. The bill was designed to force those Big Tech companies to go beyond the tens of millions they were already spending to support journalism in Canada and cough up hundreds of millions more through contrived new “commercial” agreements. Most legacy news organizations—newspapers in particular —have struggled to compete with the web giants’ superior advertising models and, as a result, thousands of jobs have disappeared and the “free press” has embraced an apparently permanent role as a ward of the state.

The response from the big companies, notwithstanding agreements they made Down Under when faced with a Rupert Murdoch-led shakedown there, has been that this premise is nonsense. Bill C-18 leaves them no rational business choice, they insist, other than to no longer link to news in Canada and, it appears, elsewhere.

Google has yet to pull the plug and is still attempting to talk the government off the ledge upon which it has placed itself and an industry that depends upon the audiences Meta, Google, and others drive to its sites without charge.

Meta began its news shutdown in August and is now six weeks in. For it, everything seems to be going tickety-boo. It appears to have avoided the blunders involved in its five-day blockage of news links in Australia. Even more discouraging for journalists is that Meta’s testing showed its users and advertisers aren’t just likely to disregard the absence of news, they could well be happier without it on Facebook.

The government was convinced by those most likely to bathe in web giant gold that their product—news—was wildly popular. Team Trudeau felt it could score points by demonizing the monstrous U.S. firms who, let’s face it, pose huge concerns as quasi-monopolists. And the legacy segment of the news industry—over the more well-informed protests of newer, more innovative proprietors—saw a financial gravy train that might save it (for a few more years anyway) from its inability to adapt to change.

Over the past six weeks the news industry had a chance to prove how much the public values it. It has instead revealed the unsettling truth that most of it is nowhere near as fetching, nor as necessary, as the image it self-servingly sees when it looks in the mirror.

It and its allies’ responses to Big Tech’s harumph have been stunningly ineffective.

The federal and Quebec governments pulled their advertising spends, but those moves amount to less money than Meta will save by ending its $18 million in existing journalism funding. The Liberal party, however, maintained its buys.

A call by The Friends for boycotts went nowhere. The prime minister, while declaring his determination to bring Meta into line, abandoned that conviction and mindlessly selected Instagram as the vehicle through which to announce the change in his marital status.

But, according to the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ) and the Société québécoise des professionnel(le)s en relations publiques (SQPRP), today’s the day all that’s going to turn around. Today, the losing streak ends and the winning begins.

Today will be the big #DayWithoutMeta.

“This 15th of September, all members of the public are invited to avoid sharing anything on Facebook and Instagram, as well as subscribing to a local media or its newsletter,” the organizers stated in a Newswire release. “This small gesture would send a strong message that Canadians are not [to] be intimidated by Meta’s decision, and that they will support journalists and news’ organizations based in our country.”

No doubt a few will heed the call. But at time of writing, a search on X for the hashtag #DayWithoutMeta produced just two results. One was from a poster in Washington, D.C. The other was from UNIFOR. In its first 13 hours, the UNIFOR post solicited two re-posts, one like, and 73 impressions.

Someone needs to tell the news industry—friend to friend—that the public’s nowhere near as into it as it is into itself.

Because this is getting embarrassing.

Brian Dijkema: Who left the barbarians in charge of our books?

Commentary

Today, the CBC broke a story that showed how the Peel District School Board is culling books that fail to meet “equity-based” criteria for books in school libraries. Among the books that are thrown away, according to reporter Natasha Fatah, is Anne Frank’s diary. While they are not quite going so far as to host a bonfire to burn the books in school parking lots, the end result is pretty much the same. The board is not giving the books away, they are literally throwing them into the landfill to moulder. What an absolute abomination.

This practice is not just some random “woke” librarian on a rampage either. It is being done in response to a directive from the Ministry of Education, whose current minister is Stephen Lecce, a conservative. It comes from straight from the top.

The policy is the mirror image of the “anti-woke” book policy of the conservative governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. A list of books removed from Florida public school libraries shows plenty of books that are terrible and that really shouldn’t be on the shelves, but also plenty that are not just okay, but genuinely endearing and in line with the tradition of living books. Why should a sweet, rhythmic, story about a Thai mom trying to quiet the animals so her baby can sleep be put out of a school library? I can’t tell you. Arguably, the Peel Board’s practice is even worse, as it simply removed any book published before 2008.

