What experts think of Facebook's news ban

18 February 2021
Sydney experts share their views on Facebook's news ban
Facebook has banned the sharing of news content in Australia. University of Sydney experts in computer science, media, business and health comment on the implications of the decision.  

The ban may not be a deal-breaker for users, according to Dr Suranga Seneviratne. Credit: University of Sydney

News ban likely an inconvenience – not deal-breaker – for many users

Dr Suranga Seneviratne, who is an expert in computer science, social media and cybersecurity from the School of Computer Science, said most users will see the ban on Australian news sharing as an inconvenience rather than a deal-breaker.

“Facebook’s biggest asset is its user base. The more users engage in the platform, the more revenue Facebook makes. The major means of keeping user engagement is through sharing content – user generated or otherwise,” said Dr Seneviratne. 

“In this particular case, Facebook has decided that Australian news content and its subsequent interactions with it don’t create much revenue, and they can afford to discontinue it.  

“I think they are probably right in this assessment. For many Facebook users, losing access to the news service and the Facebook pages and links of news websites is potentially a minor inconvenience rather than a deal-breaker. Some might miss sharing news articles among friends and engaging in spirited discussions.” 

“However, we need to understand who might be at a loss because of this unfortunate standoff. I think at least in the short run, it will be the media companies, especially the small-scale ones.” 

Banning news during a pandemic risks isolating public from credible, potentially life-saving information

Banning access to news could be disastrous during a pandemic. Credit: Pixabay

Health expert from the Faculty of Medicine and Health, who has spoken widely on the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Julie Leask, said the ban meant Australians would lose access to credible health information. 

“The timing couldn’t be worse. Facebook censors anti-vaccination content for public “health' at the same time as restricting user's access to local news at the start of a vaccine rollout,” said Professor Leask. 

"Three days before our COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination from news organisations and some government and public health organisation pages. This is the very time we rely on people accessing vaccine information easily.” 

Facebook behaves as a “digital lord”

Associate Professor Benedetta Brevini from the Department of Media and Communications believes today’s unprecedented media concentration should be diluted.

“In the latest senate committee hearing, Facebook declared that news items shared or posted on Facebook are only less than 5 percent of people’s news feed,” said Associate Professor Brevini, the co-author of Amazon: Understanding a Global Communication Giant

“But as a political economist of communication, I know very well the incredible benefits that platforms get in aggregating news and information. When I explain this to students, I like to refer to platforms as “Digital Lords". They lock their users in, by attracting them into their digital estate.  

“The more attractive the content is, the more consumer engagement they have, and in this way, they can extract more and more data from their users. They then use these data to target the same users with more sophisticated advertising.    

“What I would like to say to citizens using Facebook: take this opportunity to stop having your data collected incessantly. 

“There is a diversity inquiry debating the unprecedented media concentration in the Australian media system. Take this as change to stop supporting big media giants, and instead support smaller publishers who struggle to find their voice in a system controlled by big business.” 

Australians could backlash, move to other platforms

Associate Professor Fiona Martin, who is an expert on digital journalism, online publishing and social media in the Department of Media and Communications, says Australians are already beginning to diversify their social media usage. 

“It will be interesting to monitor the backlash from users. Already we’re seeing Australians diversify the types of platform they are using for news and current affairs, such as Reddit, so we want to see where they go instead of Facebook owned platforms,” said Associate Professor Martin.

"People have always shared news in texts and email – more than via Facebook. The difficulty is this use is harder to measure." 

"It’s clear that they didn’t follow Google’s tactic of negotiating with news companies because they are worried about it setting a precedent for content licensing claims.” 

Facebook has diminished the power of media

Dr Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights at the University of Sydney Business School and has researched the interaction between technological, cultural, economic and social dimensions of new forms of business and education

Facebook's hold on the media landscape is turning news into infotainment, according to Dr Reimer.

“This law would go a long way towards addressing the market power imbalance between the large tech platforms and media corporations," said Dr Peter.

"However, it will do nothing to address the side effects of the algorithmic business models that a company like Facebook has. These remain unchanged and have fundamentally altered the production and consumption of news over time. News is now bite-sized, video-first infotainment and the media industry has shed thousands of jobs.”

“There is a very high likelihood that many users will remain on Facebook (rather than look elsewhere for news) and get their information about what's happening in the world from less reputable sources.”

Google and Facebook are vastly different

Professor Kai Riemer, who is the Head of the Discipline of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School, has research expertise in enterprise social media and social networking.

“There is a big difference between how Google and Facebook actually engage with news. Google provides a news service (Google News) and is engaging with the proposed law in a constructive way, but at the same time saying that links in search results shouldn't count," said Professor Riemer.

"Facebook, on the other hand, treats news like any other content to engage its users; it optimises for data extraction from users and sell this information to advertisers. For Facebook, it might not be worth paying for news because they have other content that engages users to be able to drive its engagement advertising business model.”

“Google has chosen to take a very different stance to Facebook. In France, Google has agreed to pay publishers and showcase longer snippets of the news."

"Similarly, in Australia, Google engaged in negotiations with the government and then agreed to pay some media companies for the use of their content. This highlights the stark difference between the two platforms.”

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