Facebook ‘Unfriends’ Australian News

 An interview with Brooke Myler and the following talent:

Dr James Meese,  Associate Professor Dan Angus (The ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society) and Dr Belinda Barnet (Swinburne University of Technology)

Brooke: Welcome to the Automated Decision-Making and Society podcast, my name is Brooke Myler and today we are discussing the Facebook news ban and regulation. Joining me in this episode is Professor Dan Angus and Dr James Meese from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, and Doctor Belinda Barnet a senior lecturer in media and communications at Swinburne University of Technology.

Introduction: Whether we like it or not, Facebook dominates the social media industry and has more than 2 billion global users.

In Australia an estimated 11.4 million people use Facebook to share photos, see global events and catch up on the news.

After Australia’s attempts to regulate news content on Facebook, the social media giant’s reaction was to ban content completely. On the 18th of February 2021 Facebook ‘unfriended’ Australia and banned all news outlets from sharing stories and content on the platform. The ban lasted 8 days with Facebook reinstating news at 1 AM Australian Eastern Standard Time on the 26th of February, 2021. During the news ban, Facebook gave attention to biased platforms including a far-right news page discussing anti-vaccinators and conspiracy theories, which managed to avoid the ban completely.

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society have been looking into the ban to consider the impacts it had on Australian news and media.

Professor Dan Angus

Brooke: We now welcome Professor Dan Angus who is an associate investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. Dan, can you tell us about your research background?

Dan: Sure thing, so I’m a computer scientist who’s drifted slowly into humanities and social science during my career. I now lead a program called computational communication and culture. Within that we explore all those kinds of questions around both computational methods that could be used to study social systems, but also look at the impact I guess of technology, on society and so bringing understanding I guess that bridges across both the very technical like how algorithms work, and their kind of role and function, together with their impacts and the ways they shaped society and we of course as society shape those technologies in return.

Brooke: So, what effects did the Facebook news ban have on news and the spread of misinformation?

Dan: It was really interesting; I remember waking up to the news that Facebook had bad news because my phone was going off the hook. And, I did possibly my best ever record of the number of radio interviews kind of back-to-back with six right there before I’d even actually step foot outside of my bedroom, between the hours of around 5 am to 7 am. What was interesting then in the kind of times between those interviews looking myself they were very rapid. It was basically someone had hit the big red button at Facebook and all these pages were just dead so the first thing I did was I remember grabbing some devices at home, I had an iPad, I had a laptop kind of simultaneously scouring around at various new sites of other government sites and trying to figure out what was affected by this and those pages were showing quite simply a almost like a blank page like all the content had been removed there was no post was a bit eerie actually it’s like walking into like an empty shopping mall with all the shops shuttered and kind of sitting there with empty code hangers kind of flapping in the breeze that these facebook pages had just been demolished and so you know looking at that it was it was quite odd to be honest and I think for Australian consumers of Facebook they would have found it quite a weird thing to wake up to.

Early on I noticed it wasn’t just news sites that have been taken down because the specter had been there we’ve been following this similar threats from Google as well and you know Facebook kind of I guess blinked 1st and yeah not knowing that in doing that they would also remove content from a lot of other Facebook pages so legitimate government organizations politicians local councillors so it was a bit weird actually what disappeared in that in that critical moment.


Brooke: So, what is Facebook doing if anything to curb the spread of misinformation through their platform?

Yeah so this is really interesting for me we do a lot of this research here and DMRC and particularly extending into the center of excellence so with colleagues like Dr Timothy Graham and Professor Axel Bruns and others look at that I guess the spread of misinformation across social media platforms you know things like Twitter Facebook and others and trying to figure out the I guess the dynamics at well particularly interested in what impact might that have on the spread of missile this information and so I mentioned there were not kind of you know in that moment have been waking up on the day of the of the ban that you know one of the things I went to look for word some of those prominent sites like the ones that I knew were the main offenders when it came to spreading some of that mis this information and it’s interesting a few of them had been kind of banned similar to what you considered legitimate news organizations as well then I started looking at the politicians and there are particular politicians in Australia that are very well known for spreading certain kinds of mis and disinformation.

