Facebook spent time, money and PR capital mending fences with news media while its digital dominance grew. It’s just burned those fences down in the middle of the night by walking away from news in Australia. Already important public information is getting blocked as well - and the media world is watching.
Facebook cut itself off today as an avenue for Australian news today after years of building a pre-eminent position as a digital distributor.
Facebook no longer allows Australian publishers and news outlets to share or post any news content. Facebook users in Australia - including New Zealand expats - cannot view or share local or international news either.
International publishers can still post news but it can’t be shared or linked to by users across the Tasman.
Facebook made the announcement n a blog post with the innocuous title Changes to Sharing and Viewing News on Facebook in Australia while this part of the world was asleep.
There was no public announcement, no media conference where the news media affected by this could question it.
It echoed Mark Zuckerberg’s sudden declaration in 2017 that the news feeds algorithm would be tweaked to "make people happier" and news publishers’ reach and income took an immediate dive.
It was the tech giant’s unilateral response to the News Media Bargaining Code which will oblige digital platforms to pay for news they distribute.
Australia’s government had announced on Tuesday it would amend the Code to ensure Google and Facebook would make lump sum payments rather than paying ‘per-click’ and also give publishers notice of algorithm changes.
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” said Facebook’s Australia and New Zealand managing director Will Easton.
“It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter,” Easton wrote.
Already some consequences are clear.
The ABC reports posts pages of health authorities and the Bureau of Meteorology have disappeared, along with posts from satire sites like The Shovel and the notorious Betoota Advocate.
“Even Facebook's own Facebook page has removed content for Australians readers,” the ABC says.
A Channel 10 political reporter discovered states’ health departments had been cut off too.
South Australia’s health minister called on Facebook to "immediately reverse this decision."
"We will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted," Facebook responded - again in a written statement sent out electronically.
But it’s far from clear what Facebook actually considers to be ‘news’.
Just last month, Reuters reported both Google and Facebook gave Bundaberg Council “news provider status” even though its news website says it does not publish court and crime reports, politics, “investigative journalism” or “negative stories”.
While Facebook is withdrawing from Australian news - and withdrawing it from Australians - the big beast of ‘search’ is cutting deals with major news providers to get around the News Media Bargaining Code.
Partly prompted by Microsoft’s willingness to fill the void if Google disabled search in Australia, Google’s so-called ‘Showcase’ deals (Showcase is a Google news product launched in Australia this year) with the likes of News Corp and Seven West Media will pump millions of dollars into the companies creating Australian news.
Both Facebook and Google have had strained and complicated relationships with news media over the years - increasingly so as the share of digital advertising captured by the platforms grew at the expense of the media companies’ bottom lines.
But neither tech giant has ever wanted any responsibility for news beyond distributing it and helping media companies create it.
"To a publisher, Google and Facebook are incredibly important. But to Google and Facebook, all publishers altogether are pretty meaningless," the head of Harvard’s Nieman Media Lab Joshua Benton told Mediawatch in 2018.
He said news made up only about 4 percent of the content on users' news feeds.
"But they would like to be less hated by the media. They don't like being blamed for the downfall of civilisation.," he said.
To manage the complicated relationship with the news industry, Facebook hired former journalists in several regions and the Facebook News Project was set up in 2017.
Back in 2018, Facebook’s head of news partnerships for Australia and New Zealand Andrew Hunter told Mediawatch the company was committed to journalism in the region.
"News is incredibly important to the audience, to the ecosystem and to people on Facebook. Society needs a fully functioning Fourth estate,” Andrew Hunter told Mediawatch.
"Almost everyone at our news partnerships at Facebook is a journalist. We are committed to elevating the quality of news. We know this is what the industry wants and people on Facebook want from trusted sources," said Mr Hunter.
“Everyone is incredibly passionate about making news work on Facebook and making Facebook work for the news industry as well,” he said in 2018.
Just last month, Andrew Hunter was hailing the success of “industry partners” in growing revenue and audiences against the odds in 2020 - the year of Covid-19.
So why spend time, money and PR capital mending fences with the news media - only burn them down in the middle of the night three years later?
Mediawatch called Andrew Hunter for comment - and wrote to him.
He advised by email that our request had been “forwarded to the Facebook press team”.
The team hasn’t been in touch.
In 2019, New Zealand’s biggest news publisher Stuff quit advertising on Facebook because of its role in livestreaming the Christchurch mosque atroocity and “the amplification of hateful extremism.”
It also paused posting on Facebook and Instagram in July.
“We’re still treating it as an ongoing experiment,” chief editor Patrick Crewdson told readers on Thursday.
Facebook’s move in early hours of the morning made their experimental move seem sound.
Others offshore may walk away from the outlet that’s just walked away from news in Australia.
“Facebook does not fundamentally care about or respect journalism,” Emily Bell, director at the Columbia Journalism School in the US said today.
“It is an advertising company which has spent a significant amount of money lobbying the news industry and working on avoiding external regulation where it curtails revenue or profits,” she said.
It remains to be seen if other governments are willing to prompt Facebook to make the same choice it made in Australia by obliging them to pay for news others create - but they monetise.