Damien Venuto: Facebook move shows the company has gulped its own Kool-Aid

Facebook’s surprise decision to pull news companies from its platform in Australia shows both sides are taking this fight seriously.

Australia’s strong-handed approach to diplomacy has extended beyond China and New Zealand and is now also ruffling the feathers of big tech, by demanding it pay for news content.

In response, the social media giant today announced that it would restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on the platform.

The nonchalance with which Facebook followed through on its threat is a sign of a “they need us more than we need them” attitude.

The company has brushed off the importance of news content, saying it accounts for only 4 per cent or so of the overall content people see on Facebook.

This argument indicates that Facebook has taken a massive gulp of the Kool-Aid it has been passing around to its users for some time.

For the last decade, the message has been that its platform is about the democratisation of publishing, effectively putting everyone on an equal footing.

But over time, we’ve come to realise things are more complicated and that there’s an implicit danger in giving equal credibility to vastly different pieces of content, regardless of their source.

When Facebook writes off that 4 per cent of content, you need to look at what it is actually doing away with.

Facebook is essentially willing to sacrifice the only content on its platform that is required to meet broadcasting and publishing standards set by an independent body within a country.

That might account for only a small percentage of content, but it’s an important voice in a sea of misinformation, scams and hate distributed through the rest of the platform.

Admittedly, the news media doesn’t always get it right, but there are at least consequences when we get it wrong.

The same cannot be said for everything else published on Facebook – a platform that has now wilfully rejected legitimate news sources while it continues to be flooded with dangerous misinformation from any random influencer who has a few reckons to share.

The company has repeatedly told us it’s getting on top of its various issues, but a report published this month by not-for-profit organisation the Digital Citizens Alliance showed how the platform is being used to sell fake Covid-19 vaccines to desperate people around the world.

The days of Facebook invoking the idea of democratising anything are fast evaporating. As AUT senior lecturer and media industry expert Merja Myllylahti posted on LinkedIn, “Facebookhas shown again that it is not for democracy, it is anti-democratic, and not willing to follow laws of the country.”

Facebook’s stubbornness has already resulted in a number of unintended consequences in Australia. At the time of writing, Facebook’s wide-reaching ban had removed a post from the Victoria Police as well as another notification from the Bureau of Meteorology warning of catastrophic fire danger in Western Australia.

Facebook’s willingness to take these risks shows the company is still driven by money beyond all else – and this is unlikely to change any time soon.

Facebook’s other counter-argument is that it has added enormous value to media companies by ensuring users link back to their sites.

The validity of this argument is evidenced by the fact that most media companies today have social media departments, shaped specifically to distribute content through the various platforms.

Social media’s contribution to overall audience varies from publication to publication, but the Australian move will now provide an interesting experiment on the topic of cultural relevance and how much value Facebook actually adds to mainstream news entities.

The risk for the tech company, of course, is that media companies come to realise they don’t really need it as much as they thought they did and that audiences are actually happy to visit news homepages of their own accord.

The real question here is whether Facebook has over-estimated its own value to news providers around the world.

For a company so desperate to be culturally relevant in every moment, Facebook’s hardline banning of the news might have the effect of removing its platform from the core cultural discussions that have long been built beneath news posts shared by users.

There is, of course, every possibility that Facebook follows Google’s lead by backing down and accepting the laws being passed in Australia.

But the problem for Facebook in doing so is that it might motivate other countries to follow Australia’s lead by passing similar legislation. And this is something the bean counters at the tech company will be hoping to avoid at all costs.

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