FOR SIX DAYS, AUSTRALIANS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO READ OR SHARE NEWS ON FACEBOOK
On Feb. 17, articles from Woroni, the Australian National University’s campus newspaper in Canberra, were removed from Facebook.
In response to the situation, Ben Rowley, Woroni’s managing editor, was shocked by Facebook’s restrictions. Additionally, he was equally shocked by how well they handled the disruption.
“Three weeks ago, if someone would have told me that Woroni’s posts were going to get wiped from Facebook, I would’ve freaked-out. And although it was a stressful day, we handled it quite well,” said Rowley.
Woroni was banned from Facebook along with all Australian news outlets from the 17 to 22 of Feb.
As a result, for six days, Australians could not read or share news on the social media platform.
The decision from the tech giant to ban news from its platform was in response to Australia’s News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code — a code which requires large technology companies like Facebook and Google to pay for news content shared on their platforms.
To remedy this dispute, on Feb. 23, Australia’s government created an amendment to the code that encourages news organizations and large media organizations to negotiate commercial agreements. This means that Facebook will pay certain Australian news outlets directly without government involvement.
However, news outlets can still request support from the Australian government if they cannot form an agreement with a media company on their own.
News outlets need facebook — Facebook does not need news outlets
Smaller news outlets like Woroni rely on Facebook, more than Facebook relies on them, to generate revenue.
In fact, according to Facebook, news content accounts for less than four per cent of user activity in Australia.
This statistic reveals that Facebook’s news blackout was bravado — a performance to show that it does not need Australia’s news media to survive.
Woroni’s editorial board was relieved to find out that the bargaining code became law on 24 Feb., and they were also relieved that the Facebook ban was over.
However, after not having access to the platform for days, the board did wonder if they relied too much on Facebook to distribute content.
“We quickly realized that [the news landscape is] adaptable and that there are many ways to get news out that does not involve Facebook,” Rowley said.
Also, Woroni’s news editor, Charlotte Ward explained “it was during the media blackout that [they] decided to launch a weekly newsletter.”
“We needed to find new ways to distribute our content because all of our information gets seen through Facebook. This is why we were badly hit during the blackout.”
Like Woroni, the University of Western Australia’s publication the Pelican, also relies on Facebook to share content.
Millie Muroi, co-editor in chief of the Pelican said, “Facebook is our biggest platform for sharing content and keeping in communication with our readers. So, for us, the ban was a bit of a hassle.”
In the wake of Facebook’s news blackout, Muroi’s team pushed more of their content on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Despite Pelican’s attempt to connect with their readership through different avenues, website traffic “was lower without access to Facebook,” said Muroi.
“This shows us the impact that banning Facebook can have on media outlets like ours.”
Even in Canada, small media outlets rely on Facebook to connect with readers.
For example, Carleton University’s student newspaper, the Charlatan, is a publication that relies on multiple social media platforms to promote articles and gain readership.
However, according to Editor-in-Chief Olivia Joerges, their primary platforms of use are Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — with the latter seeing the most action. They even hired a social media manager in attempts to promote their reach.
“As social media trends change, we have seen an uptake in our Instagram engagement from our readers so have tried to focus our attention to posting stories and reels in order to engage our growing audiences,” she said.
“With growing cognisance of video’s importance for audience engagement, we have also recently started a Tik Tok to try broadening our social media presence and outreach.”
For the Charlatan, Facebook comes in second.
“Our Instagram account reached 1,497 accounts in the last 30 days [and] 802 of those accounts interacted with our content. Our Facebook only had slightly more overall engagement from our audience with 2,099 post reaches and 1,010 post engagements,” said Joerges.
The Charlatan understands the importance of social media engagement, so they hope to “put more resources towards social media” and see a potential “uptake in digital engagement.”
Critiques of the media bargaining law
Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer at the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic in Ottawa, is a critic of Australia’s bargaining law.
“The Australian government argues that news content shared through the social media platform contributes to the financial profitability of companies like Facebook,” said Israel. As such, the government believes, “news organizations should have a right to share in that compensation.”
Even though Stephen Guilbeault, heritage minister of Canada, wants to develop a law that resembles Australia’s media bargaining code, in Israel’s opinion, “the bargaining code is not a viable long-term solution to save the news business.”
The danger of this sort of law is that the government chooses which sites are responsible for the distribution of news. This therefore “cuts-off opportunities for innovation which could create new and persistent funding streams for Canadian news,” said Israel.
Another critique of this law is that it might not benefit small news outlets in the same way that it benefits large news outlets.
Andy Yin, a science and technology columnist for Woroni, believes the bargaining code might not benefit small media companies.
The bargaining law will not help small outlets because, “it is set-up so that news companies can bargain with Google and Facebook, which means that a news outlet would need legal experts on hand to know how to open negotiations with these companies.”