The Guardian Weekly

Thumbs down The blackout was a disaster of Facebook’s own making

- SOCIAL MEDIA POWER By Emily Bell

When Facebook removed vast swathes of Australian media from its platform overnight last Wednesday the social media company intended to shock the system of Australian government and media cronyism and send a strong message to regulators everywhere. Instead, Facebook managed to turn attention away from a flawed piece of legislatio­n and on to its own reckless, opaque power.

Even for a company that specialise­s in public relations disasters, this was quite an achievemen­t. Everyone from the head of the Australian Broadcasti­ng Corporatio­n to the organiser of the North Shore Mums page found their links and pages missing from Facebook. Campus newspaper reporters, half of the editors in the First Nations media network, public health officials preparing for the Covid vaccine deployment and weather services found their Facebook presence suddenly, without warning, wiped away.

A company that cannot reliably identify legitimate news sites or make a determinat­ion between a vital informatio­n service and the conspiracy-laden Epoch Times (which was also cut off ) should not be part of a country’s critical communicat­ions infrastruc­ture. Yet this is the Facebook paradox.

Facebook had not thought whether the week before Australia’s Covid vaccine deployment was appropriat­e timing for a news blackout. Facebook and Google

have, over the past three years, been sprinkling grants on journalism organisati­ons and newsrooms at the rate of $100m a year each, making them the largest philanthro­pists and supporters of journalism on the planet. The money is not a deep commitment to producing equity and integrity in news; it is a lobbying exercise, a hedge against regulation.

Facebook’s news blackout was a pushback against the Australian government’s mandatory news bargaining code which proposes a system for negotiated payments from platforms to publishers for links to news articles. Australian media policy is rarely a focal point of global interest but the bargaining code is being watched closely from Menlo Park to Manila. Australia is a test case for resisting the idea that the digital advertisin­g duopoly of Google and Facebook should set their own rules and policies for shaping the media landscape they dominate.

The code – now amended not to include Facebook if it can show it has paid enough media outlets for their content – has been criticised as badly drawn legislatio­n which undermines the workings of an open web, or a Faustian pact between Scott Morrison’s government and Rupert Murdoch, or both. Even those who want to see a transfer of wealth from big tech to underfunde­d journalism were unsure that this was the right way to do it.

While Facebook pulled the plug, Google managed to sidestep the idea of a “link tax” by delivering the government’s objective of lucrative deals with Australian media companies from News Corp down to small publishers.

Initial worries that the proposed system would prove inequitabl­e has been allayed somewhat by Google’s negotiatio­ns with publishers so far. Facebook’s behaviour underlines, however, that without a regulated solution, sudden market withdrawal can have an outsized impact on both smaller and public service outlets, who have not had the resources or incentives to build paywalled businesses away from social platforms.

The arbitrary though temporary vandalism perpetrate­d by Facebook raises the question of “What next?” Facebook seemed to quickly set about trying to restore the pages it had purged in error – including, rather comically, its own corporate page. The ABC and other news provider pages had been restored by last Thursday.

The untidy withdrawal from Australian news highlighte­d how vulnerable entire countries can be to dependency on unreliable and unregulate­d distributi­on networks. It was also a reminder that neither Google or Facebook are primarily motivated by supporting journalism at all costs, or by providing transparen­cy and accountabi­lity.

Government­s have arguably not paid nearly enough attention to producing alternativ­e digital solutions to giant centralise­d advertisin­g companies that provide an increasing number of communicat­ion services for their citizens. Facebook’s petulance inadverten­tly made a case in Australia for more regulation rather than less.

News organisati­ons need to develop alternativ­e platforms, and government­s need to provide more regulated certainty. Highly digital newsrooms that have resources and strong relationsh­ips with their audiences started moving away from Facebook a long time ago, and are less affected by its volatility. Smaller publishers, and those with communitie­s with low resources themselves, are more dependent. A withdrawal from Facebook could be a galvanisin­g moment.

The main problem with legislatio­n that seeks to fund a news industry directly from Facebook and Google is that it does not forge a clear path away from the duopoly entirely. Maybe the events of last week will help Australia and the countries watching its progress realise that the issue is not too much regulation, but too little.

Petulance has made the case in Australia for more regulation rather than less

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