Facebook nuked the Australian media landscape last night, erasing all local news from its platform and blocking users from sharing and viewing content created by media organisations.
The heavy-handed move is the latest salvo in an escalating stand-off between the social media giant and the Australian federal government, in response to a proposed Media Bargaining law that would force tech companies to pay for news content. The code is designed to ensure that Australian media companies are fairly remunerated for the use of their content on social media platforms. Instead, Facebook cut the Gordian knot and wiped those media companies from their platform altogether.
Newly-enforced restrictions on what Australian users can and can’t view or share extends to international publications—meaning posts from global mastheads like BBC, CNN and the New York Times have all become inaccessible—as well as local publishers, who are now unable to promote their own content on the platform. International users are also now barred from viewing or sharing Australian news content on the site.
It’s a drastic move that is already having tangible repercussions for people on the ground. For starters, anyone logging on to Facebook in Australia today was met by a message at the top of their news feed proclaiming: “The way you share news is changing.”
“In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia,” the update reads. “Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.”
In short, Facebook is no longer a news platform in Australia—inasmuch as “news” refers to content from official media organisations. Text, images and video from more independent publishers like conspiracy theorists and truthers seem to have escaped the remit of this censorship model, and we’ll get to that. But at the same time, the blast radius of Facebook’s self-imposed blackout has already extended beyond the bounds of “media” and “news outlets” and claimed some improbable victims.
In the wake of Facebook’s so-called “news ban”, Australian users started noticing that a number of government and emergency services accounts also had their content removed. State health, fire and emergency departments, domestic violence hotlines, trade unions, legal services and the nation’s Bureau of Meteorology have all been caught in the net and blacked out by Facebook.
South Australia’s health department, one of the many public services affected by the ban, posted on Twitter stating that they had reached out to Facebook to try and rectify the issue. It has since been restored.
Facebook today told the media they were in the process of attempting to restore access to other vital government pages, and blamed the issue on the alleged vagaries of the news media bargaining code.
“As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” a company spokesperson told The New Daily. “However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”
“Government pages should not be impacted by today’s announcement. The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” the spokesperson added.
Proliferation of Misinformation
Even in the event that Facebook’s crackdown is working as it should be, though, there is brewing concern about what that might mean for the kind of information and spurious misinformation that ends up proliferating and filling out people’s news feeds. The social media giant has a troubled relationship with fake news and chequered history of platforming problematic personalities. If media companies are silenced, what kinds of other voices will rush in to fill the vacuum? And how much louder than before might they be?
“Google and Facebook have become the main way for Australians to access their news. With the flick of a switch Facebook is changing the game,” Associate Professor Johan Lidberg, a lecturer at Monash University’s School of Media, Film & Journalism told VICE World News via email. “What does this mean for the millions of users who found factual information published in their newsfeeds by professional credible journalists and the potential subsequent spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories left to fill their void?”
As a case in point, Associate Professor Lindberg points to Australian politician Craig Kelly, who over the past 12 months has espoused a number of spurious, unproven and dangerous views around the issues of coronavirus and the climate crisis.
"Imagine an Australian Facebook with the likes of ... Kelly spreading unfounded COVID-19 treatments and misinformation about climate change, with no factual journalistic content to dispute his claims.”
Professor Julie Leask, a professor from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health, expressed similar concerns about the social media blackout and what it means for people’s ease of access to reliable and important information.
“The timing couldn’t be worse. Facebook censors anti-vaccination content ‘for public health’ at the same time as restricting user's access to local news at the start of a vaccine rollout,” she said. "Three days before our COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination from news organisations and some government and public health organisation pages. This is the very time we rely on people accessing vaccine information easily.”
Others are slightly less concerned. Dr Christopher Scanlon, senior lecturer in journalism at Deakin university, pointed out that while the further proliferation of misinformation and fake news is a legitimate fear, it’s not a problem that’s born out of the Facebook news ban. In his words “that horse has already bolted”.
“That's already happening, and Facebook appears to be reluctant to really police it,” he told VICE World News over the phone—going on to highlight that a clear demarcation between professional, fact-checked news content on the one hand and the soapboxing of freewheeling social media personalities on the other might actually help to delegitimise people who are already given too much oxygen.
“I think the other flipside of this is the fact that news media being on these platforms [like Facebook] may serve for some users to give more credence to conspiracy theories, because they sit alongside them in the same flow of information, so they judge them all the same. There’s a sort of flattening out, and I think that's the concern,” he explained. And while this kind of censorship is sure to limit the depth and breadth of information that Australians are able to access via social media, Facebook’s business model of surveillance algorithms and targeted news feed is designed to create an echo chamber.
“People’s worlds will get smaller because they won't be exposed to as much information,” Dr Scanlon pointed out, “but I'm not sure how expensive they were anyway, because these platforms are designed to zero in on your interest and keep hammering and refining you.”
Overall, he’s cautiously optimistic about what this shake-up might mean for the future of how Australians engage with both social and news media. In one aspect, we could have a platform where people go back to only sharing personal updates and using Facebook exclusively for its social purposes. On the other, the news ban could lead to a situation where people only get their information from specialised, trusted sources, and where media gatekeepers can build ongoing relationships with their readers without having to game social media algorithms.
“It's going to be a world of pain at first, but I think there's an opportunity here for news organisations to actually build their own capability and not be reliant on the likes of Facebook,” said Dr Scanlon. “They can start building their audience data and their information in a different way.”
For many people, the news ban will likely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back: a final push for them to unplug from Facebook altogether. That’s unlikely to hurt Facebook: Australia is too small a market to be able to inflict any kind of meaningful impact on the social media giant. But while Facebook insists that its refusal to pay Australia’s news companies is based on a disagreement with the terms of the Media Bargaining law, multiple commentators have noted that the tech giant likely wanted to avoid opening a can of worms and potentially inciting other countries to follow Australia’s lead.
In the event that Facebook did agree to pay for news, bigger jurisdictions such as the US, UK and European Union could be expected to follow.
“There will also be other regions watching, such as Brazil and Indonesia, which aren't first world economies but have millions of social media users,” Dr Andrew Hughes, a digital media expert from the Australian National University, told 9News. "It could end up costing Facebook billions of dollars."
It’s as yet unclear what the global ramifications of the news ban will be. For one, users around the world who still rely on platforms like Facebook for the bare majority of their news diet will, as of today, have a black spot in their understanding of global affairs. Australian stories, as reported by Australians, will be less likely to reach a global audience. For some publications, particularly the smaller ones, a sudden inability to broadcast content on social media could easily be the death knell.
The future is hard to predict: Australia is the first country to have incited such a ham-fisted reaction from the world’s biggest social media company. But Dr Scanlon echoed other commentators in noting that the impact this will have on the world at large depends on whether other nations back down for fear of rankling the tech giant, or decide to dig in their heels.
“It's difficult to say at the moment: if it's only Australia it’s not going to have any impact on Facebook’s business, because our market is so tiny it's basically irrelevant on a global stage,” he said. “But what will be interesting to see is what European legislators do; given the legislators there have shown an interest in what Australia is doing, it'll be interesting if they follow suit.
“Then I think Facebook will have problems on their hands.”
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