Benalla Ensign

A marriage of convenienc­e

- Simon Ruppert

As I searched for my MySpace password I wondered how it all happened.

Facebook, the site that sadly sits on my open laptop more than most, had decided to remove all news content from Australia.

It is a big issue.

An issue for the Ensign ,of course. The majority of our website activity was, until Thursday, driven by Facebook links.

In an increasing­ly digital world the business model of our parent company, who operate several papers across Victoria and NSW, is to offset the attrition of newspaper sales by offering digital subscripti­ons.

With the projection that digital will continue long after physical newspapers are gone.

But how did Facebook becomes so instrument­al in the way media companies distribute digital content?

In 2016 I wrote a thesis at the University of South Australia on the way social media, specifical­ly Facebook, distribute­s news and the potential for people to confuse it with misinforma­tion.

In researchin­g that I distribute­d several questionna­ires asking how people access news on Facebook.

Without fail the answers that came back were unanimous.

“Who gets their news on Facebook?”

“Facebook is all memes and cat videos. You’d have to be stupid to get news from Facebook, etc”

That was less than five year’s ago, and that mindset has changed dramatical­ly.

People do get their news via Facebook, and many will only get their news via Facebook.

Many of those people will continue to do that, and will not differenti­ate between news that they were seeing and the ‘‘news’’ they are getting now.

Of course we also live in the era of ‘‘fake news’’, which is essentiall­y a tool people use to discredit news items that they don't agree with.

Many on Facebook will be pleased all the ‘‘fake news’’ will be gone.

Of course the irony in that is fake news is pretty much all that is left.

Conspiracy theory pages are fine, apparently.

I saw some people comment on Facebook, on Thursday, that this will drive more physical newspaper sales.

While I hope that's true, I'm not sure it is.

Luckily in regional Australia people still enjoy holding a newspaper in their hands.

But the people who enjoy scrolling through their phone on the bus, or their laptop with their morning coffee will still do that.

I think that person is unlikely to jump off the bus to grab a newspaper.

In the short term this is a bad thing for media companies, especially smaller, independen­t ones.

But is it a bad thing long term?

Thursday, as I scrolled through Facebook, it felt like the site used to feel.

No-one angrily arguing about Trump, or Greta, or anyone on either side of the so-called left/right divide. Little to no trolling.

All the bots that automatica­lly generate polarising statements when people comment on a political story were gone.

I saw memes. I saw GIFs. I saw family photos.

And isn’t that what Facebook used to be about?

Should the algorithms of an American company affect everyday life in Australia?

No-one could deny the effect it has on Australian politics. Particular­ly driving people further apart.

The site puts users in a filter bubble of like-minded opinions splattered with extreme posts from a minority on the other ideologica­l side.

It drives outrage, it drives division, and it cements little ideas into rusted on opinions.

Of course offline news does lead to echo chambers as people choose their preferred outlet.

The main difference between an echo chamber and an online filter bubble is that people choose to enter an echo chamber by the products they choose to expose themselves to.

A social media filter bubble is forced on users without their consent or knowledge.

So is Facebook a good propagator of news? Probably not.

Is it a nightmare for news outlets in Australia that it no longer hosts news items. Yes.

However, there is a chance that short-term issues become a good thing in the long run.

Maybe it's time for people to look up from their Facebook feed.

If they want to read The Ensign, for example, or any media outlet, they can go direct to a website. Many will migrate to Twitter.

Again, good in the shortterm for helping a media outlet reach an audience.

But what if Twitter blocks news next year?

So while most in the media hope the Facebook issues are resolved, if they are not, in the long run it may end up a good thing.

Time will tell.

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