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

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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.

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.

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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