Why has Facebook banned news and what does it mean for you?

There’s something missing in your news feed: news. What’s going on? Why is Facebook in a stand-off with media companies (and the Australian government)?

It’s big news but you probably didn’t read about it on Facebook. The social media giant has followed through on its threat to ban all Australian media content both here and internationally as it rails against the federal government’s new plan to make Google and Facebook pay for news.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, just after the proposed media bargaining code passed the lower house, Facebook hit the nuclear option – news links could no longer be shared and publishers could no longer post from their Facebook pages.

There have already been some strange effects. Along with banning traditional media outlets such as the ABC, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, scores of government agencies have been affected, including health departments, fire and rescue and the Bureau of Meteorology. Even scientific journals and satirical news sites such as the Betoota Advocate felt the sting. Fake news and conspiracy sites, meanwhile, still appear free to post.

Of course, as Facebook scrambles to iron out kinks in the new algorithm, loopholes are emerging too. The ABC news messenger bot continues to toil away behind enemy lines and so far the ban seems to be no match for the true rulers of the internet: cats. As of Thursday afternoon, you could still post a news link if it was accompanied by a photo of a cat.

While the federal government was caught off-guard by the ban itself, it vows it won’t back down on the code. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says he will continue discussions with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg but rejected the company’s claim it “had no choice” but to go through with the ban in the face of an unworkable law.

So why has Facebook banned news in the middle of a pandemic? Will misinformation, conspiracy theories (and cat photos) fill the void – and what will that do to Australia? Or will Facebook back down and reverse its ban?

Artwork: Steven KiprillisCredit:

What exactly is banned?

If you’re a news junkie, prepare to see a lot more of your friend’s pets and brunches from now on. Media outlet pages, big and small, still exist but all their posts have vanished. Most news links cannot be shared, even in groups. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has personally spoken to the manager of his local “North Shore Mums” Facebook page, and it’s down, too.

Also on the list of un-newsy accounts affected is Small Steps for Hannah, a charity set up to help stop domestic violence in the wake of the horrific murders of Queensland woman Hannah Clarke and her three children – the first anniversary of the crime is on Friday, February 19.

Even Facebook’s own official page on the platform could not post on Thursday morning.

University of Sydney vaccine expert Professor Julie Leask said the timing of Facebook’s mass blocking “couldn’t be worse” – just three days out from the start of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

Facebook has said it will restore pages inadvertently caught up in the blackout, including those of hospitals and health departments, and some are already regaining the ability to post. But health experts say banning news is itself dangerous at such a critical time and the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has called for its immediate reversal.

Apart from posting unrelated photos, tech experts say getting around the ban isn’t as simple as using a virtual private network (VPN) set to another country as the ban applies globally to all Australian news. Even New Yorkers can’t see our explainers.

Facebook media pages such as The Sydney Morning Herald’s have been blocked from posting and news links can no longer be shared on the platform.Credit:Credit: Wolter Peeters

So why has Facebook blocked news?

Facebook is already sometimes dismissed as a den of misinformation, strident opinions (and cat photos) but at least a third of Australians get their news from the site, too.

Facing criticism about the spread of conspiracy theories and extremism on the platform, in recent years Facebook has vowed to do more to combat fake news as well as to support media outlets, from which both it and Google have now carved off the lion’s share of the advertising market. (For every $100 spent on advertising in 2019, $53 went to Google, $28 to Facebook and just $19 to all other websites and ad tech.)

Enter Australia’s new media bargaining code.

The plan, which is expected to become law in the coming days, is proposed as a buckstop to “even the playing field” amid the market monopoly of Google and Facebook and to protect public interest journalism. If the social media companies cannot reach a fair deal to pay media outlets for their content, they will be forced to go to arbitration.

Media companies say their content helps Google and Facebook make money by offering the reliable, fact-checked information users are looking for. The tech giants say the internet should stay free and that publishers benefit from the click-throughs from their sites. And, with the rest of the world watching Australia’s code closely, both companies fear it could trigger copycat regulation forcing them to pay for news all around the globe.

Google made its own big threat earlier this year when it flagged it might turn off search for Australian audiences entirely. But it has since begun signing multi-million-dollar annual content deals with the big media companies, (including Nine, which owns The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald) to be spent in newsrooms. Google had already reached deals with smaller companies such as The Saturday Paper and Australian Community Media, which owns The Canberra Times and a suite of regional mastheads.

Facebook argues that while Google is “inextricably entwined with news” and picks up articles without permission to improve its search results, publishers actively post content to Facebook by choice to grow their own audiences. They get more out of it than Facebook. Catching up on news is, it says, just a small part of what people do on its platform. Announcing the ban on Thursday, Facebook Australia’s managing director, William Easton, acknowledged that the government had already made some amendments to make the code more palatable to the tech giants but said it still “fails to understand how our services work”.