One in particular who has had their Facebook account banned looking there and noticing it was still up it was still posting there was still material there were still a history of materials and then contrasting that against other politicians who actually had had their pages banned and removed and the one that stuck out that stood out to me was WA there was the election happening there the state election and I got a tip that it was the leader of the opposition party there the kind of leader eventually took what out in the election it was an absolute landslide for labor but that opposition leader had had their Facebook page removed and that was really interesting there so kind of like a new rivalries and to who was having their page removed.

So it wasn’t like you know you’re a politician it was auto ban or you were left alone some were left and some others weren’t, but it was disturbing to see that who I consider to be one of Australia’s worst peddlers of mis and disinformation particularly throughout COVID peddling quack kind of serums and facts you know a lot of really really bad misinformation out there was still left alone during that and that’s a real concern.

When you create a vacuum of where there’s no news content and replace that with an amplification in ways of these other accounts and I guess there’s a greater concern there as well that it almost legitimised it in some ways. I mean we some of us looked at that and said well it’s clear it’s not news then right that you know the ones that were left alone we’ve been saying aren’t actually factual and here is the proof they’re not news.

But I don’t think you’re kind of member of the general public would have necessarily read it in that same way. They would just see it there and go well you know thank God these others these fake news sites are gone using fake news obviously very pejorative of kind of sensors that might have already been weaponised by some on the right you know it’s good to see them gone and now we just have you know that kind of scare quotes the truth left behind so yeah that was that was really interesting from a mis disinformation researcher perspective.

Brooke: So according to the University of Canberra’s digital news report an estimated 39% of people in Australia use Facebook as a source of general news and 49% are using it for news about COVID so when news left Facebook Dan where did people access their news?

Dan: This is a really interesting thing I mean I think in that moment where it where the red button was hit people would have kind of been left wondering alright where to now it’s interesting I mean the other platforms like your Twitters and others were left untouched so you know people who are already using those sites would have just I guess you know maybe spend a bit more time on those platforms or just encountered less news on Facebook. I noted that a few news organizations pushed really hard their own apps. The ABC in particular here are pushed there then use reading apps really really, strongly so I noticed journalists from that organisation and also the official channels really going on a hard drive to get kind of people to take up that app as a separate instance. I mean things like apple news were left untouched and other kinds of ways of people reach digital news for left untouched. So you know some of the initial evidence from ’cause we track this activity and we can see some of the details of the prevalence of news links on platforms like Facebook.

What we can’t see though is to kind of reach into through people’s devices to see where alternative like alternatively they left so we can see that yes you know Facebook there was a lower volume of news links being shared but we don’t then have the additional information of where they might have gone. In a lot of cases from the literature I know of I would say that people possibly didn’t replace it you know that Facebook offers I guess is kind of real contact point for people who aren’t necessarily seeking news content that come in contact with it almost accidentally because they’re on the platform looking at insights from their local community, their friends and others and just happen upon news when it occurs on the platform. So I happen to think that maybe people didn’t necessarily go out to actively replace their news consumption.

Brooke: So what did we learn from the Facebook news ban?

Dan: Look I mean it’s I think we learned well we saw a confirmation that Facebook are aggressive in their tactics towards protecting the status quo that they want to avoid regulation at all costs that they’re willing to shut off access to reliable information at a whim. I mean the Bureau of meteorology got shut out of Facebook at a time when there were there was a need to get information out to public there were natural kind of disasters occurring in Australia. At the very time when Facebook shut access to those pages. I think if anything the lesson we can take from this is that many organisations Government organisations, broadcasters and others have relied on Facebook as a clearinghouse for their information for their content and that there’s become a bit of an over reliance on that. That yes alright, probably everyone needs to have a Facebook page because that’s where everyone kind of happens to be.

