News was never part of the Facebook plan, so they’ll happily prove it

Connecting Plots strategic director Tim Collier examines the role news plays, or used to play, in Facebook's grand strategy.

It’s probably not news to you at this point, but Facebook has blocked news from being shared on its platform. Why? I believe it’s simply to prove a point.

While the news ban came as a shock to many, others saw it coming. In September last year, Facebook threatened to remove news in Australia if the government was to pass the News Media Bargaining Code (which according to the government was meant to “address power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms” but really was a move to make Facebook pay publishers, some of which are billion dollar multinationals in their own right, for their news to sit on Facebook). Reviewing the history of how this code came to existence, who lobbied for it and who spoke in its favor before the Government committee might give you some sense of who this code is really servicing. Meanwhile, Facebook argues the Code doesn’t take into account the value publishers gain from sharing their content on the platform.

And now, the social media giant has made good on its threat before the code has even passed through the Senate, which is expected to be sometime next week following the legislation being passed through the House of Representatives on February 17. The changes affected publishers, Australians and the international community almost instantly, with Australia waking up to a very different Facebook news feed last Thursday.

There have been arguments since the threat from Facebook last year that this move is going to negatively change the way we use Facebook and consume news, especially the spread of misinformation and fake news. In the last few days, countless articles have been published slamming Facebook for its angered decision, which is surely self damaging and a blow to its reputation. Headlines like this fall like a toddler’s punches mid sulk.

I would argue, however, this move from Facebook won’t change anything, least not for Facebook. But there will be one unfortunately overlooked and critically under valued victim in this battle of Billionaire bullies.

Facebook only cares about Facebook 

Facebook started primarily as a place to connect friends and family, and it’s a mantra the company continues to come back to time and time again. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg has never really put news at the forefront of his business model, which is why Facebook hasn’t historically handled the dissemination of fake news on the platform particularly well. Facebook has always been, and still is, about enabling people to connect and share. It’s not a news outlet, it is, like the other famous websites born in that era of the internet, a self publishing website.

In fact, in 2018 Facebook did a similar thing. It tinkered its News Feed algorithm globally, de-prioritise stories from publishers, and instead favouring content published by a user’s friends and family. Publishers faced a sharp decline in their traffic, unless they paid Facebook to include their stories in readers’ feeds.

At the heart of the change was Facebook’s attempt to not be seen as a news publisher but as a place to interact and connect with friends and family.

Blurring the lines between personal and public

As much as people say they go to Facebook only for news, the truth is what “news” is has been redefined by the existence of social media.

News now blurs the line between personal news (“look how cute my new baby is!”) and public news (“omg why are 250 million people striking in India”), and with traditional news media now banned on Facebook, this ultimately won’t detract from the appeal and desire to head to Facebook to catch up on personal news. It is the reason we went there in the first place.

After all, Facebook is something we go on to fill time. It’s a dopamine hit. You log on in between emails and deadlines, on your vape break or on the train instead of staring at the back of a person’s head, or instead of reading a book. Most people click the Facebook app without even realising it. It’s almost instinct to check Facebook regularly. If we really wanted news and only news, we’d be heading straight to the source – news outlets and their respective apps. As my psychologist likes to remind me, if you really want to do something (like read the news) you tend to just do that exact thing (go to a news website).

What will change? For Facebook, nothing 

The proactive move by Facebook to distance itself from news is a statement: “We won’t pay and we won’t be bullied”. And in my opinion, it’s very likely it won’t make a difference to their bottom line.

The sheer volume of content posted on Facebook in a single day is more than any human could ever possibly consume. So, the idea that a few publishers no longer being able to share their content or publish anything on the platform, having a significant impact on Facebook’s ability to monetize attention, is an amazing case of broadcast media suffering damaging hubris.

Besides, between the friends, family, frenemies, distant social acquaintances and exes you still follow, we now have Messenger, Marketplace, groups, and Facebook’s own gaming publishing to consume. So let me reiterate: news, while widely shared and popular on Facebook was never part of its business plan.

Who put the SMH on Facebook?

Conversely, newsmakers and publishers have put Facebook in the middle of their business plans. They have used Facebook (and Google, YouTube et al.) to ensure the content they create is in people’s feeds. Every major news broadcaster has a Facebook page, which is frequently updated. Why? Because they need the eyeballs, they need people to know they make content.

The true losers  

The sad and unfortunate losers in all of this are the small publishers who never wanted to be dragged through such a bloody battle and who will have the hardest time dealing with the loss.

As Eric Beecher pointed out so succinctly, independent media will be the ones who bear the brunt of the fallout. These are publishers who were able to produce content that garnered audiences over long periods of time in their websites and through social media, those who managed to create multi-channel strategies so they could balance publishing for free to attract audiences to sell ads, they are the ones most punished. These independent voices now need to find other ways to peel eyeballs away from an internet that is increasingly aggregated in feeds they won’t be able to reach.

You have to feel for the ground up publishers (ones that come to mind for me are Beetota Advocate, Concrete Playground, Pedestrian etc.) who have grown mastheads in the social media age. Publishers who have managed to make a profit when their ad model had lost its appeal, who created business models around integrated content deals and media products that leveraged social media as part of their amplification. These businesses are now relegated to selling what loyal readership they have without that traffic, and I think it will be hard for them to survive.

In my experience as a campaign planner, I have never once seen a deal with a publisher that did not have social media as a key driver to paid content (with the added knife of most of the display ads being given for free as bonus).

The decision will be reversed 

The Facebook and Australian government stoush continues to escalate, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison (ScoMo) attacking Facebook (on his Facebook page, mind you) for its “heavy-handed” response, which the PM said would not stop parliament from passing the News Media Bargaining Code to force tech giants to pay for journalism. I’m sure Facebook is “very sorry” about the “accidental” over reach of the ban. But the point has been made, Facebook controls its platform, no one else.

My personal feeling, however, is that this won’t last long. Facebook’s decision to ban news will spark renewed interest and investigation from the public and the government into the News Media Bargaining Code. Pressure from constituents to make Facebook open and free will force the bill to be renegotiated and ultimately the bill will be compromised in favour of the tech companies, who are big enough to refuse to bargain.

My opinion is considering how nice Facebook can play with publishers, even ones who are fierce critics of the company, it would be surprising if this change became permanent. But seeing who will cave first is going to be interesting.

In the meantime, it would be worthwhile for regular folks like you and I to ask ourselves a few pertinent questions.

  • Why would the Australian government put in place a bill that essentially tried to move profits from one global business to another?
  • Who were the people fighting for that bill in the first place?
  • What kind of media businesses do I think should exist in Australia, and how can I help support the existence of those businesses?
  • Why the hell was I getting my news from social media?

Food for thought.


Tim Collier is the strategic director for Connecting Plots.


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