News publishers try to understand Facebook’s nuclear move in Australia

By Robert Whitehead

McPherson Media Group

Sydney, Australia

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UPDATED FEBRUARY 18, 2021

Facebook pulled all news content from its Australian sites on Thursday after the country’s new media laws that force payment for news passed the lower house of parliament.

In a study of contrasts, Google had announced it had signed its third Australian deal in a week to pay media houses for journalism, this time with News Corp. And further highlighting the diverging strategies, Google’s deals are significant in size and the global pricing precedent they set.  

Google’s man-on-moon moment for payments for journalism, however, was quickly eclipsed by Facebook’s simultaneous decision to blow up news in Australia.

Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison attacked Facebook’s move to “unfriend Australia” as arrogant and disappointing. He began calling world leaders to enlist their support.

What Australian Facebook customers saw when they tried to access content on the platform.
What Australian Facebook customers saw when they tried to access content on the platform.

Facebook banned all Australians from viewing or sharing local or international news content on its platform, effectively immediately. Campbell Brown, vice president of global news partnerships, said the proposed Australian law fails to recognise “the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers.” 

All INMA member companies in Australia had their Facebook sites disabled and their ability to communicate an explanation to their followers removed. One media executive told INMA: “It’s practically the only story anyone is talking about today.”

Facebook’s overnight action tangled up government, corporate, and community Web sites, including removing content from emergency services and public health sites promoting the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines.

There were many examples of non-media sites being blocked such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which encouraged fans to migrate to Instagram or Twitter to stay connected. Other vital sites getting swept into the Facebook move were the weather bureau and fire departments. 

Apparently, there is no set definition of “news,” making many collateral damage in the Facebook move. The hashtag #facebooknewsban emerged today as non-media companies became aware of the implications of the pullback to them.

“As the law does not provide a clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” a Facebook spokesman told The Verge. “However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted.”

Australians who went looking for Facebook’s own local page found “it had no posts yet.” And if anyone who went there eventually found the company’s official explanation, it was defiant. 

INMA members were bewildered by the sudden Facebook move.

Christine Anderson of Australia’s McPherson Media Group took to Facebook to encourage friends to visit the Shepparton News directly: “So while Facebook plays politics with your ability to see our news posts just go straight to the source.”

Channel 10 News First in Melbourne took to Twitter to let viewers “know we are still here, and we still have plenty of ways to get the news to you online.”

Content from INMA members like The Sydney Morning Herald immediately disappeared from Facebook in Australia.
Content from INMA members like The Sydney Morning Herald immediately disappeared from Facebook in Australia.

Internationally, publishers in Europe, North America, and Latin America reacted angrily in limited outreach by INMA: “huge mistake,” “an act of misinformation,” “censorship,” “disappointing,” “alarming.” Yet one media executive suggested that while this might negatively impact publisher traffic in the short-term, perhaps this is “a good thing” long-term in that it forces the encouragement of direct traffic.

The government, which has been in regular talks with Facebook, was given no notice of the move. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had spoken with the Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg early in the week. The pair spoke again after the social media platform took its unprecedented action today. 

Frydenberg responded later with a stinging attack at a media conference: “Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary. They were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” he said. 

The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, went in hard, saying the move exposed Facebook further to its spread of misinformation and unverified content: “They are effectively saying ... if you’re looking for reliable news, Facebook is not the place to look for it.”

A former Facebook chief executive in Australia, Stephen Scheeler, who has been a prominent supporter of the new code, tried to put the bold move in context. Facebook had pulled the “big guns” out on Australia because of the billions of dollars that were at stake. “Facebook is not being a good corporate citizen,” he told Sky News TV.

The move, and its unintended consequences for many non-news Web sites, galvanised the lawmakers’ resolve to pass the bill into law. With social media in partial meltdown, many took to Twitter to announce their shock.

While lawmakers quickly expressed strong reactions, Australian media executives struck an unexpectedly measured tone in official comments. 

Many had been in talks with Facebook about payment deals up until about 48 hours before the about-face. Many had been in what they thought were the final stages of successful talks. Then all went quiet.

Several media leaders are still holding out hope privately that a solution will be found.

News Corp’s executive chairman in Australia, Michael Miller, described the Facebook ban as disappointing. The move “encourages fake news over reliable news” and showed the social media giant’s extraordinary market power. News Corp, he said, would continue discussions with the social media giant to reach a deal, as it had done over recent months.

A corporate spokesman for Nine was similarly sanguine. “It is unfortunate Facebook has taken this position, and it will indeed inhibit us from sharing our quality news and information with Australians. This action proves again their monopoly position and unreasonable behaviour. 

“But today’s statement does not mean Facebook will not have to abide by the federal government’s proposed code. Value has already been transferred and Facebook has benefited from our content for many years. We should be able to access their monopoly platform and have the right to monetise our content as a result,” according to its statement issued to INMA.

“We have been negotiating with Facebook in good faith,” said the spokesman on behalf of Nine, but he could have been speaking for the industry when he added, “And we remain willing to do a deal with them.”

Clearly, Facebook is backing its own estimate that fewer than 5% of people come to its Newsfeed specifically for classic news. The Australian regulator believes 30% of people rely on Facebook for their news, which may be another issue altogether about what is “news” in this context and/or if they consume it as an optional extra.

Importantly, if it does need to pay for news content — it says it doesn’t mind paying in principle — it doesn’t want governments to influence how much it has to pay. But more critically, it absolutely doesn’t want Google to influence how much it has to pay either. 

And Google’s big deals this week in Australia have done just that.

About Robert Whitehead

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