It’s now six days since the most popular social media platform in the country, Facebook, decided Australians could no longer view or share links to news websites.
With yesterday’s news that the ban will soon come to an end, it’s worth looking at the results of this vast “experiment” (performed without consent).
What happens when news is taken out of Facebook? How do users respond?
Facebook has never done this before. There’s no case study.
“We’re it. We’re the case study,” says Axel Bruns from Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre.
And Facebook has all the data on how Australians are using the platform. It just doesn’t share it.
Meanwhile, everyone else, including researchers and reporters, rely on third-party analytics services to try to work out what’s going on.
Though it’s early days, some trends are apparent.
The most obvious is that news sites are getting much less traffic from Facebook.
The graph below shows the effect of the ban every hour when it was introduced at 5.30am AEDT on Thursday, February 18.
It took a couple of hours for the ban to fully kick in, but when it did, the number of links to top Australian news posted in Australian public Facebook groups fell off a cliff.
By noon, the number of links posted was just half of the pre-ban figure.
And by Monday, it was down almost 80 per cent. (It rebounded slightly on the Monday because the weekend always sees a drop in Facebook activity.)
That drop of 80 per cent is probably an underestimate too; the result of automated links posting, or people abroad posting links to Australian news content.
This links-shared figure doesn’t include the links being posted in messages or private groups, but Professor Bruns says it’s indicative of what would be happening in those places.
The number of interactions with Australian news sites on Australian Facebook pages went from tens of thousands to a bit over 100.
In effect, Australian news on Facebook was a ghost town.
Most Australians don’t rely solely on Facebook for news
Is there now an “information vacuum” or are people simply getting their news elsewhere?
And how many Australians were using Facebook for news?
The answer to the latter is 39 per cent, according to surveys conducted by the University of Canberra and compiled in its Digital News Report for 2020.
“But it’s not their only source of news,” says Caroline Fisher, who helped put together the report.
Only 6 per cent of Australians use Facebook as their only social media platform for news.
That means the majority of Australians will still be getting news elsewhere.
Many might not even realise there’s been a news ban.
The Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that in 2016, about half of Australians passively consumed news on social media. They didn’t follow news pages, but simply received what others in their networks shared.
“These are fairly disengaged news consumers,” Dr Fisher said.
“The analogy is having radio on in the background. It bubbles along there and they listen to it occasionally.”
The rise of workarounds
Have Australians found new ways of accessing the news now while it’s not appearing in their Facebook feeds?
The day after the ban, the ABC News app shot to the top rank of Apple’s app store.
Five days on, it’s down to 15.
The current top-ranked app is one that lets users “log all the places you’ve pooped”.
Data compiled by Nielsen shows that news sites recorded a sharp drop in traffic on February 18 — the first day of the ban.
The total number of visits to news sites fell by 16 per cent when compared to the average of the previous six Thursdays.
Nielsen declined to share more recent data that would have shown the effect of the ban over a longer period, but a person with knowledge of these figures said they showed that all major Australian news sites have been reporting fewer readers.
They said a “big chunk” of the audience had not migrated across from Facebook.
Facebook’s reaction to this loss of audience may be “I told you so”. The company claims it generates 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers, which is worth an estimated $407 million.
Some Australians, however, are persevering with sharing news on Facebook.
To do so, they reached into a bag of tricks that up to now has only been used by pages posting content banned on the platform, and to evade automatic detection and moderation.
Attempted workarounds include posting screenshots or PDF versions of articles, or using link shorteners.
“You can share a tweet that links to the news story,” Professor Bruns said.
“You post that on Facebook and the preview will look exactly like the news story itself.”
Comedy, satire pages the new kings of Facebook
Has the Facebook news ban pushed some Australians to get their news from less credible, fringe sites that have ducked the ban?
This is possible, says Professor Bruns, though there’s no evidence of this so far.
The handful of well-known fringe new pages that were left standing after the ban have not seen increases in interactions.
“It’s still too early to say where people are going instead,” Professor Bruns said.
Comedy and satirical news pages have been doing well post-ban.
On Monday, the Ozzy Man Reviews comedy page posted the most popular link of any Australian Facebook page (ranked by total interactions).
It was a Texas-based news site’s write-up of one of the most clickable stories of that day: the Boeing 777 that landed safely with an engine on fire.
Also in the top 10 that day were links to stories by The Chaser and The Betoota Advocate about the news ban and the rollout of vaccines.
The day before the ban, non-satirical news sites made seven of the top 10 spots (Ozzy Man Reviews still won, though).
News sites also dominated the top 10 of the previous 12 months (though, admittedly, several of the stories were about cute animals).
Commenters flood Department of Health page
What about the users who’d troll the comments of news Facebook pages, making life hard for the moderators? Where have they gone?
The Department of Health Facebook page, that’s where, says Anne Kruger, director of the Asia Pacific bureaus for First Draft, a global misinformation tracking organisation.
Most posts on the page don’t get much attention, but a post on Monday linking to an ABC YouTube live stream of the Health Minister giving a press conference about the vaccine rollout accrued more than 1,000 comments.
Many referenced debunked conspiracy theories about the vaccine.
Perhaps before the ban, the commenters would have gone to the ABC News page, where comments were moderated.
The incident sums up the perils of not having news on Facebook, Ms Kruger said.
News organisations will find other ways of reaching an audience, but they won’t be there to counter misinformation on Facebook.
“We’re really concerned about something we call data voids or data deficits,” she said.
“When there’s no quality information, that vacuum will be filled by poor information.”
Other countries are watching closely.
Microsoft is joining forces with publishers in Europe to call for an Australia-style system that would force tech platforms to pay news organisations for content.
Canada has condemned the Australian news ban and threatened to also make Facebook pay for news content.
The Washington Post even published an opinion piece about “plucky Australia” by ABC Sydney radio presenter Richard Glover.
But Facebook knows better than most how easily attention shifts elsewhere online.
“Facebook will be monitoring this quite carefully to see what happens,” Professor Bruns said.
“Once all of this slows down a bit, Facebook might find some people have complained, but others don’t care.”
Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey
Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.
Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.
However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.
On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.
Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal
In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.
In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.
Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws
It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.
Russian social media laws
As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.
Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses
Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.
The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.
With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.
Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.
Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.