In case you hadn’t heard, Facebook has taken it’s game of chicken with the Aussie government to new heights by pulling news off of it’s Australian platform. Overnight and without warning, Australian news media sites awoke to find their content stripped from the platform and their ability to post and share gone. Foreign news sites too can no longer share or be shared on the platform.
It was a dramatic move in an ongoing war over the future of media and content distribution that is likely to carry on for months. While the powers that be duke it out, people’s livelihoods and careers have been thrown into precarious positions. It’s a stark reminder of just how much social media and the infrastructure that makes it work have become essential to our daily lives.
It’s also a good example of exactly why the social media giants need to be regulated. It’s not just straight news publications that have been affected but satire sites, emergency health providers, and government sources of information. Even the Bureau of Meteorology was taken down.
Let’s not forget we are in the middle of a pandemic, with misinformation spreading life wildfire across social media, and the access to clear, reliable news is vital to keep people safe and informed. The fact that Facebook has chosen to pull news from its platform at such a crucial moment speaks volumes about their disregard for individual safety.
Why Is This Happening?
A quick reminder here for those who haven’t been monitoring the ins and outs of this protracted debate.
The Australian government have for years now been weighing up their options for the regulation of social media. Their argument is essentially that Facebook and Google have dominated our media information landscape – a bad thing in itself and the reason we have anti-monopoly laws – and starved news publications of advertising revenue as the social media giants outcompete the tradition outlets in efficacy.
To be clear, these social media companies trade in our personal information. We are the products they sell which is why they are so happy for us to access their sites for “free.” The resultant highly specific targeted advertising that they can then offer to prospective clients is far more valuable than the scatter gun approach offered in advertising models by traditional media. If you want to sell a highly niche product to a very select demographic, Facebook has your back. Similarly, if you want to sway a democratic election with misinformation and propaganda, Facebook is your go-to.
These things are all bad but they’re only part of the reason why the Australian government thinks regulation of social media is a good idea. It has more to do with the fact that Google and Facebook’s dominance of advertising spend is crippling news publications and, in particular, News Corp publications, to whom the coalition government owe their success through a never ending campaign of positive coverage and oppositional attacks.
The government going to war against the tech giants has more to do with with shoring up their own media support than a fair deal for publishers and Facebook aren’t having it.
Between a Murdoch and a Hard Place
The very reason the Facebook cull was so wide reaching is because the Australian government in its bargaining with social media defined “news” in incredibly broad terms. Anyone who could conceivably come under the umbrella of news could, in theory, force Facebook to cut them a slice of the revenue. It was designed this way by the Government to back Facebook into a corner and make a deal.
Instead, Facebook has taken their ball and gone home. As they write in their explainer piece, news only counts for 4% of the content on their site. They would rather cut Australia off from news on their platform than have to pay us to use it.
Facebook’s argument, and it is a salient one, is that, unlike Google, who are already cutting huge deals with Nine, News Corp, and the like, publishers voluntarily put their content on the platform. They want to be viewed as a public noticeboard who are being charged because someone stuck an ad on their space. It is a misunderstanding of how their platform works from the Government, though Facebook are happy to mediate the content on their platform, making them more than a simple community drawing board.
What Happens Next
What’s going to happen next is the question on everyone’s mind and from a government standpoint, this appears to have come as just as much of a shock as for the media sites who have now been removed. Just last week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has been in talks with Facebook and Google for months, said the government were just working out the finer points of a deal.
We have two scenarios here to consider.
If Facebook Blinks
This has been seen by some as a dramatic bargaining tool on the part of Zuckerberg. They want us to pay for content? Fine, we’re flipping the table over, let them see what a world without news on Facebook looks like.
It’s possible they’re only planning a temporary halt to scare the Government into softer terms. That may work, since Australian publishers are already reporting a 20% drop in traffic and, most importantly, the head of the North Shore Mums Facebook group has been on the phone to the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to get him to sort it out.
Facebook may reverse its changes but, given they’ve gone this far, it would be unlikely without some kind of restructuring of the laws that the Government are soon to pass. Whether we accept those changes is another question.
If Facebook Holds
Now, we are a small nation, but we don’t take kindly to being told what to do. If Facebook decides to make the changes permeant, we’re not going to be too happy about it. Australia could see a mass exodus from the platform to, uh, Instagram (another Facebook owned platform), TikTok, Twitter, or some new platform.
News publications are already spruiking their newsletters, podcasts, and apps to retain followers and there has been some rallying of support for media being bashed by the big boys in Silicon Valley.
If the rest of the world sees that we are quite happy to manage without Facebook, they could follow suit. This debate over social media regulation isn’t going anywhere and almost everyone is skeptical of the power these massive companies have over our lives.
That being said, some smaller publications, advocacy groups, and community news outlets may feel the pinch a little too hard before a solution is worked out. It could have disastrous consequences for the Australian media landscape and lead to further concentration into the hands of a few.
While alternatives may spring up, work-arounds may be discovered, it’s going to be a long time before the dust settles on this one and we see whether we really are better off without Facebook. Interesting times ahead.