ANALYSIS

What Facebook's 'nuclear' block on news means for users - and democracy

Facebook will block users' access to Australian news content, for both Australian and overseas users. Picture: Shutterstock
Facebook will block users' access to Australian news content, for both Australian and overseas users. Picture: Shutterstock

It's suddenly got serious. Facebook's stand-off with the Australian government has turned into a conflict. The gloves are off. Nobody would predict the winner.

The company has decided to block news from papers and broadcasters from its site.

If you get your news stories via Facebook and not directly from the website of a newspaper or a broadcaster, you won't be able to get it in future on the media organisation's Facebook page.

The other ways you use Facebook - like a school community or a club or just to chat with a bunch of friends - will remain - but news from reputable news organisations is off the Facebook agenda.

And not just in Australia. It also means that news from Australia via Facebook around the world will be cut. The country's profile abroad will be reduced.

Facebook's blockbuster of an announcement comes as it and Google face new regulation aimed at compelling them to negotiate with media companies over how much to pay those media companies for the news they gather and publish.

The argument that reputable news companies make is that they spend a lot of money on journalists to find out what is going on in a myriad communities from the smallest town right up to the nation itself.

It's part of democracy and valuable to the whole of society so the news companies argue they should get more of the advertising revenue which Google and Facebook currently get from the companies' journalistic effort.

The government has been pushing for a new code which would involve arbitration if the social media companies and media companies can't agree on how much to pay. Labor backs it so it should happen.

But the details are yet to be determined.

Facebook's tough stance may be a negotiating tactic, according to Dr James Meese of RMIT University.

He is not convinced that Facebook's hand is as strong as the company might think it is. There are other sources of news. Television remains the main way in which Australians learn what's happening. Bigger newspapers have increasingly moved to offer news primarily through their own sites and not via Facebook.

Smaller news outlets may be the main victims of the Facebook block.

Dr Meese says it's true that younger people share news on social media but other sites like Tik Tok and Instagram are used as well as Facebook. Facebook owns Instagram but the parent company hasn't indicated that the news block will apply to the subsidiary.

But Dr Andrew Hughes of the Australian National University says that Facebook remains the prime social media site. He thinks Facebook might maintain its tough stance for some time. Google showed a willingness to negotiate but he thinks Facebook will tough it out.

There is an implication for democracy. People often discuss stories privately on Facebook. It's one of the forums of democracy. Twitter, for example, is a public forum but Facebook is a way for friends to share links to news stories and discuss them. That sharing will cease.

This argument is bigger than Australia. That's why the two companies are so determined to oppose being regulated. If the Australian government succeeds in getting the two companies to pay more for news content, other governments will do the same.

Facebook seems confident. "For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal," the company's managing director for Australia and New Zealand, William Easton, said.

"News makes up less than 4 per cent of the content people see in their news feed."

He said: "Journalism is important to a democratic society."

On that most agree. But who pays for the journalism and how it survives is another matter.

This story What Facebook's 'nuclear' block on news means for users - and democracy first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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