Facebook’s stunning decision to turn off news in Australia has highlighted a long-troubled role for the US tech giant which stumbled into the news business and has grown into one of its most powerful forces.
The announcement by Facebook, defying the government’s efforts to impose a payment scheme for media featured on the platform, raises fresh questions about the future of the platform used by some two billion people and its relationship with the news media.
Analysts pointed out that Facebook, even though it was not created as a news organisation, has become a critical source of information for many people around the world, especially younger internet users, with traditional media on the decline.
“This is a very stark reminder of the power of Facebook,” said Kjerstin Thorson, a Michigan State University professor specialising in social media.
“The idea that with a flick of a switch you could shut down a civic infrastructure – that’s a wake-up call.”
In response, British politicians have labelled the move an attempt to bully democracy and could encourage other governments to get tough with tech giants.
“This action – this bully boy action – that they’ve undertaken in Australia will, I think, ignite a desire to go further amongst legislators around the world,” said Julian Knight, chair of the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
“We represent people and I’m sorry but you can’t run bulldozer over that – and if Facebook thinks it’ll do that it will face the same long-term ire as the likes of big oil and tobacco.”
Professor Thorson noted that Facebook’s action may deprive users of “high quality information” but “doesn’t remove people’s desire to know what’s happening. That’s an opportunity for noxious information and rumours to circulate.”
Ken Paulson, a former USA Today chief editor who is now an academic at Middle Tennessee State University, said the social media giant risks eroding trust in global information if the blackout becomes widespread: “Facebook without real news would be a conspiracist’s fantasy.”
‘We don’t steal news’
Facebook made the announcement on Thursday as the government was putting the finishing touches on legislation that would force digital platforms to pay for news and links.
The measure “fails to recognise … the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of global news partnerships in a blog post.
“Contrary to what some have suggested, Facebook does not steal news content. Publishers choose to share their stories on Facebook. From finding new readers to getting new subscribers and driving revenue, news organisations wouldn’t use Facebook if it didn’t help their bottom lines.”
The California tech giant has been investing in news through its Facebook Journalism Project in a number of countries but has sought to avoid a mandatory scheme of paying for sharing links, saying it would set a bad precedent for the internet.
Still, the news media industry has seen its woes deepen as digital giants such as Facebook and Google dominate the market for online advertising in much of the world.
And the imbalance appears to have grown as news organisations struggle in an economy roiled by the global pandemic.
“Most news media don’t benefit appreciably from links in Facebook,” Mr Paulson said.
This underscores a need for a new system that would support news media whose information is critical to the long-term success of the digital giants, according to analysts.
Facebook’s move contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups in response to the Australian regulatory push.
Facebook maintains that news content makes up only four per cent of people’s feeds. But Professor Thorson said that despite the small percentage, “for many people Facebook is their main source of information,” making it a critical part of civic discourse.
“I don’t think this problem will be solved without some form of government regulation,” she said.
The standoff in Australia “is about the renegotiation of a relationship that has been strained for years,” said Chris Moos, a researcher and lecturer with Oxford University’s Said Business School.
While it appears that Facebook has the upper hand, Mr Moos maintains that the social media leader would lose its appeal if it moves away from professional news content.
“It would be impossible to imagine Facebook (and WhatsApp) to maintain cross-demographic popularity without media content of at least the big media organisations,” Mr Moos said.
“Media organisations and Facebook need each other. Both parties have every incentive to collaborate to come to agreements.”
Mr Paulson said it remains unclear whether Facebook would suffer from a disengagement with news, with Australia becoming a test case.
“If people only come to Facebook for social experiences and cat photos, it will face no economic pressure,” he said.