These past few weeks, Facebook has been showing off its firepower in a battle with the Australian government. On the morning of Thursday 18th February, Australians woke up to a Facebook with no news sources. Australian and international news sources on Facebook, including certain government websites, were blocked to users in the country, as well as Australian news outlets’ profiles being blocked for international users.
This overnight wipe-out was a protest from the social media giant against the News Media Bargaining Code. This bill would require digital platforms, including social media and search engines, to pay news outlets for the news content they host on their site. This move follows attempts to revive journalism with the purpose of counteracting misinformation online and its interference in democratic processes around the world, which have ultimately led to much polarisation and the discrimination and exclusion of many groups.
This article will outline Facebook’s response and the consequences of the event’s actions, followed by policy recommendations for the United Kingdom in light of this and the growing impact of fast-spreading falsehoods online in our own country.
The platform’s response was unsympathetic to concerns over the potential spike in fake news heightened by the absence of certain government sites informing users on urgent concerns such as COVID-19 and bush fires, concerns which a Channel 4 report supports. Facebook has stated that this move had been a response to the law’s lack of “clear guidance on the definition of news content“. It could be argued, nonetheless, that this was a useful exercise for legislators to help them optimise the wording of the new law in order to avoid further abuse of its wording in future.
However, the risk taken by Facebook to leave a “vacuum of professionally sourced and fact-checked news“, be it short or long-term, provokes questions over the credibility of the social network’s efforts to combat misinformation on its platform. Facebook wanted to demonstrate their power through the impact they were capable of in just one night. Yet this seems at odds with how slow they have been previously when asked to remove abusive, offensive, or misleading content from their platform.
Other Policy Areas Affected
Facebook’s perceived monopoly of social networking platforms could very well lead to its downfall, or at least distrust on the part of the public. However, there have been criticisms from the Australian government for supporting a perceived media protectionism. It would be useful to use this to inform policies aimed at reviving journalism in the UK, ensuring that the media remains a Fourth Estate which can still challenge the government if needed – something which would be difficult if it relied on state support for its survival.
Many argue that readers will likely find other news outlets, and there is a clear motivation to further this from journalists. Since the social network’s change in algorithms in 2017, news outlets have already started looking for ways to move away from a dependence on social media to reach their readers, and this could be a further push in that direction. The government should be conscious of this and support the process in order to encourage users not to rely solely on social media as their news source.
It would seem that Australia’s refusal to give in to Facebook’s bullying is having a positive influence on government approaches around the world, even at this early stage. Countries with varying numbers of active Facebook users are looking to Australia for inspiration before they, too, act to maintain the undeniable role of the media in ensuring the sustainability of a healthy democratic system.
It is apparent that the United Kingdom is in a different position because of the very recent introduction of Facebook News, which has been negotiating deals with our national and local media outlets for its news aggregator portal. Yet we must not rely on social media to save the UK media industry.
Policy looking to tackle misinformation online should be focused on the strengthening of fact-checked journalism rather than legislation to remove or penalise such forms of content, in order to avoid the risk of infringing on citizens’ freedom of speech. An example of this would be the backlash to Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill which received much negative press from organisations such as Amnesty International. It will be important to find a solution which neither restricts the freedom of expression of users nor incites such hostility from platform providers.
For this reason, a recommended course of action would be to redirect fines incurred through violations of privacy and antitrust legislation to a central body that would distribute the funds to news outlets and initiatives to promote further journalistic work. These bodies would act in a similar manner to the British Film Institute and Arts Council England, creating thousands of pounds such as the sum of £500,000 paid out by Facebook for data breaches linked to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal which first came to light in 2018. This funding body could also support initiatives for alternative news aggregators, avoiding excessive influence from Facebook in this sector. Furthermore, investigative journalists would be given an incentive to keep on top of large technology companies, potentially saving state resources in identifying data leaks and breaches with greater efficiency.
In summary, despite Facebook’s reinstatement of news outlet profiles on its platforms and its successful negotiations with the Australian government, this does not detract, however, from the debates highlighted throughout the debacle. Analysing these events offers inspiration for creative responses to online misinformation in the UK. This enables sustainable support of the media industry and UK journalism, arguably a pillar of democracy which we cannot afford to lose and will rely on in the continuing digitalisation of our society.
By Maria Gibson Vazquez
Maria is an MA Global Media Industries student who has recently moved back to the UK after working in Paris after her undergraduate degree. With a strong interest in the impact of traditional and digital media on democratic processes, she is currently working on a Master’s dissertation based on how social media has the potential to enhance participatory democracy.
The featured image is by Thought Catalogue on Unsplash.
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