But you shouldn’t necessarily put all your eggs into that basket and use that as the only way and think of that is the only way to reach an audience. In fact, you know there are many other ways in which we can get information out to publics and that yeah Facebook are willing to play rough and to shut out access to essential, very critical information to Australian users of the platform. So, I’d say the thing we learnt is that Facebook is not to be trusted with important information.

Brooke: Thank you for joining me today Dan.

Dan: That’s fine anytime.

Brooke: I am joined by Dr James Meese, an associate investigator for the ARC of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, he’s based at RMIT University. James, can you tell us about your research background?

James: Hi Brooke, I research media and telecommunications policy so this covers a range of things from 5G to copyright, I’m also an ARC DECRA fellow so this means I’ve got time to conduct a bigger project, which is looking at the algorithmic distribution of news in Australia. So, part of that project focuses on policy responses that have been introduced to manage the issue of algorithmic distribution, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the news media bargaining code.

Brooke: What is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, otherwise known as the ACCC,’s news media bargaining code and why did the Government decide we need this code?

James: So the code essentially forces certain platforms to pay specific news media outlets, if they use their content, so if the platforms use news on their services. So, it’s probably important to at this point to explain who the ACCC are. They’re a statutory body, that overseas and enforces Australian competition and consumer protection law and they simply devised the reform after a long inquiry, where they established that Google and Facebook held market powers, they were the dominant market actors, in a range of markets and some of these markets impacted on news media outlets. So, they suggested this code the Government liked the idea and followed up on it. So, the definition of news service in the code is quite broad so the code aims to address the vast majority of outlets that produced what we might call public interest news in Australia, but you know it’s not every platform that’s being asked to pay for news only Google and Facebook had been specifically targeted by the code, but currently they are not subject to the code directly. So, as Facebook would say “it’s complicated” but it might have been made clear by government that they’re going to face a significant regulatory burden, if they don’t give money to news outlets so both Google and Facebook have started doing that.

Brooke: So, do you think the journalism crisis led to the ACCC news media bargaining code?

James: I mean in a way yes, so the new sector had most notably but not exclusively, Rupert Murdoch has been arguing that platforms should pay for news content that they use on their services for some time. So, since you know the mid 2000’s they have been saying “you use our news, you should give us money for that”. The agency in this inquiry was also specifically directed to examine the relationship between news media and digital platforms. So, you know while they expanded their remit they’ve explored a range of issues in its inquiry from the digital advertising supply chain to privacy, they’ve always focused on the journalism crisis and that’s been the front of mind. I think for the government as well the code offers a neat solution to the journalism crisis so we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, there’s not much money floating around and there’s always concerns about government funding of what’s supposed to be independent media. So, I think from the government’s point of view getting platforms to boost the revenues of media companies was the logical solution for them.

Brooke: Was this about competition for advertising?

James: Yes, but also no, so it’s clear that news and media haven’t really been successful in encouraging advertisers to buy online add-space across their properties so in that sense, they kind of feel they’re in competition with Google and Facebook who not only have more online advertising and you know more advertisers want to advertise on their properties, but they also control being quite an advertising supply chain rather significant proportion of it in certain social. But once we start talking about control of supply train, we’re really talking about competition issues which the agency you know is exploring, but they’re not addressed directly by the code as it stands. Instead, the ACCC tries to argue that there’s a different kind of power relationship emerging, they’re trying to say that news organizations are essentially dependent on Google and Facebook for referral traffic, that more and more Australians accessing news from search and through social and because Google and Facebook lead to dominant players here they need to pay their fair share.

Brooke: So, what is the relationship between news outlets and Facebook. Don’t they need each other in sense?

