No news today: the impact of removing news media from Facebook

In a response to the proposed Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021 intending to force major social platforms to pay Australian news outlets to display their content, Facebook has today released updates to the algorithm that restrict access to both national and international news for Australian users.

The bold move has essentially prohibited the activity of all Australian media publications overnight, blocking Australians from sharing or viewing national and international news content via the platform, and forcing them to go elsewhere for information on current affairs in Australia, and abroad.

So, what does this mean for Australian businesses?

To put it into perspective, last year alone, Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion referrals to Australian publishers, worth an estimated AU$407 million — at absolutely no cost to the publications. If media organisations are not able to reach an agreement with the social media giant, the loss of this free exposure could become permanent.

But the new changes do not just pose problems for Australian news media outlets. In fact, the impact is far broader.

Who is impacted?

To understand the true impact of Facebook’s new restrictions, we must first understand what the changes mean for users of the platform.

Australian publishers — these users are restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook pages. However, admins will still be able to access other features from their Facebook Page, including Page insights and Creator Studio.

International publishers — these users can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts are unable to be viewed or shared by Australian audiences.

Australian users — individuals with an Australian profile cannot view or share Australian or international news content on Facebook, or content from Australian and international news pages.

What are the knock-on effects for Australian companies, and the general public?

‘Social listening’ to become increasingly important

As part of our digital offering, Rowland regularly conducts sentiment analysis across various subsections of the community. This ‘pulse-check’ reporting is likely to increase in value for Australian businesses through the current period of news media silence, to draw findings from a diverse array of online content outside of Facebook. Gone are the days when companies could browse the comments section of news posts to garner insights into how certain coverage is impacting their reputation.

The proliferation of ‘fake news’

Facebook’s decision to ban news media is likely to trigger the increased circulation of fake news and potentially harmful misinformation. Due to the bans, information posted to the platform will not come from media organisations with a fact-checking capacity, qualified journalists, or editorial policies — which could result in dangerous outcomes. Think: the 2017 genocide in Myanmar, allegedly incited on Facebook due to the spread of harmful hate speech and misinformation.

The decision begs the question: is this the beginning of damaging censorship in Australia?

Vital public service announcements to be caught in the crossfire

Many government and emergency services websites, which play an important community service role and are credible sources of information for the public, have also been caught in the crossfire of this ban. Social media has become an important tool for disseminating vital information to mass audiences quickly, to ensure the education and safety of Australians across the country. Organisations initially impacted by the new policy in Queensland included Queensland Health, the Bureau of Meteorology, RACQ LifeFlight and Energex, although some have now been or are in the process of being restored.

Salt in the wounds for struggling regional news outlets

With News Corp ceasing the print publication of more than 100 community and regional newspapers last year, it is safe to say some of these longstanding outlets are in dire straits. Coupled with the new ban on these publications generating website visits through Facebook, we may be facing a new wave of closures, with job losses part of the consequence.

A tough decision ahead

As it stands, Facebook is Australia’s third-highest trafficked site after Google and YouTube[1]. 66 per cent of Australians — or 16.5 million people — were active Facebook users in January 2021, a figure that remains steady on the previous month[2].

While Facebook is widely adopted in Australia, the brand has endured serious reputational speedbumps over recent years, from the Cambridge Analytica debacle, to alleged ‘fake news’ agendas. If Facebook is to remain a go-to site for Australians, a symbiotic relationship must be established where Facebook users see the value in the news content displayed in their news feeds.

And while it is likely the algorithm changes are a short-term strategy to influence changes to the proposed laws, it is also a possibility that long-term news restrictions may cause users to migrate to alternative social media platforms and Facebook will lose relevance within the Australian market.