Last Thursday (February 18), millions of Australians woke up and found a very different Facebook: no news version.
Overnight, Facebook prohibited Australian users from sharing or viewing news content on the platform. Australia drafted a bill to allow tech giants to pay for news content, and Facebook responded.
Facebook has become a platform for many users to obtain news in just a few years. It exerts a huge influence on the editing and recruitment decisions of some newsrooms, causing them to be described as “absent editors.”
How does it consolidate its position as a major global news source?
Facebook becomes Australia’s top news source
There is no doubt that Facebook has become an important social networking platform for many news consumers.
According to a report by the Reuters Institute, between 2018 and 2020, up to 40% of Australians used Facebook to get news, making it the most popular news social media and news platform in the country.
But the dominance of these technology companies in the media field has always attracted attention.
In 2018, the Australian market regulator launched an investigation into the competitive impact of Google and Facebook on the media and advertising sectors.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) survey found that large technology giants have captured most of the revenue and profits in the media sector. Today, for every A$100 (£56; US$77) of digital advertising revenue in Australian media, A$81 goes to Google and Facebook.
In view of this imbalance between technology companies and the media, the committee stated that a code of conduct should be introduced to achieve fair competition.
The draft requires technology companies to pay for content, but it does not specify the amount payable. It will also enable news companies to negotiate with technology companies on a group basis on how content will appear in news sources and search results.
The Australian government believes that technology giants should pay a “fair” news fee to the newsroom. Its rationale for this market intervention is that Australia’s troubled journalism industry is struggling, and a strong media is essential to the public interest and democracy.
But Facebook said it rejects any laws that require it to pay and the arguments behind it. At the same time, Google agreed to sign multi-million dollar contracts with Australia’s three major news organizations despite boycotting the law.
Obviously, people rely heavily on Facebook news. But its relationship with the press and publishing industry is two-way.
Facebook claims that the media benefited more from this relationship than they did.
“Publishers willingly choose to publish news on Facebook, because it allows them to get more subscriptions, increase audiences, and increase advertising revenue.” The company’s local general manager Easton (William Easton) said.
He said that Facebook has brought 5 billion recommendations for Australian news sites, worth about 400 million Australian dollars.
But according to Reuters, getting news is one of the top reasons people use social media, and Facebook is the largest social platform.
The news editorial department stated that they cannot ignore this group of audiences. At the same time, the reporter said that Facebook actively encourages news sites to hold seminars for reporters and editors on how to better use its platform.
However, the issue of transparency soon appeared. Facebook constantly revises its software without notifying news publishers. It has repeatedly changed the news source algorithm to make some posts not so easy for readers to see; or, as an editor described, “throttle” the news source.
It is this “absent editor” that dictates the editorial decision.
“Goals keep changing”
“The algorithm change has no warning and no reason. It is incredibly frustrating,” Isabelle Oderberg, former social media editor of News Australia, told BBC News.
“It affects our traffic, which is really frustrating. The social media community has to wait for Facebook to explain this change, although they don’t always explain it. As for the balance of power, this has always been clear.”
The BBC interviewed three other reporters from different local media organizations. They requested anonymity.
A radio reporter from a major Australian media told the BBC that for them, it feels like “the goal is constantly changing”. In order to better adapt to Facebook every one or two years, the focus of work will change.
“In general, the question is to what extent media organizations willingly entangle themselves with the Facebook algorithm and begin to measure their success through Facebook,” they said.
All three reporters noticed that when Facebook decided to prioritize video, the newsroom changed: making news videos more prominent in the feeds of Facebook users.
This has resulted in dozens of video producers being hired, or existing reporters being hurriedly trained and then employed. Electronic producers who can write titles that increase clicks for stories and social posts are becoming hot.
“We were told that audio stories will not be popular (on social media), so you need to write the content as a digital article to be shared, but suddenly you need to turn the story into a video,” the radio reporter said.
“And sometimes it feels that if it does not conform to the algorithmic logic, the quality of the content or the nature of the thing you want to express, or whether it is a good story is not important.” They added.
Experts outside the newsroom also expressed concern about the future of the industry.
Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, told the BBC that the distinction between credible reports and rumors is being eroded by Facebook’s “push” model.
Nielsen said that Facebook provides a platform for more people to access the news, and many of them did not deliberately search for news. It also creates a better news environment for communities that lack voice in traditional media.
A study by the Institute found that about half of Internet users do not actively search for news content every day, and the media industry has not yet accepted this.
Then the challenge for the media is how to involve consumers, how to provide them with information and create value.
“When you are no longer a monopoly, you no longer have a structured and privileged opportunity to get people’s attention, and you have to compete with many people in the trenches for attention. The audience thinks some other content is more attractive and useful. What will this mean?”
Frances Mao, Yvette Tan and Joshua Cheetham report.
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