James: I mean this is what’s the really fascinating thing because they have the app, the ACCC inquiry and as I just explained previously, their code is kind of based on this premise that news outlets need platforms and that creates an unequal bargaining relationship, you know they can’t bargain fairly with platforms. But you know it’s not always that clear cut, I mean I think at one point particularly in the mid 2010s news organisations on Facebook were joined at the hip, news outlets were getting traffic from Facebook and Facebook encouraged this as well, right, they wanted quality content on their platform. But this relationship has calmed down now, Facebook has repeatedly said their less interested in news and the work. We’ve done in researching interviewing people etc. you know news organizations are no longer putting all their eggs in the Facebook basket, if indeed they ever did.

Brooke: So, you kind of mentioned this previously a little bit, but how much do news outlets depend on Facebook to distribute news?

James: Well, it’s funny because even in the crazy times of the mid 2010s, it’s not as much as you might think. I think it’s important to recognize that for a certain category of news organisations, so Buzzfeed or an Australian Buzzfeed equivalent like Junkie, Facebook has been a critical partner particularly in those move twenty 10s to get traffic to site. But you know this is partly because these outlets also target younger readers, for other outlets even the crazy 2010’s period, Facebook as being more moderate in terms of getting traffic to their sites because older people are comfortable accessing news in a variety of different ways. More recently as I kind of mentioned traffic from Facebook has dropped dramatically across the board, so now really for every news organisation of Google is the more valuable partner, even these newer social websites they’re focusing more on Google and even Instagram, as they as they started trace younger audiences.

Brooke: So, what is the role of social media platform sites such as Facebook, in bringing audiences to news media organisations?

James: It’s an important part of that but it’s not a critical component of audience delivery at least in my view, you know once you dive into specific genres things get more complicated. The Australian, for example, doesn’t rely heavily on social media, but BuzzFeed, Junkie there more socially oriented. I think the real issue here is there a more long-term concerns, so as younger generations Gen Y, Gen Z age they familiar with digital platforms with accessing news through social so social distribution, might become more important in the future more important than it is now.

Brooke: So why did Facebook react so dramatically to Australia’s attempts at regulation of news content?

James: I think there are two reasons. I think partially if I’m being generous and kind of understand this perspective, as I’ve kind of talked about their trying to move away from news after a kind of disastrous engagement sector in the mid 2010s. This means they no longer central to the news ecosystem as in some cases they were. So, their complaints in my mind that they’re saying “well we don’t even serve that much news” and you know sure we are important but I’ll be critical. They didn’t agree with the ACCC’S analysis and I’ve got some sympathy for them there, but where things get a bit more I guess complicated, is you know platforms have never liked being regulated and you know, so it’s very common particularly in smaller jurisdictions that are in the United States with European Union for platforms just play hardball. And I think you know that the more obvious key reason Facebook kind of reacted so dramatically was because they thought their best chance of getting a positive outcome in Australia was to basically engage in a high stakes and very last-minute negotiation.

Brooke: Will payment to news companies make them dependent on platforms?

James: I mean in a sense yes. I mean if platform companies are paying news outlets, they start to become financially reliant on the ongoing success of these digital platforms. Now these are big sums to the platforms but they are decent sums for Australian media businesses. Obviously, the numbers are commercial in confidence, but some of the numbers that have been flying around 30 million 45 million dollars, it’s not you know the majority of revenue for large news companies but it’s not nothing either. It has, for example, I guess what this means you know is that these outlets also can’t leave these platforms. Like Facebook doesn’t have to pay for news that doesn’t appear in their platforms right, a few outlets stuff in New Zealand most famously, but also a very popular Brazilian newspaper, have left Facebook and done quite well and pivoted away from Facebook. But you know Australian companies might not be able to do that because a significant portion of their revenue is tied to payments for the use of their content on digital platforms.

Brooke: So, what are the issues around Facebook news distribution and the future of journalism?

