When Facebook removed vast swaths of Australian media from its platform overnight on Wednesday, the social media company was intent on shocking the Australian government system and media cronyism and sending a strong message to regulators everywhere.
Instead, Facebook managed to divert attention from a flawed law to its own reckless and opaque power.
Even for a company that specializes in public relations disasters, this was quite an achievement. Everyone from the head of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to the organizer of the North Shore Mums page found that their links and pages were missing on Facebook. Campus newspaper reporters, half of the First Nations media network editors, public health officials preparing for the Covid vaccine launch, and weather services all of a sudden found their presence on Facebook, without notice, deleted.
A company that cannot reliably identify legitimate news sites or make a determination between a vital information service and the conspiracy-laden Epoch Times (which was also disrupted) should not be part of a country’s critical communications infrastructure. However, this is the paradox of Facebook.
Facebook hadn’t thought about whether the week before the vaccines were released was the right time for a news blackout. Facebook and Google, for the past three years, have been giving grants to journalism organizations and newsrooms at the rate of $ 100 million a year each, making them the largest philanthropists and journalists on the planet. Money is not a deep commitment to produce fairness and integrity in the news; it is a lobbying exercise, a protection against external regulation.
Facebook’s news blackout was a backlash against the Australian government’s mandatory news trading code, which proposes a system for negotiated payments from platforms to publishers for links to news articles. Australia’s media politics is rarely a focal point of global interest, but the bargaining code is closely followed from Menlo Park to Manila. Australia is a test case for resisting the idea that the digital advertising duopoly of Google and Facebook should set their own rules and policies to shape the media landscape they dominate.
The code has been criticized for being poorly written legislation that undermines the operation of an open web, or a Faustian pact between the Scott Morrison government and Rupert Murdoch, or both. Even those who want to see a transfer of wealth from big tech to underfunded journalism weren’t sure this was the right way to go.
Facebook released a statement Wednesday in which it said it was sadly abandoning its plans to “significantly increase our investments with local publishers” and instead shut it down. Meanwhile, Google has managed to sidestep the proposed “link tax” by meeting the government’s goal of lucrative deals with Australian media companies, from News Corp to smaller publishers. By flexing a bit, Google has avoided mandatory payment arbitration for now.
Initial concerns that the proposed system would prove unfair have been somewhat allayed by Google’s negotiations with publishers so far. However, Facebook’s behavior underscores that without a regulated solution, the sudden withdrawal from the market has a huge impact on both public service establishments and smaller ones, which have not had the resources or incentives to build businesses with a brick wall. payment outside of social platforms.
The arbitrary and hopefully temporary vandalism perpetrated by Facebook raises the question of “What’s next?” Facebook already seemed to be trying to restore pages it had mistakenly purged, comically including its own corporate page. But the ABC and other news provider pages remained empty.
The disorderly retreat of Australian news highlights how vulnerable entire countries can be to reliance on unreliable and unregulated distribution networks. It’s also a reminder that deep down, neither Google nor Facebook is primarily motivated to support journalism at all costs or to provide transparency and accountability.
Arguably, governments have not paid enough attention to producing alternative digital solutions for giant centralized advertising companies that provide an increasing number of communication services for their citizens. Facebook’s petulance has inadvertently made a case in Australia for more regulation rather than less.
News organizations must develop alternative platforms and governments must provide more regulated certainty. Highly digital newsrooms that have strong resources and relationships with their audiences began to move away from Facebook long ago and are less affected by its volatility.
Smaller publishers, and those with under-resourced communities, are much more dependent. A Facebook pullout could be a galvanizing moment for Australia and beyond.
The main problem with legislation that seeks to fund a news industry directly from Facebook and Google is that it does not open a clear path out of the duopoly entirely. Perhaps this week’s events will help Australia and countries watching its progress realize that the problem is not too much regulation, but too little.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism