On Thursday morning Melbourne time, the Australians woke up to the eerie realization that a large technology company had followed up on its great threat. Only we did not learn it from any official news sources on our Facebook news feed.
We Aussies were suddenly blocked from publishing and viewing news content on Facebook. If we tried to post a link to a news item, a pop-up told us that “This post cannot be shared.” It went on to say: “In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the publication of news links and all posts from news sites in Australia. Globally, posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is limited. ”
What’s more: Every Australian news store’s Facebook page had been wiped off by posts. Even the pages of international publications were cleared for us; while you could still see posts on Slate’s Facebook page, when I looked at it I see no one. “No posts yet”, it said. What was worse: It soon became apparent to many others important pages had also been cleared – including state health departments, just a few days before Australia would begin its vaccination.
The shocking but completely predictable measure came, as the pop-up said, in response to government legislation, which had gone to the lower house of parliament with bipartisan support on Wednesday night. The News Media Bargaining Code – which would force “designated digital platforms” to pay new publishers for links they display, and redistribute some of the advertising revenue they have eaten into – had been a contentious issue for many months: Facebook threatened to pull news in September and January, Google threatened to drag the entire search engine if the code continued as it was. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had regular talks with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai and expressed confidence that an agreement would be reached. He seemed right: Google began making multimillion-dollar deals with publishers in the weeks leading up to the bill. But someone took a look at Facebook.
After Facebook pulled the news plug, Australian politicians attacked the company for doing exactly what it did sa it would do, with the prime minister claiming that the company had “unexpectedly” the nation and demanded that the health, weather and emergency pages be restored – something that Facebook quickly did. Other (including me) slammed the government for screwing up the negotiations by making extreme demands and then not reaching an agreement, in turn, the publishers tried to “help” (not to mention a number of charities, trade unions, community groups and sports organizations).
Barely a week later, the ban was lifted by one 11th-time compromise sees the government agreeing to fundamentally weaken the code. The amendment means that the government may not apply the code to a company if it can show that it has made a “significant contribution” to the Australian news industry through commercial arrangements, and it must give a platform one month’s notice before being exposed to the code. In other words, Facebook only has to make a few offers, and the government leaves it alone. News is not back yet, but Facebook’s Australian CEO Will Easton says it will be restored “in the next few days”, while global VP of partnership Campbell Brown stated that the company could retrieve news from Australia again if the government applied the code to it. Frydenberg wants to pretend that this is a win for the government in a “proxy fight” for the world, but it is the Australian government that has backed down. Facebook was right: News needs it more than it needs news.
But does Facebook need news at all? A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the show Australia vs. Big Tech, I joked that a news feed can be a “blessing“After all, the news feed can be a cesspit with pointless clickbait, inflammatory headlines and crazy comments. I was not really serious: I, like Frydenberg, did not think it would really happen. But what was it like to experience a Facebook without news?
Scrolling through Facebook on Thursday morning, the news flow was still dominated by the news, only it was not via links. It was friends’ status and group posts, discussed and melted and discussed the strange reality we were in – real blue Facebook react. “This is going to go down as one of the most productive political fucks in history,” one wrote of the government. Facebook definitely prefers to destroy its own product than to pay a small amount of tax. What a bunch of crap bags, ”wrote another. Others, at the back, Crowdsourcing where they would direct their anger, torn between technology and the Conservative government. Many noted what other sides were missing, in panic, mostly over the charities and social services, which were soon restored. But I was really struck by how many posts I saw from mine social network– the people I’m probably on Facebook to see.
In the following days, posts about the news ban decreased, but the presence of my Facebook friends did not. A girl I met in Mexico called out her partner’s 30th; a couple celebrated buying their first home; my cousins in England posed with their children. I saw profile pictures and memes, thanks and kids. It was extremely strange and extremely healthy, a reminder that good things are also happening in the world.
I also saw a lot more satire, with beloved satirical news sites that were originally shut down soon restored. Chaser, among the first to be returned, was like a child in a candy store and mocked Murdoch mastheads, together with public service broadcasters that it used to be broadcast on, over the fact that it could post while they could not. But it also used its spotlight to highlight some real news (“Since we are the only news site left, we thought we might as well expose corruption on a mass scale,” it wrote) and shared a comprehensive list of government corruption (which soon crashed its website). It probably helps that I already liked and followed a lot of satire, but there is no doubt that I showed interesting and informative content. But I wonder what was left on other people’s temporary news.
As a journalist, I was overwhelmed by the news ban, afraid of what it meant for my already decimated industry, and angry at the government for going so hard, reportedly at the urging of big fish like Rupert Murdoch, and hurting the little fish that trusts Facebook in the process. As a citizen, I am chilled by the display of raw power from Facebook, and I am worried that misinformation on the platform should happen again.
But to be honest, as a user, things felt good. Better than good; the news flow was easier, calmer, happier. It felt like what Facebook used to be, a social network rather than a news feed, and it was about as nice as you’d expect. I learned nothing newsworthy when I rolled; I learned things that were news feed-worthy. I did not live in ignorance, because I get my news elsewhere, with more control over what I see I do not need news on Facebook, and I really hope, that other Australians also realize this.
I have previously complained that Australians are a “test site“For social media functions, because we are not really an important market. We are still not; Facebook could set an example for us here, a warning to other countries considering their own codes, because we represent such a small segment of its market. But if this ban had stayed in place and proved popular, could it also have been the model for a new direction for Facebook?
Do not celebrate too soon, Zuckerberg. I’m not sure I or other users would spend as much time on Facebook without news – an amount that had already dropped significantly. But it would be quality over quantity. You know what they say: “No news is good news.” Actually, one of my friends said that last Thursday. I know, because I saw it on my news feed.
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