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Facebook’s news ban ‘experiment’ is almost over. Here’s what we’ve learnt

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<b>Facebook's</b> news ban 'experiment' is almost over. Here's what we've learnt thumbnail

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.

Key points:

  • The number of Australian news links being shared on Facebook pages is down 80 per cent
  • New publishers have seen a drop in traffic and lost a “big chunk” of audience
  • Comedy and satire pages are now among the most popular

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.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Play Video. Duration: 1 minute 32 seconds

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Facebook intends to sign commercial deals with news publishers.

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.

Errol Parker and Clancy Overell stand in front of a Welcome to Betoota sign.

The Betoota Advocate satirical news site has been regularly among the most popular Australian Facebook pages since the news ban.(Faceobok: The Betoota Advocate)

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.

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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.”

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Hopes Google, Facebook deals will underpin a rise in journalism jobs

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“We have seen no guarantees from the big media companies that money raised from the digital platforms will be spent on journalism,” said MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom said last week.

“If some of this the Facebook and Google’s massive Australian revenue is now to be returned to media companies, there must be a corresponding commitment that the money is spent on news content, not dividends or corporate bonuses. The media companies must provide transparency about how they intend to allocate these funds.“

There are signs at least some companies are already progressing with plans to do just that despite challenging market conditions.

Guardian Australia is expected to take another floor in its Surry Hills office for new employees while industry sources have indicated News Corp Australia, owner of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, is considering hiring almost 100 journalists with the money. News Corp declined to comment.

National broadcaster the ABC has not yet signed any deals with Google or Facebook but has pledged it will use the money to invest in regional journalism.

But Nine, which owns television, radio and newspaper assets (including this masthead) has been less explicit. A spokesperson for Nine referred back to comments made publicly by chief executive Hugh Marks.

Mr Marks said at a Senate inquiry more than one week ago that if funding from tech giants wasn’t secured, job losses at Nine’s publications would continue.

Following the company’s half-year financial results last week, Mr Marks indicated the company would consider hiring new journalists. “You won’t be able to say a dollar here goes to $1 there but you can look at that business and say it’s a strong viable sustainable publishing business that will be able to support journalism going forward,” he said.

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“If there are opportunities for us to employ more journalists to get a positive result then we will do that. But it certainly underpins the future of journalism in this market.”

Seven West Media chief executive James Warburton said most of the money the company expects to gain from its deals with Google and Facebook will be used for Perth based newspaper The West Australian and its regional titles. He initially said the cash would be dropped to the bottom line and be used for repayment of debt but now says it will be focused on improving the newspapers’ digital strategy.

Seven’s deal also has a YouTube component, which means some of the money will be spent on television content.

“It will support quality journalism in metropolitan, regional and community markets and underpin the digital strength and sustainability of our news businesses going forward,” Mr Warburton said.

Industry sources who are familiar with the various agreements have said that some publishers have an audio component – which requires them to invest a large amount of money in areas such as podcasting. Other companies will use the money for distribution strategies to build their digital audiences.

For smaller outlets like Junkee, the money will provide an important backbone for the business to continue its work.

“We haven’t made any definitive decisions yet about how we’ll spend the money, but this moment presents a unique opportunity for us to invest in public interest journalism,” Junkee’s editorial director Rob Stott says. “We’ll be looking at a mix of original reporting and background infrastructure that will make Junkee a more sustainable operation into the future. I’m extremely excited about the potential for this funding to make a real difference to the breadth and depth of content we produce.”

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Facebook banned my perfectly harmless article – and I think I know why

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<b>Facebook</b> banned my perfectly harmless article – and I think I know why thumbnail

You start by excluding fascists, anti-vaxxers and conspiracists. You end by banning pretty much anyone you disagree with. In recent months, Facebook has taken to labelling as fake, or removing altogether, a number of stunningly inoffensive pieces: a study by the American researcher Dr Indur Goklany claiming (quite correctly) that the number of people dying globally as a result of natural disasters was falling; a column by the investigative journalist Ian Birrell questioning whether the WHO had been too hasty in ruling out the possibility of a Wuhan leak; a report by the leading Oxford epidemiologist, Dr Carl Heneghan, of a Danish study arguing that facemasks made little difference to the spread of Covid-19.

