Facebook: Australia Doesn’t Need You
Let’s all just calm down about the Facebook situation in Australia. It’s a storm on a social media platform. And an opportunity for change.
Thursday February 18th was a historical and disturbing day in Australia.
Not because social media bully Facebook blocked Australian media (and, inadvertently, a whole lot of other non-media organisations) posts from appearing in feeds.
Rather, because of the hysterical reaction it prompted amongst politicians, journalists and commentators.
For those not across the situation, the Australian federal government is passing laws through its parliament that will force platforms like Google and Facebook to pay publishers for content.
Reuters has written a solid explainer about it here.
While the law isn’t perfect and needs some tweaking, Google saw the writing on the wall, jumping the gun and signing agreements with a range of media companies to compensate them for their content.
These agreements with Google won’t make much of a dent in the massive ongoing drop in revenue media companies around the world have suffered as digital advertising revenue shifted the way of Google and Facebook.
However, the fact that Google was prepared to come to the table and negotiate something at the very least opens up the conversation about media companies needing to be resourced to produce content at a time when the ‘rivers of gold’ from ad spend they once swam in are becoming more like deserts.
Well, in its great wisdom under Grand Poobah Zuckers, it went the other way, using its market power to strongarm the Australian government out of pursuing this landmark legislation.
Stepping back, I can understand why.
Facebook is a corporation that wants to retain and grow returns to investors, so why would it do anything that could threaten this? Why would it give in, knowing that, if it did, other countries might follow with similar laws, leading to more loss of revenue?
Although a drop in the ocean of its total revenues, let’s be clear on that.
And, just as with Facebook and Twitter’s banning of the last US president (which, let’s be clear had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with HATE speech and LIES), Facebook Inc is a private company that provides a service it can withdraw from anyone who contravenes user guidelines.
The media companies themselves must also take part of the blame for the situation they find themselves in.
Many (not all) have been too slow to adapt to the rapidly evolving digital media landscape. Rather than innovate, build communities and trust around their brand, and try and be ahead of the next big digital thing, they ceded power to Facebook because it was the path of least resistance. They have used a free distribution platform to get clicks and eyes on their pages, which in turn generated some revenue for them, even if just a trickle compared to the ‘good old days’.
The real issue
While for most, the issue is about Facebook being a corporate bully, this is sidestepping the actual issue, namely how people get their news.
A Pew Research paper in 2019 revealed some stark and worrying facts — more Americans get news from social media feeds than print newspaper, with, yep you guessed it, Facebook dominating this space. What is interesting, if a little nutso, about this is the results of a 2018 study by Pew showing 57% of respondents believed the news they got from social media was ‘largely inaccurate’.
And therein lies the rub. It is precisely why the Australian government is doing the right thing, even if in an imperfect way.
Social media platforms have wound their tentacles into every corner of so many people’s lives, leading to an addiction that the users know is not good for them but they feed it anyway. What the Australia situation represents is a chance to break this addiction, or at least slowly wean people of the source of the addiction. It will force some to seek out content using a search engine…like Google, for example, which is now paying Australian media companies for their content, so there is an immediate payoff.
Others who still want news ‘fed’ to them will move to platforms like Twitter, which, while also driven by the evils of algorithms, has been slightly more of an open and less compromised platform for news distribution.
(Up for debate I know…)
So, rather than whinge and moan and catastrophise about what has happened in Australia, this ‘unfriending’ of the country by Facebook is an amazing opportunity for people to become more curious about the world again.
To seek out the truth rather than be spoon-fed a lot of the opposite as it floods their feeds.
For us not to be manipulated by a company like Facebook Inc that has far too much market power and faces some dark years ahead with a Democrat administration in the US that is going to carefully look at the power of tech companies and do something about this.
(Go Liz Warren, you good thing).
For media companies to find ways to build community and trust in their news provision once more.
It’s also a moment for all of us to reflect on how much we really need any of these social media companies. To maybe dial down the importance of them in our lives. To care less about the likes and smiley faces and shares and comments. To actually engage with others in ways that have little do with feeding our egos or theirs and much to do with actually connecting with people once more.
The question is — are we brave enough to take this opportunity?