“This legislation sets a precedent where the government decides who enters into these news content agreements and, ultimately, how much the party that already receives value from the free service gets paid.”

While he also stressed that Facebook remained committed to combating misinformation, particularly during the pandemic, AFP fact-checkers working with the platform have reported their own articles have been blocked, too, in the blackout. Fact-checking still appears on posts flagged by the site as misinformation but users can no longer post a link to refute it themselves.

Frydenberg, who has hailed the media bargaining code as a historic step to keep Australia’s media ecosystem sustainable, slammed the Facebook news ban on Thursday: “Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary. They were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” he said. “We certainly weren’t given any notice by Facebook.”

Is Facebook allowed to ban news? What about free speech?

As a private company, Facebook is entitled to curate the content on its platforms. The government cannot force it to overturn the news blackout, and users can really only complain or leave.

But the move has revealed more about the company’s capacity to monitor content than it perhaps would like. In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shooting and other acts of extremist violence, Facebook has claimed it is too difficult to entirely remove conspiracy theories and the extremist content which helps radicalise users.

Even with the glitches in the new ban, flicking the switch to kick out journalism does not appear to have caused it anywhere near as much trouble.

Is the end nigh for democracy in Australia?

Not exactly. You can still get news online by visiting news sites directly or on Twitter, Google and other platforms.

But experts do fear that misinformation and conspiracies will now run unchecked on Facebook, where extreme views are often already amplified by the site’s algorithms.

Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, says the Facebook news ban is “destroying its social licence to operate” and it may be time for people to rethink their presence on the platform. He cited the company’s previous privacy scandals (such as Cambridge Analytica) and broader resistance to regulation.

“Without fact-based news to anchor it, Facebook will become little more than cute cats and conspiracy theories,” he said. “At a time when the importance of facts in dealing with a global health crisis are critical, Facebook’s decision is arrogant, reckless and dangerous … It has honed advertising models that excite, enrage and divide its users and fails to recognise the benefits of anchoring its network in ethically curated news content.”

Minister Fletcher agrees that the news ban will further expose Facebook to misinformation contagion, but has said the reality of what it means for the company’s reputation may prompt a rethink.

“What they’re effectively saying to Australians is, ‘you will not find content on our platform which comes from an organisation which employs professional journalists, which has editorial policies, which has fact-checking processes’,” he told the ABC on Thursday. “I would imagine that, on quite sober reflection, they will start to become quite troubled about what that would mean for how their platform is perceived.”

Some have argued that the ban might eventually work in favour of journalism, offering a kind of digital dividing line between fake news and sourced, vetted reporting.

But others despair at what it will mean for local news and smaller publishers, already hit hard by the COVID recession and more reliant on Facebook for readers than the big companies now inking deals with Google.

“Those who shrug and say, ‘just go elsewhere’ overlook that Facebook has spent years positioning itself as an indispensable part of life and source of information,” argues Samantha Floreani of Digital Rights Watch. But she isn’t a fan of the new code, especially now it appears to have backfired on consumers. Funding journalism directly and making big tech pay more tax would be a better plan than forcing companies and media into the negotiating room, she says.

Allan Fels, former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has also said the government should not rely solely on Google and Facebook to fund journalism, but thinks correcting the power imbalance in the market is important. “The costs of producing public interest journalism are high, but it is integral to the functioning of any working democracy,” says Fels, who chairs the Public Interest Journalism Initiative.

But on Thursday he said the news ban did not come completely out of the blue. “It is not unusual for market participants to threaten withdrawal or restriction of services in the face of market regulation. However, we urge Facebook to be cautious [and] to sit at the table and negotiate in good faith, as Google appears to be doing.”

A former chief executive of Facebook Australia, Stephen Scheeler, has also lashed the ban, saying Australians should be outraged by the company’s “shameless” strategic gamble, using “the vandalisation of 13 million citizens’ news feeds as a bargaining chip” against regulation.

“By taking an aggressive hard line with a middle power, such as Australia, [it’s betting that] a powerful message will be sent to the rest of the world to back off on regulation … but governments don’t like being bullied.”

Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the “bullying” of Facebook and its decision to “unfriend Australia” only shows that “Big Tech” companies are increasingly operating as if “they are bigger than governments and the rules don’t apply to them”.

“They may be changing the world but that doesn’t mean they should run it,” he said on Thursday afternoon. “I am in regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues. We simply won’t be intimidated, just as we weren’t when Amazon threatened to leave the country [over GST rules].”

Whether the ban ends up being temporary chest-beating, a permanent fixture in Australia’s digital landscape or the catalyst, as Scheeler hopes, for genuine reform, is unclear.

Right now for some, there’s another more pressing concern – what if our parents suddenly follow us over to Twitter or TikTok?

with Rachel Clun, Zoe Samios and Lisa Visentin

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