Facebook’s Faceplant: Why Unfriending Aussie News Was a Dumb Move


By Leah Morris.


On Thursday Feburary 18, Australian’s woke up to empty news feeds across every Australian media profile on Facebook.


The move to ban Aussie news came after Facebook refused to comply with the Australian Government and ACCC’s News Media Bargaining Code. Announced back in April 2020, the code was created to stop tech giants eating Aussie news media alive. Which they have been steadily doing for years.


‘The principle of the code is that it’s for the parties to do commercial deals and for them to work out the terms of those deals, ‘ Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told Paul Macdonald on the ABC’s Q+A. In other words, the government wants Facebook and Google to stop staunching all the ad revenue, and pass some back to the Australian media outlets. After all, journalists are creating the content that’s driving it.


Neither Facebook nor Google wants to pander to anyone, let alone measly news platforms. Yet the two goliaths have now responded in very different ways. In February this year, Google launched Google News Showcase, a curated news platform that supposedly complies with the code and pays media outlets for content.


Facebook responded by threatening to shut down news content on their site. They have now delivered on that threat, but it’s their funeral.


Firstly, they’ve done a huge disservice to their users. According to a Reuters Institute report, up to 40% of Australians used Facebook for news between 2018 and 2020. That makes it our most used social platform when it comes to news and current affairs. Which means it won’t be long before almost half our nation unfriends Facebook (see ya, bye)!


Secondly, it’s an admission that the platform is not as impartial as it’s claimed in the past. The move cements its position as a powerful institution willing to censor as they see fit. For example, the delayed banning of Donald Trump, who violated Facebook’s terms of use repeatedly with abusive content and fake news. Yet Facebook held off cancelling Trump for as long as possible. Why?


‘It goes to their logic and to their profit motive,’ international security expert Lydia Khalil told Q+A. ‘Posts that illicit primal emotions like fear and hate drive user engagement.’


Lastly, Facebook’s dramatic move has sparked a public discourse on regulation, which means more scrutiny on how Facebook moderates its content.


‘(We’ve seen) they can target advertising with deadly precision’, says eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant. ‘They should be able to target child sexual abuse material, racism, online hate, all of these things. It’s really a matter of priorities and corporate will.’


Lack of regulation is what has led to Facebook being responsible for a very large piece of our information infrastructure.


Says Lydia Khalil: ‘I think regulation lies in the hands of government… we have these non-transparent algorithms governing what we see and how we see it. These companies look at these algorithms as though it’s commercial property and they guard it as proprietary information, just like the spices for KFC fried chicken. But the reality is, these algorithms are actually governing a lot of our information environment. And we don’t have any transparency around them.’


While it’s true any media outlet can express this sort of bias (looking at you, Mr. Murdoch), tech giants have an advanced ability to create smoke and mirrors. Which makes compliance very hard to regulate.


We are in a reckoning for tech giants. The new code has shown Facebook and Google that Australia won’t be bullied, and that can only be a good thing. It’s time the Australian government took regulation seriously, and that tech giants pay their dues to the Australian economy.



References


Nassim Khadem, Facebook news ban could backfire as media publishers draw communities and advertisers away, ABC news, 19 February 2021 [news article]


Hamish Macdonald, Bargaining With Big Tech, Q+A, 18 February 2021 [live broadcast]


Australia to force Google, Facebook to pay domestic media to use content, Reuters, April 20 2021 [news article]


Chris Pash, Facebook's advertising revenue in Australia is up 16% to more than $670m, AdNews, 2 June 2020 [news article]


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