‘News’ disappeared from Facebook in Australia last week. Here’s why.

Facebook, on the morning of February 18, began blocking Australian and International news sites from displaying content on its platform in the country. The action was intended to block Facebook users in Australia to search and view news content on Facebook, and for international Facebook users to search and view news content from Australia, including the pages of Australian news outlets.

The block remains in place today and is likely to stay for a while.

The move came after the Australian House of Representatives passed the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021, that is now being tabled before the Senate and is expected to become law in the following week. 

The Bill requires Big Tech companies, Google and Facebook, to pay for news content that is linked, or featured, on their platforms. The purpose of the Act is to protect journalism in Australia by encouraging news media businesses to take part in commercial negotiations with digital platforms. 

Earlier in February, Seven West Media became Australia’s first largest media company to sign a multimillion-dollar agreement with Google for its content to be displayed in a new product called News Showcase. Google, which had initially been reluctant to adhere to Australia’s new code, is now actively entering into agreements with a number of other news companies like The Guardian and Nine

Facebook, however, went in the opposite direction by pulling all news content for viewership in Australia in protest.

Impact of Facebook’s action to block news in Australia

Since the ban put in place by Facebook on Thursday, Facebook users in Australia, and the international users, are unable to search, view, or share news content and posts from Australian news pages.

“Basically, all the Facebook pages of outlets that identify themselves as news entities have been suspended”, says Asad Baig, the founder of Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan’s leading media development group. “The news pages are unable to post content, and the users across the world are unable to read any of the hundreds, often thousands of posts, on these pages”.

Upon search for ABC News on Facebook, one of the most followed Australian news outlet, the social media platform shows no posts on its page. Instead, it only presents a link to use ABC News’s mobile app.

Facebook, in addition to the news, is also blocking “vital information” about weather, health, and all other information sources categorised as “news” content, leaving Facebook users in Australia unable to search crucial information, reports Guardian.

According to various reports, the block has also affected some other non-news pages and content, including the health and fire department, which is considered essential information.

“Prima facie, it’s looks as if Facebook, in its bid to prove a point to the Australian government, have chosen to ignore the impact of blocking essential health related information in a time when the world is dealing with a global pandemic”, says Asad Baig. “Blocking of non-news pages and content could be a mistake, but it could adversely impact the Australian Facebook users.”

Facebook-executive’s blog on the issue

William Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand, wrote in a blog post last week that the Australian Government had “fundamentally misunderstood” the platform’s relationship with news content and its publishers.

Easton also addressed the comparison being drawn between Google and Facebook, and why both companies chose to react differently. He explained that publishers on Google do not willingly put up content, which appears every time you use Google Search, whereas users on Facebook willingly put up content which allows them to broaden their audience and earn more revenue. 

The blog post argues that Facebook does not earn a significant amount from news content on its platform. Easton highlights that news content accounts for less than 4 percent of content people see in their news feeds, while Facebook accounted for 5.1bn clicks to Australian news websites in 2020.

Further, the blog post talks about a new initiative, “Facebook News”, that was ready to be launched in Australia before the Bill was passed. It aimed to increase investments in local news publishers but with the new Code in place, Facebook will divert its efforts to other countries where the Government does not dictate and influence commercial agreements with news companies. 

The ban also affected Facebook pages of government agencies, like the Bureau of Meteorology, community pages, union pages, charity organisations and politicians, most likely due to a faulty algorithm but the pages were reported to be restored after a few hours.

Australian government’s response to FB’s blocking

Australian Government has condemned Facebook’s actions, with the Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling the move “arrogant and disappointing”. The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, also criticised Facebook’s decision to block Australians’ access to government pages, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. The Government remains steadfast in its decision and expressed no intention of retracting or amending the Bill as per Facebook’s demands. 

Australia’s federal finance minister Simon Birmingham has termed Facebook’s actions as an attempt to “exert power or influence over our democratic systems”.

More recently, according to a news report from ABC News, the “Australian government has decided to escalate the feud with Facebook”. Reportedly, the federal government has announced to pull off all government advertising campaigns from Facebook starting Monday (today).

Birmingham who also oversees the public expenditure says, “We won’t tolerate that, we will be standing firm on the legislation and looking at all those advertising points”, reports ABC news.

The digital rights perspective

Overall, Facebook’s action has attracted a lot of criticism from within and outside Australia. Commenting on the development, Sadaf Khan, the co-founder of MMfD notes, “There are various angles to it. While the code (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) doesn’t seem to be problematic per se, the approach taken by the Australian government seems to have been counterproductive, especially in-terms of media sustainability. We’ve seen similar approaches taken by governments closer to home, wherein the multi-stakholder engagement isn’t taken into account, and more often than not they turn out to be counter-productive”.   

Sharing his views on the need for media sustainability centric initiatives, Asad Baig says, “In the post-convergence world, it’s extremely important to ensure that news outlets have an equal chance and opportunity to survive, especially considering the importance of their function, and their contribution to democracy. No one can deny the importance and need of journalism in public interest. Thus, there has to be some form of level-playing field to ensure the survival and operation of the news outlets across the world, and since platforms like Facebook and Google are earning substantial revenue through the engagement generated from news content, it’s important to discuss they can contribute to media sustainability.”

Commenting on the blocking of news Hija Kamran, the lead of digital rights advocacy at MMFD says, “Platforms like Facebook play a significant role in countering misinformation which has proven to be a crucial challenge across the world. With Facebook’s decision to take down news content in and from Australia, it has overlooked the fact that the platform remains one of the main sources of misinformation of all kinds.” Hija adds that while Facebook has decided to take down news content, an alternate strategy needs to be devised by the social media giant to counter the increasing spread of false information on its platforms. “While credible news content cannot be accessed or shared on the platform, misleading information which is often in the form of text, memes, images, and have led to real life consequences across the world will continue to flourish. Not to mention, the healthcare related misinformation that we saw during COVID-19 spread on Facebook is still a very real challenge. It’s important that Facebook answers what it intends to do to curb this.”

Expressing concerns over the potential impact of Facebook’s decision to block news in Australia in relation to misinformation, Asad said, “Already in Pakistan, Facebook is seen as the largest contributor to the spread of misinformation. However, some of the misinformation, which is mostly shared in groups, and through non-conventional mediums such as memes, is countered by the presence of authentic news pages on the platform. In the absence of these pages, the impact of reach of such content could grow manifold”.

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