And, now, an article of mine. Last week, I wrote a piece for the John Locke Institute (JLI), a high-minded organisation that runs summer schools and seminars, mainly for sixth-formers, offering in-depth tuition in the humanities subjects. I advanced the view that the epidemic had made us more collectivist, and that the post-lockdown world would be relatively authoritarian. The JLI bought advertising on Facebook to promote the piece. Facebook first authorised the advertisements, then pulled them without explanation.

In my case, as in all the others, it is impossible to know what the offence was. None of the pieces was making tendentious claims, let alone promoting conspiracy theories. Since Facebook offers neither explanations nor an open appeals process, we can only guess.

Are algorithms set in such a way as to screen out Right-of-centre opinions? Are they overseen by people with an explicit agenda? Is Facebook responding to pile-ons by woke activists? Is the real objection not so much to the content as to the authors?

I suspect the last. A few weeks ago, Think Scotland, a Unionist website, tried to advertise two articles critical of Nicola Sturgeon. Facebook said no on the bizarre grounds that they violated its “Vaccine Discourager” guidelines. The editor, Brian Monteith, suspecting that Facebook was being pressurised by Cybernats, experimentally tried to advertise a wholly unpolitical article about a young mother potty-training her daughter. It, too, was rejected. Eventually, after a campaign mounted by Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, Facebook backed down.

For what it’s worth, I take the view that Facebook, as a private company, can run whatever adverts it likes. But let’s be absolutely clear that it is now a publisher – a publisher with an agenda. Any notion that Facebook (or Twitter, or YouTube) is simply a platform has gone. It is one more opinionated channel, alongside Fox News, Russia Today, the BBC and the Morning Star.

What is most interesting is not the fact that Facebook has its biases – we all have biases – but what those biases are. Bizarrely for a company that was originally meant to facilitate the free flow of ideas, it has become intolerant of dissent – or, at least, of certain forms dissent. You generally won’t get into trouble for denying Stalin’s crimes, boycotting Israel or celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s death. But question whether there is excessive use of state power in enforcing lockdowns or reducing carbon emissions and you may be excluded.

Indeed, we seem to be reaching the point where simply to call for free speech is becoming dangerous. To the extent that the JLI can be said to have a collective view on anything, it believes in heterodoxy. Its founder, a former Oxford academic called Martin Cox, ensures that his summer schools and seminars hear a range of views from top lecturers, and encourages his students to engage with ideas that might initially repel them. That is, if you think about it, the essence of liberalism.

The article of mine which JLI ran, the one Facebook found intolerable, was not about Covid-19 or public health. It was about the fragility of an open society, the way a shared threat can throw people back on their tribal instincts, and the consequent likelihood that powers seized by governments on a supposedly contingent basis in 2020 won’t be relinquished when the epidemic passes.

Any organisation that sees such opinions as unacceptable is – there is no other way to put this – hostile to liberty.

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Tragic reason why man tried to live stream death on Facebook

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A man who threatened to live stream his own death on Facebook after he was denied euthanasia despite a viral campaign now plans to travel to Switzerland to end his life.

Alain Cocq, 57, who suffers from a disease that is so rare that it does not even have a name, says he is in a permanent state of suffering.

His case went viral in September 2020 when he threatened to live stream his death on Facebook if French President Emmanuel Macron did not change the country’s laws to allow for assisted dying.

He had to give up on his project after Facebook cut the feed, but he is still advocating for changes in law and has now decided to go to Switzerland to be able to benefit from euthanasia there.

He is applying to the authorities in the Swiss capital Berne and he hopes to receive a positive response in the coming months, if not weeks.

Alain Cocq is now travelling to Switzerland after he was denied euthanasia. Source: Newsflash/Australscope

Alain Cocq is now travelling to Switzerland after he was denied euthanasia. Source: Newsflash/Australscope

Cocq suffers from a rare form of disease that has been described as being similar to ischaemia, which is when a restriction in blood being supplied to live tissue causes an oxygen shortage that damages the tissue and can cause dysfunctions.

There is no cure for his condition, which will, very slowly, prove fatal.

“I want end of life to become the primary theme of the presidential elections in 2022,” he told local French newspaper 20 Minutes.

Despite his appeal to the French president in September, President Macron said he was “unable to accede to his request” despite the “profound respect” he had for him.

The retired plumber, who has been ill for 34 years, is hoping the Swiss will help him end his life after a failed attempt with the European Court of human rights in 1993 and a first petition to the French government in 1994.

At the time, he was still in a wheelchair, but after that numerous cardiovascular and cerebral accidents rendered him permanently bedridden.

Australscope

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