James: I mean that’s a big question, but the big question generally is how much money is out there in the economy, generally speaking to pay for news talking about individual budgets, government funding, as well in philanthropy as well. We’re in a challenging economic environment post COVID, corporate budgets are stretched, personal budgets stretched, most news companies are focused on reader payments. So, most news companies now have a subscription model and they’re trying to maximize that. But the question is we don’t know whether you know the Australian public at large have enough economic, I guess, capital to support a diverse range of news outlets, to ensure a sustainable media ecosystem. So, in terms of platforms themselves, they’re starting to slowly support this turn towards subscription and introduce sort of, you know, user flows throughout their kind of systems to allow people who you know read something published by the Australian or the Syndey Morning Herald to potentially subscribe but of course this naturally pushes against their wish for easily accessible content.

Brooke: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today James.

James: No worries.


Brooke: From the Swinburne University of Technology, Dr Belinda Barnet is a researcher and senior lecturer for media and communications.

Brooke: So Belinda, what changes were made to the legislation that ended the Facebook news ban?

I think the changes that were made were not designating the platforms that’s one of the most important things that Facebook wanted and that they ended up getting. And that essentially means that the legislation doesn’t have a pointy end anymore. It’s not actually directed at anyone platform or product so although the two companies are behaving in large part as though they still had to make deals there’s really no legislation that enforceable against them at the moment and that’s what they wanted. So the news ban ended I think when Facebook realised that they wouldn’t be named in the legislation yet.

Brooke: So you kind of just touched on this a little bit but since the legislation was passed how are the platforms now responding differently?

Belinda: I think that well from what I’ve read and heard Google is making some fairly lucrative deals with media organisations and not just the major outlets Murdoch News Limited and Nine and Seven West for example. They are also making deals with independent and rural and regional outlets so they seem to have come to the table and they seem to be taking seriously this idea that they need to work with news outlets in the country.

Facebook on the other hand did initially come out with some deals with the major outlets news and seven western 9. But they have been freezing out smaller publishers and they have really offered not terribly lucrative deals to independent outlets. So they’ve approached the negotiations in a different way not taking it as seriously perhaps and I’m not sure what the reason is.

Brooke: So what exactly do this deals between Seven West and Nine, and News Corp really involve?

Well, they involve payment for news content. So, to be displayed in Google News showcase so if we talk about the Google deals which were quite lucrative for major media organisations as well. it’s payment for news content to appear in news showcase which is a separate product from Google search which is another thing that Google wanted and have got.

Brooke: So you’ve just mentioned that Google created a separate platform called Google Showcase. Why did they do this?

Belinda: So, when governments around the world particularly Spain and France first started suggesting that the platforms might have to pay for news content in their main product that being you know the Facebook newsfeed and also Google search results. The companies had a bit of a conniption and they came up with what you might call an insurance plan, which is to build separate products from their main product. That are kind of insulated or quarantined so that the legislation could impact those new products rather than their main one.

So, Google came up with the Google News showcase which it’s been using around the world for governments that want Google to pay for news content and Facebook came up with this new tab Facebook news which is separate from the main news feed.

Brooke: So, Belinda will news publications look elsewhere to publish their news other than Facebook?

Well it’s difficult because at the moment news outlets are reliant to a certain extent on Facebook and that was partly why the ACCC came in with this legislation. They’re an unavoidable business partner. So there’s not a lot that the outlets can do without Facebook actually being named in the code.

Brooke: So is there anything researchers can do to address these issues?

I would like us to call for the deals that are being made to be put in public so that we can understand what the terms are and how fair they are and how they are different between media outlets because there’s no transparency right now. It would be interesting to try and work out why Google and Facebook are behaving differently so I haven’t researched it and it’s an interesting question that perhaps we could investigate.


Brooke: Belinda, thank you very much for talking with me today.


Brooke: It’s actually quite worrisome to know that a platform such as Facebook has so much power with our news. We all need to be more mindful about social media giants and how they can skew our news to influence their own beliefs. I would like to thank Professor Dan Angus, Dr James Meese and Dr Belinda Barnet for speaking with me today.

End: You’ve been listening to a podcast from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. For more information on the Centre go to www.admscentre.org.au