While the policy has since been countermanded by Lecce’s office, these types of policies—one aimed at removing “woke” books and another one aimed at “non-inclusive” books are, sadly, a metaphor for the state of public education these days. The words that best describe this policy are brutal and barbaric.

By this I don’t mean that school administrators are clothed in fur and looking for blood (though, judging from other goings-on in the Peel board, you can be forgiven for this assumption). They are a clear attempt to cut off students from a living tradition of reflection on the beauty and complications of human life, in favour of a simplistic, ideological vision. The dearly departed Australian poet Les Murray describes the situation better in three lines than I could in three pages:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

This is the mentality shaping both the Left’s and the Right’s vision for educating our kids. Is this what you want for your kids? It’s not what I want for mine.

This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t make choices about what to put on their shelves. Those choices are both a practical and pedagogical reality and will depend in part on the type of person you are trying to form. Perhaps it’s time to give up the pretense that forming our kids is something a system that self-articulately takes a pass on deeper questions of meaning and formation can do. Given the fact that two ostensibly “conservative” premiers have given North America two perfectly opposite, but equally brutal, policies on the literature that will shape our children’s imaginations, perhaps it’s time to find a new lens for evaluating education. 

And that lens, I should add, cannot simply be the technocratic one that our governments prefer. The culling of books based on ideological differences on sex or race or what have you is nothing compared to the culling of real, living, books that have been taking place in our libraries for years in the name of value-free technological “progress.” In many libraries—both public and school—books that would have once sparked flames of imagination in life in young children have been replaced by Chromebooks and electronic learning games or other bits of metal and silicon that are, literally, planned for obsolescence rather than for posterity. The beautiful, “eye on the object” look of children reading has been replaced by catatonic faces more often found in front of slot machines in a casino. 

The fact that the minister’s office issued a directive without offering clear criteria by which a book would be deemed to be “inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant, and reflective of students” (or even a definition of what it means by these extremely vague terms) is an abrogation of duty. A read of the audit reports produced by Peel indicates that this technocratic mindset is the greater concern for those of us concerned with education as something intended to shape humans, rather than technically proficient machines. It cloaks terms and actions that have significant import for the formation of children in administrative bureaucratese and is executed almost entirely by staff who are accountable to no one in particular, and certainly not Ontarian parents. 

Whether it’s ridding shelves of books like the Diary of Anne Frank in Ontario under Lecce, or Brother Eagle, Sister Sky under DeSantis, policies like this are another step in the alienation of children from the complexities of history and humanity. Even if this all is, as my friend Michael Demoor suggests, simply a case of bureaucratic stupidity brought on by the hugeness of the school boards (a view that is plausible, but which doesn’t deal with the very real and clearly articulated ideological nature of Ontario’s common school system, nor its increased centralization over the last few decades), it’s a stretch to say that this is a healthy way the system should be working. Overreach and bluntness of this sort are, as they say, a feature, not a bug, of systems where education is controlled by a bureaucratic state and massive, largely unaccountable, school boards.    

Perhaps this might give all of us—regardless of which colour you vote for in a given election—some pause, and a desire for something better.    

A month or so ago I was corresponding with the ever-so-gifted Mary Harrington about her recent book (reviewed here in The Hub) and mentioned that I appreciated how many of the concerns she raised in the book fit into an old-school “left-wing” model of politics. Her reply was enlightening. She said, “I don’t have a problem with being recognised as a leftist in some respects; it’s true, and besides I’m not sure the terms really apply anymore, as the split these days is more human vs posthuman.”

This, I think, is precisely where we need to be on education. Another word for brutal is inhumane. Both the Left and the Right are acting like barbarians and pushing a vision of education that is destroying our shared past and the reflections of human beings trying to make sense of the world. It has to stop. It’s time for a more humane, human-scale, vision of education. But to achieve that, humanists—of all political persuasions—will need to unite.