Big Technology

Why Facebook’s Temporary News Ban in Australia Didn’t Go Far Enough

News must liberate itself from Facebook. And Facebook must liberate itself from news.

Photo: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

An amazing thing happened last week when Facebook banned links to news articles in Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s long-overlooked news app became the country’s hottest.

The ABC app jumped from around 1,000 daily downloads to more than 15,000 in a day last week, according to mobile intelligence firm Apptopia. And by the time anyone looked up, it occupied the top spot on the country’s iOS and Google Play app stores.

Facebook enacted its ban to protest an Australian law that would make the company pay news publishers. But instead of crushing ABC, the ban set it free.

“What we saw,” David Swan, technology editor at The Australian, told me, “was human nature coming through and people needing news.”

Across Australia, news publishers lost traffic due to Facebook’s ban — which is set to expire in the coming days — but they began deepening their relationships with their audiences. The ABC news app took off. 7Plus and 9Now, two other news apps in the country, experienced smaller spikes as such action loomed. And Swan’s own publisher at The Australian sent a note to staff remarking that direct visits increased after the ban.

As more data comes in about how the news-free Facebook experiment played out, it’s becoming difficult to argue that the news industry and Facebook belong together at all. Without Facebook, news companies can form relationships with people who trust and want to hear from them — not amorphous “visitors” who arrive at their sites via algorithm. And without news, Facebook can be friendlier and less toxic, as was the case in Australia this past week. The divorce is well worth considering.

News organizations never should’ve invested in Facebook the way they have in recent years. They optimized and toiled for the social network because it could send them traffic. But in doing so, they handed it their relationships with readers, while flattening and commoditizing their work. With each publisher looking the same, Facebook became more efficient at making money off their audiences before sending them the click. So, while publishers got their traffic, they gave away the game.

“Facebook thinks you’re a Facebook user and you happen to be looking at the ABC page,” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, told me. “ABC thinks you’re an ABC audience member who happens to be on Facebook. And that’s a central tension that has never been resolved.”

Australian publishers learned that without Facebook, the tension disappears. When people interact with them on their properties, their business becomes distinct. This gives them a better chance at making money through subscriptions, membership, and differentiated advertisements.

When New Zealand–based news site Stuff abandoned Facebook last July, it actually attracted 5% more unique visitors. It may have been difficult for Stuff to leave its 1 million followers behind. But once the company let go, it became evident that fear alone had been holding it back. “We were prepared for a big drop,” Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher recently told the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “That didn’t happen.”

A break from Facebook would likely improve the quality of news stories as well, since the prospect of Facebook virality has warped journalists’ incentives. The Facebook share button rewards a combination of outrage, sensationalism, and identity-driven content that accentuates differences. With the share button out of the picture, journalists can better envision the people they’re writing for. And when you write for people instead of a button that plays to their worst instincts, you don’t feel the need to artificially turn up the temperature in your stories.

The Australian’s Swan said his peers who write for online Australian news sites felt some sense of liberation after the ban. “They knew that it can’t appear on Facebook,” he said of their stories. “That then frees you up to do stuff more for your audience that you’ve already built up, rather than the perceived audience on Facebook.”

There are parts of the world that primarily get their news from Facebook, but it’s unlikely they’ll simply give up on news if it disappears from the platform. And though the dearth of news coverage did lead to spikes in engagement for politicians on Facebook in Australia — presumably from people seeking to fill the void — an absence of news links over time would change people’s behavior on Facebook. Scrolling for something to get mad about may well give way to curiosity about friends and family.

Many in Australia have indeed been thrilled about their news-free news feeds. When Harvard lecturer Evelyn Douek asked her Australian friends what they thought, they could barely contain their enthusiasm. “It’s great actually,” wrote one. “Peaceful,” wrote another. “Who in the world would rely on Facebook for news???” wrote one more.

News publishers, for one, still do rely on Facebook for news. And Facebook still relies on them. The company cut a deal with the Australian government and ended the ban this week. But perhaps this episode will cause both entities to examine whether the marriage is worth it. Some are already coming to the realization that it’s not.

“A breakup between us and Facebook would seem like a good breakup for me,” Swan said. “It would be messy, but I think Facebook has tried to do too much in too short an amount of time, and I think society and democracy would be healthier if we didn’t have news there.”

This Week on Big Technology Podcast: Arab Spring Leader Wael Ghonim on Modern Social Media’s Promise And Peril

In 2011, Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page that sparked the overthrow of the Egyptian regime. Since then, the former Google marketing director has kept a close eye on social media’s evolution and has plenty to say about where it has gone wrong and how it can get better. Ten years after Cairo residents painted “Facebook” on walls after the revolution, Ghonim stops by Big Technology Podcast to revisit what happened and where we go from here.

You can listen on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Wael and I will stop by Clubhouse this weekend to continue the conversation. Here’s the link if you’d like to join.

OneZero is publishing this story in an exclusive syndication partnership with Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz. You can sign up here.

I write the Big Technology newsletter. Sign up here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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