Overnight, Facebook has flicked the off switch on all news organisations on its platform in Australia. News organisations’ Facebook pages and status updates are unavailable, they cannot share their journalism with readers on the social media platform.
Facebook has withdrawn news from its Australian users after weeks of talks between it and the Australian Government about a proposed law which would oblige Facebook, and other social media giants, to pay commercial news organisations for their content.
The value of news content to attract users to social media platforms, and to keep readers on these platforms for longer, is substantial.
The Reuters Digital News Report 2020 reported: “In most countries, local newspapers and their websites remain the top source of news about a particular town or region, reaching four in ten (44%) weekly. But we find that Facebook and other social media groups are now used on average by around a third (31%) for local news and information, putting further pressure on companies and their business models.” (https://www.digitalnewsreport.org/survey/2020/overview-key-findings-2020/)
Facebook is a business, a trading company, and trades as it sees fit. It’s accountable only to its shareholders, and it operates its business to maximise profits for them. Facebook’s business is to sell advertising, targeted in response to users sharing their data.
Facebook’s cancelling of journalism on its platform in Australia will be framed by many as an act of suppression of information, and even the containment of freedom of speech and opinion. It is also a move by a giant advertising company to remove competition from smaller advertisers that have previously benefitted, to a degree, from its services.
That Facebook should remove journalism from its platform in Australia during a pandemic is also alarming.
Those Australians that turn to social media for their news will now see disinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccination programme go unchecked. News and information researched and written by journalists, whose job it is to ask questions and scrutinise, will have much less of a reach. The health and social impacts of Facebook’s ban on sharing news in Australia could be significant. An irresponsible move, if not a morally corrupt one, for a company that claims to be making the world a better place.
Today’s action by Facebook in Australia could backfire for its founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and its shareholders, in other regions of the globe.
In the USA, President Biden has previously expressed his dislike of Facebook and its founder.
Speaking to the New York Times in January 2020, Biden said: “I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/01/17/opinion/joe-biden-nytimes-interview.html#)
Facebook operates its business free from responsibility for the content shared on its platform, immunity granted to the tech giant by Section 230 of the USA’s Communications Decency Act 1996.
Section 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230)
Facebook has always enjoyed this immunity, denying it is a publisher whilst at the same time developing its algorithm to curate, if not take editorial control of, the content displayed to its readers.
President Biden has vowed to revoke or amend Section 230 to make social media platforms more responsible for the information they curate and share.
Facebook’s removal of news from its platform in Australia may be seen by President Biden as further evidence that the tech giant is indeed taking editorial decisions about what is, and is not, published on its platform.
If Biden has his way, today’s show of strength by Facebook in Australia, may lead to the weakening of its dominance over news sharing globally.