What the experts say about Facebook's block on news stories

Nobody doubts that Facebook is a power in the land - the question is "how much of a power?".

The University of Canberra has broken down the figures for where Australians get news.

"Facebook is the most popular social media site for news in Australia, however the use of it to access news has been falling," according to Dr Caroline Fisher of the university's News and Media Research Centre.

Among people who consume news, she says Facebook as a source has fallen from 45 per cent of people in 2106 to 39 per cent in 2020 - though it rose with the coronavirus lockdown in March.

"Younger people use Facebook for news more than older people," she said. Nearly half (45 per cent) of people born from the mid-90s to 2010 (Generation Z) use Facebook for news compared with 30 per cent of people aged 74 and over.

"But other platforms like YouTube and Instagram are growing in popularity among Gen Z. Interestingly, Instagram has not blocked news even though it is owned by Facebook. Young people are increasingly using Instagram to access news - 24 per cent in 2020."

"Only a small number of people get their news only from Facebook and they tend to be younger."

"Most Australian news consumers access news via several platforms. On average three platforms. People access news via newspapers, TV, online, radio and social media platforms.

"Those with higher education are more likely to use four or more ways to access news."

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She thinks the Facebook block on news will affect older people in country Australia where newspapers have closed and Facebook has replaced them. Some small town printed newspapers have closed but still have websites that rely on Facebook.

"The people who will be affected most are elderly people in rural areas where newspapers have closed. They are probably the most vulnerable," she said.

"A study we did into local news consumption showed that people living in small local government areas with limited access to quality local news are turning to social media for news and joining local community Facebook and WhatsApp groups."

People do use Facebook but it is not obvious that they trust the information they find on it. Dr Fisher says that a third of people are concerned about information on Facebook, much more than are worried about YouTube or news websites.

Other academics say that Facebook's hand may not be as strong as the company assumes.

Dr James Meese of RMIT University said that television remained the main way in which Australians learn what's happening. Bigger newspapers had 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 said it was true that younger people shared news on social media but other sites like TikTok and Instagram were 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 said that Facebook remained the prime social media site but most people wouldn't notice the absence of news stories - indeed, their feed on Facebook might seem improved because it's clearer.

There will, though, be a slow-burn cost. The absence of news may mean that discussion about news on Facebook dwindled and he though that mattered because Facebook offere a private forum (unlike Twitter).

For that reason, he thinks Facebook's decision harms democracy. People may say they don't care about news but, in fact they do. "People care about issues. There's a lot of engagement on issues and that is being taken away - and that's really disturbing," he said.

Picture: Shutterstock

Picture: Shutterstock

This story What the experts say about Facebook's block on news stories first appeared on The Canberra Times.