Facebook’s news ban – what was that all about?


Graph supplied by Chartbeats/NiemanLab

Nothing better demonstrates the irrelevancy of  Facebook’s news ban than this tweet from elder statesman Everald Compton.

“My friends in Parliament tell me that meeting between #CraigKelly and #Barnaby was to create new #conservative party with Barnaby as leader.

They will be joined by Christensen and Canavan and sit on the cross benches. #Morrison will lead minority government. Happy Days.”

Compton, who many would know through his long-running blog, Everald at Large, posted the 45-word tweet at 5.30 on Tuesday. An enterprising friend took a screenshot and emailed it to me, which is one of the myriad ways enterprising people circumnavigated Facebook’s too-much too-soon decision to ban the sharing of ‘news’.

Twitter consumers would simply ‘retweet’ so their 654 followers will see Everald’s tweet too. Just so you know, the usual Facebook sharing route would be for a friend to ‘retweet’ on Twitter and, subject to your own Facebook settings, share it as a post. Said friends would then re-share (on Facebook or elsewhere). But as you know, that was briefly not possible, until this morning.

The alternative, copying a news link from a publisher and emailing it to a few friends, is a poor substitute for assuming that your 654 friends will read long articles like Ross Garnaut’s theory of ‘voluntary unemployment’. (by which he means a deliberate government policy of maintaining an unemployment rate, not another term for ‘dole bludgers’. Ed)

While Facebook today re-instated news sharing on its platform, as it has promised, during its week-long hiatus, Facebook regressed to a state where every second post was either an ad (sponsored), an attempt by zealots to bypass the news sharing ban (cut and paste and share) , or paid ads from conventional news outlets. The latter usually said something like ‘If you are looking for (our) news here, you won’t find it – go to our website or download our app.”

I briefly wondered if conventional media paid Facebook for these ads or whether it was some sort of good faith gesture. Unlikely, given the speed with which Facebook unleashed its mysterious algorithms; which not only shut off news sharing, but inadvertently shut off access to government websites, hospitals, emergency services, charities and even humble not-for-profit blogs.

Everald Compton’s tweet also demonstrates the gulf between the way people used to consume and disseminate information and what they do now.

In the not so long ago world of journalism, a person privy to such intel would have quietly picked up the phone and dialled the number of their pet journo (“mate, you didn’t hear it from me”).

The immediacy (and brevity) of Twitter allows someone with Compton’s media skills to distribute this hot rumour to the world in general in a heartbeart.

Is it accurate and does it really matter?

Craig Kelly’s sudden resignation from the Liberal Party to sit on the cross-bench raises all manner of scenarios. He will be wooed by the National Party and others on the fringes of politics and the suggestion he may buddy up with Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and George Christensen is wholly on the cards.

So far the ‘traditional media’ is having nowt to say about the possibilities of a new (some have said ‘Trumpian’), political party. Compton’s view on the matter would seem to be that whatever happens, Prime Minister Morrison will lead a minority government. He will have no option but to do deals to get legislation across the line.

Facebook’s decision on February 18 to ban news sharing on its platform was triggered by mooted legislation that would force Facebook to pay media companies for sharing their news content. While the legislation has been amended in the Senate, the draft legislation now has to go back to Parliament. But deals have clearly been done.

The business risk to Facebook was a potential loss of custom from people who decide to source their news elsewhere. The clearer risk to publishers is the quantum drop off in traffic to their news sites.

According to Harvard University’s NiemanLab (and Chartbeat), the ban sent the hourly rate of Facebook traffic to news sites from within Australia tumbling. Chartbeat’s analysis concluded that when Facebook traffic dropped off, overall Australian traffic did not shift to other platforms.

This drop has been seen most dramatically in traffic to Australian sites from readers outside of Australia: Because that readership was so driven by Facebook, overall this outside-Australia traffic has fallen day-over-day by over 20% (or more)”

NiemanLab had speculated that if Facebook’s news ban were to continue, dedicated news consumers might adapt in ways that are positive for news publishers. For example, they might visit a publisher’s website more often, or sign up for a daily newsletter.

NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton concluded: “Casual reader of news on Facebook and that’s most users, given that news stories make up only about 4% of the typical News Feed, might just skip news entirely.”

Australian economist and blogger John Quiggin says the real problem is advertising. Facebook and Google are able to offer advertisers much better targeting of ads than either news organisations or traditional broadcasters.

Much of the content used to make this targeting work is links to content prepared by traditional news organisations,” Quiggin wrote in The Conversation, a not-for-profit news portal.

The entire debate about who benefits most — the organisations that do the linking or the organisations that are linked to — misses the point.

We have always put up with advertising in order to get the information produced by news organisations.

Now the advertising revenue is flowing to Google and Facebook, and we have no model for funding news media in the future.”  Quiggin, who is Professor of the School of Economics at the University of Queensland, suggests the solution may be direct public funding, “perhaps financed by a tax on advertising.

Quiggin notes that his own blog, www.johnquiggin.com, had been affected by the ban, even though it carries no advertising and does not seek payment from Facebook. WordPress automatically posts this weekly missive to Bobwords, my blog page on Facebook. But when I tried to share it to my personal page last Friday, I got the same message as when trying to share Prof. Quiggin’s post yesterday afternoon:

In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted. 

Now hang on a minute, didn’t Facebook say (on Tuesday) it would re-instate news links? Like the Queen Mary, it took a long time to turn around.

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