Facebook's provocation over your news will hurt democracy

PROVOCATION: Users should be upset by Facebook's threat to pull all Australian news from its platform. Picture: Shutterstock
PROVOCATION: Users should be upset by Facebook's threat to pull all Australian news from its platform. Picture: Shutterstock

There are good reasons to be concerned by Facebook's angry threat this week to stop allowing Australian news to be shared on its platform because of a proposed code that will require it to pay commercial publishers for their journalism.

That's the stories from this paper, or another one, that a friend might throw onto their Facebook feed to discuss with their family or community.

That's stories about how many local people have died of COVID, where the footy final is being held or why toxic pollution is flowing into your river.

Long gone are the days when people simply picked up the paper from the lawn to read.

It's all online and we now know, from the Digital News Report for Australia in 2020, that using social media to access news has been steadily growing, particularly among older generations.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's News Media Bargaining Code is just a draft at this stage, but it is an attempt to level the playing field between the tech giants (Facebook, Google and YouTube) and media outlets which are struggling financially because of the move of advertising revenue to online.

The code was backed by major media companies including ACM (the publisher of this newspaper), News Corp, Nine Entertainment and The Guardian Australia.

To be clear, it costs money to create journalism, and someone needs to pay for it. Why not those who have made big profits from the people who are sharing it?

The reaction to the ACCC's code has been swift from Google and YouTube (which it also owns), immediately putting alerts on their sites warning of dire consequences of the code.

It should be noted that the ACCC has already labelled several of Google's statements about the code as "misinformation".

When the change in terms and conditions hit my Facebook feed this week, I laughed at the audacity of Mark Zuckerberg to claim that Facebook would stop people sharing news from trusted news sources on his platform.

This, after he previously used his support of freedom of speech as an excuse for not taking enough action to stop the spread of false information online, and to fail to stop trolls.

It certainly showed that Facebook's rapacious business model (and that of Google and YouTube) is more concerned about its own financial bottom line than providing what we once hoped would be a utopian online space for maintaining friendships, building community and discussing matters of public concern.

It's clear to all that the advertising-driven business model that has long funded journalism in Australia and elsewhere in the world has failed, at a significant cost to society. But particularly to local and regional media and those who are poor, have low education or who are isolated.

It's good to see action to try to save news in Australia after a particularly long year of closures on the back of COVID and the bushfires.

However, pitting the ACCC against the behemoth platforms in a bid to support journalism was never going to be pretty.

There have been a range of strategies in other countries to force the platforms to help save news, with limited success.

A much easier proposal would have been for the federal government to propose a straight taxing of the platforms and using some form of public interest funding model or subsidy which could distribute funds raised to news organisations.

However, the idea of raising taxes to fund journalism - right at the time when there is so much anger at some news outlets and concerns about trust with others - is highly unlikely, particularly when we watch what has been happening with the funding cuts to our beloved national broadcaster, the ABC.

Of course, what is news, and what is worthy of funding, is a difficult question in itself.

Much academic work has been devoted to the idea of "public interest journalism", the kind that causes royal commissions and ministerial resignations.

But in many communities, particularly regionally, there are other forms of journalism which also clearly deserve funding, particularly those that serve the public interest in direct and indirect ways, such as community-based journalism and "soft" news.

Facebook managing director Will Easton was quoted as saying that the blocking of news "is not our first choice - it is our last".

However blocking news is, in my mind, not a choice. It is a provocation that strikes at the very heart of Australian democracy.

Every single Australian should be upset by that.

Dr Alexandra Wake is program manager, journalism at RMIT University.