The social media giant took the nuclear option yesterday – but the biggest victim in the Aussie news ban could well be Facebook itself.
As Australians adjust to a brave new world without news on Facebook, experts have started to analyse the long-term impact of the drastic move – and it doesn’t look good for the social media giant.
Facebook stunned Australians early on Thursday morning with the bombshell announcement that users would no longer be able to view or share news on the platform, with Australian content also hidden from international users.
The shock decision was made in retaliation to Australia’s proposed new Media Bargaining law, with the federal government pushing forward with a plan to force social media giants to pay for news content.
But according to Swinburne University of Technology media and communications lecturer Diana Bossio, while the news exodus would cause some “short-term negative impacts” for Australians, it might have shot itself in the foot in the process.
In a piece penned for The Conversationyesterday, Dr Bossio said local Facebook users would be inconvenienced by the lack of news, the fact that a slew of government and charity pages had also gone dark, and by a “short-term proliferation of misinformation as Facebook’s news feed will have a vacuum of professionally sourced and fact-checked news”, with smaller, independent news organisations most at risk by the exit.
But she said “the reputational damage from blocking important sites that serve Australia’s public interest overnight – and yet taking years to get on top of user privacy breaches and misinformation – undermines the legitimacy of the platform and its claimed civic intentions”.
“Facebook’s actions may send a message to the government, but they will also send one to their Australian users,” Dr Bossio wrote.
She added that Australians would simply look elsewhere for their news – but stressed that the change to people’s feeds “might be a deal-breaker” for some, and that “the reputational damage and publisher exodus will eventually damage its core business: digital advertising revenue”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by a string of other experts and politicians, with a defiant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg yesterday vowing the government would stick to its guns and make Facebook pay.
“Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” he said.
“Their decision to block Australians’ access to government sites – be they about support through the pandemic, mental health, emergency services, the Bureau of Meteorology – were completely unrelated to the media code which is yet to pass through the Senate.”
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher also lashed the “surprising decision” and said it was one that was “unlikely to be in the long term interest of their brand”.
Meanwhile, scores of experts and industry insiders have also come forward to slam Facebook’s decision.
Science and Technology Australia CEO Misha Schubert said the blocking of content from science organisations along with news sites denied access to essential health information.
“For Facebook to block access to the feeds of trusted science and health organisations in Australia during a pandemic and bushfire season is irresponsible and dangerous,” she said.
“At a time when the company is taking steps to tackle misinformation on its platform, it’s concerning it has chosen to silence some of this nation’s leading scientific voices.”
That concern was echoed by Chris Cooper, the executive director of Reset Australia, an initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy.
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“Facebook blocking news in the middle of a pandemic, when accurate information is a key plank of the public health response really tells you all you need know about how much Zuckerberg cares about Australian society and cohesion,” Mr Cooper said.
And Outbrain managing director APAC and growth markets Andrew Burke said it would ultimately hurt smaller organisations.
“Facebook’s decision to pull all Australian news is a massive blow to local publishers and for the free exchange of information and ideas in Australia,” he said.
“This will be especially hard for smaller publishers who rely on this platform for people to discover their content.”