By late Tuesday afternoon Sydney-time, Facebook had announced it would restore access to news on its platform in Australia. But logging on five days after its surprise ban, there was still no news. We cannot share it. We cannot see it.
It will return soon, we are told, but for now, when I log on to Facebook, this is what I see:
A friend from London has taken a picture of crocus blooming in a field. Someone in my neighborhood is selling an Ikea table and two chairs for $100. Someone else nearby is selling a baby carrier for $50. A flatmate from my university days went out with friends on the weekend and took a photo. My mother’s best friend likes a video about Gordon Ramsay’s pick-up lines. A man I met on holiday in Turkey wishes a friend he met in Lisbon a happy birthday. My local cafe has expanded its range of house-made lemonades. And my high school drama teacher has bought many, many pieces of bargain vintage furniture and homeware.
Facebook without news is different.
Last Thursday morning local time, amid a global pandemic and ahead of a state election, millions of Australians woke to find their Facebook feed so altered. The move, Facebook said, was one it made with a “heavy heart” ahead of the federal government putting its media bargaining code, which seeks to make Google and Facebook negotiate payment with news publishers in exchange for their content, for a vote in the upper house.
At the core of the Australian move is the argument that both news publishers and the platforms benefit from content being shared on Facebook and Google. But given that the tech giants are essentially gatekeepers of the internet, news publishers are unable to negotiate with them for what may be a fair price for their content. Australia argues this code redresses that imbalance.
Now the government has made some seemingly minor concessions to its law. News is coming back. But Facebook has made clear: It can, and may, take news away again.
As we first discovered our News Feeds void of news last week—with Facebook pages belonging to the likes of Guardian Australia emptied and featuring a gray, bold-type claim that there were “No posts yet”—there erupted a broad sense of disbelief and indignation. The tech giant had not only blocked news, but apparently unintentionally blocked numerous other information pages including the national Bureau of Meteorology which issues emergency weather warnings, government health departments, charities, and a state opposition leader’s Facebook page just weeks before an election. On Monday the still-blocked Australian Medical Association flipped to Twitter to plead “Hey @facebook—we’re not a media company, we’re doctors and this is a pandemic—how about restoring our content?”
My own feed became full of friends declaring that Facebook had instantly become boring and companies trying to sell me stuff, or as one friend in Melbourne put it: “a featureless wasteland, populated by boomer memes and dog photos.” I instantly began to regret nearly every Facebook group I had ever joined. And I have no idea why I ever voluntarily opted to like a company’s page.
And now, as Australians drown in dog photos and 30-second captioned made-for-social videos, news is to return to Australia. That’s good. But we know this isn’t over.
Australia likes to consider itself a nation that does not tolerate bullies. A nation for whom the words ‘fairness’ or ‘a fair go’ have the cultural and political power that ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ may have in the US. Australia is also keenly aware that all eyes are on it now, that it is a global test case. The Australian government will press ahead with this legislation. And even with this latest compromise, we could lose news again.
That threat hovers over us now, and the experience has left a sour taste. By unilaterally, without warning, suspending news Facebook demonstrated precisely the kind of monopolistic power that the Australian government has been seeking to check. Australian users and news companies know that Facebook could turn off the taps once more and for good, and that threat and this experience alone could fundamentally change the way they view and interact with the platform—even once news is restored.
Facebook has made its power felt on the smartphones and newsrooms of this country. With this turnaround, we will no longer get to find out whether news can survive without Facebook, and vice versa. That is, unless it happens again.
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