Facebook news agreement just ‘the first step’


Facebook’s power over news was laid bare in its spat with the Australian government. Photo: Sarah Marshall (CC BY 2.0)


Facebook has reinstated news on its Australian pages after reaching a deal with the Australian government. But journalism commentators say issues remain with the social media giant’s relationship to, and power over, newsmakers.

The spat between Facebook and the Australian government over Canberra’s plans to make social media companies pay for news shared over their platforms has made the power of social media giants over news and journalism abundantly clear. Sites such as ‘not the A B C’ sprung up to discuss workarounds for individuals and organisations for whom disseminating news on Facebook was a major part of their experience with the social networking site.

Such frequent users of Facebook to disseminate news included writers and journalists.

Ironically, some were able to use Facebook to seek interviewees in their reporting about the ban and how it affected non-news outlets including satirical or parody pages, and the pages of government departments and charities (which Facebook moved to re-instate).


La Trobe University political scientist Andrea Carson says social media platforms’ immense power in terms of spreading news is one reason why non-news organisations got caught in the crossfire.

‘More and more people are using them which means that if they turn off news all of a sudden then people are left without credible sources. Where they are getting information from has implications for organisations like the Red Cross – we saw that an important way for not-for-profits and other organisations to get out information about their organisation and the things they do, is on free platforms like Facebook,’ she explains.

‘If Facebook changes its mind and doesn’t allow those organisations on there – they are too dependent on it, they can’t easily shift to another platform overnight which means that their work is disrupted so these are the really big shifts I have seen since the rise of the tech giants.’

Alex Wake, journalism program manager at RMIT and the president of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia, says Facebook has fundamentally changed how journalists in all news outlets operate, from how they find stories and people, to where they publish and distribute news, and where they can monitor audience reaction to such stories.

She believes that it has changed the definition of news, and that its impact on an entire sector may be why the federal government was trying to get Facebook and other social media platforms to support the news industry.

‘The Australian government has been trying to get Facebook and other major platforms to help support the news industry, which has a funding problem,’ she explained.

Associate Professor Carson agrees that Facebook as a global digital platform has profound effects on the operations of news organisations.

‘Since Facebook began in 2004 it had reached success in attracting advertising and online audiences and in doing that it has deprived some of the traditional media organisations of the advertising revenues that they previously took for granted and the way traditional newsrooms have responded is to cut costs,’ she explains.

‘So there has been fewer journalists that what there was in the past because businesses were able to pay for them and a part of it (the reduction in the number of journalists) is because of the rise of the digital platforms, not just Facebook but also Google.’

The notion of Facebook acting as a global digital news distributor is not without major issues, she explains, including the prevalence of fake news which has the potential to contribute to misinformation among the public.

‘It affects and reduces funding to traditional media…a lot of people day by day are turning towards the online platforms to get their information. In Australia, it’s almost 50%, in the UK and the USA it’s higher than 50% and many of them are getting their news information on platforms such as Facebook and this can be a problem because they do not tend to look at the brand of the media outlets that are in their Facebook feed,’ Associate Professor Carson says.

‘So they might judge something like The Herald Sun to be of the same value as maybe a blog site which means that people are starting to get confused about misinformation and what is real information when they cannot make those judgements, and we have had some surveys that have shown this is a problem in Australia.’

Pointing to work by researchers from the University of Canberra, she says the majority of Australians are concerned about whether news from social media can be trusted.

‘They have looked at the data that comes out each year which shows that more than half that is, 2/3rds of Australians – are worried about fake news, that they feel that they don’t have the skills to adequately determine what is real and what is not real, and part of that is because all the information comes out of the same channel the Facebook channel without enough alerts about what is real and what is not real.’

Once the dust had settled and the warring parties reached an agreement, journalists and news organisations  once again went back to using Facebook to disseminate their work and drive audiences to their reporting.

But Facebook’s initial reaction – to ban news in Australia – was not a good look for the social media company, Dr Wake believes.

‘The battle between Facebook and the government showed that the US based company has little regard for Australians. Ripping news and information out of Facebook with no notice fundamentally damaged the brand.’

On the response of the federal government, in terms of social media companies and their relationship with news publishers, Associate Professor Carson says the code between the tech giants and the government is only the start.

‘It’s a first step towards finding a revenue stream only for traditional media outlets so that we don’t see more job losses and sackings that they need to be able to support paying journalists – but this code also has flaws and the flaws are that if they do a couple of deals they need to be designated by the Treasurer, which means the code is then actually enacted,’ she explains.

‘So, one of the flaws is that Facebook and Google make a few deals with big media outlets, and they don’t do anything more – that’s not comprehensive enough and there is not enough commitment or power coming from the government to make them be fair to smaller news organisations. It is a good first step and the first in the world but I think we will see changes to this law over time as it might get refined further to make it a better law than it is now.’

She says there are one-sided views on this which see Facebook as ‘evil’ and the Australian government right to be critical because Facebook walked away from the Australian market.

‘The reason they walked away was they did not think the law was well written and they were trying to put pressure back on the government to make changes to it which the government did do, but at the end of the day, they are a private company – if they do not want to operate in a country with laws that they do not think work for them they would have the prerogative to take their business elsewhere which is what they did do.’

She says there is a lot more that can be done in terms of collaborating, and that there could be more cooperation from both sides but notes they are ultimately rivals.

‘The news companies need Facebook to get bigger audiences and the platforms need news organisations for quality information because information cannot come from Facebook. The idea of news companies and Facebook to merge is a good idea but at the end of the day they are competitors,’ she says.

‘Commercial media outlets rely on advertising money and so does Facebook. They have got a competitive relationship, but they also have these broader public commonalities which is why they have been working together at a certain extent.’

Regarding how news and media companies should work with social media companies to benefit both organisations, Dr Wake believes that news organisations should take into consideration all fact-based information before providing content to social media outlets.

‘It’d be good to see the big platforms better support journalism. the problem is that the platforms don’t necessarily see the value of fact-based information provided by news outlets,’ she said.

‘It would be good if they could work together, but the aims are different – it has only taken world-first action by the Australian government to try to tackle this problem that has seen any change at all.’

She added, ‘I fear we still have a long way to go in this area.’