If Meta bans news in Australia, what will happen? Canada’s experience is telling

At a parliamentary hearing late last week, Meta once again suggested it could ban links to news on Facebook and Instagram in Australia.

This would repeat the ban it enacted for more than a week in February 2021. That ban was in response to the introduction of the News Media Bargaining Code, an Australian law designed to force digital platforms to pass on some of their advertising earnings to news publishers.

A similar law – based on this code – was passed in Canada last year. As a result, in Canada news has been blocked from Meta platforms since August 2023.

This has produced strongly negative results for Canadian news outlets. Not only has the Canadian law failed to produce revenue flows from Meta to news producers, it severely reduced the incoming user traffic to their websites from Meta’s social media platforms.

What happened after the news ban in Canada?

The ongoing news ban in Canada has had several key effects. First, the removal of direct links to news articles meant a collapse in user visits to news sites. Those who once occasionally clicked on a news link in their feed can no longer do so.

This has especially affected regional and local news sites, for whom Facebook is often a key source of audience traffic. At a time when regional and rural areas of both Canada and Australia are already in danger of turning into “news deserts”, this is particularly concerning.

News outlets and audiences have worked around the bans to some extent. They’ve found circumvention techniques, such as posting article content without links, or article screenshots.

But such tricks can never fully replace the audience attention that has been lost. They also don’t help news outlets generate revenue for their content (as website traffic does through ads).

Instead, the main replacement for news coverage on Facebook has been political discussion that doesn’t directly reference or link to the news it draws on. This disconnection also opens the door for the circulation of well-meaning misinformation or deliberate disinformation.

Ultimately, the users of Meta’s platforms who suffer the most are those who are least interested in the news and who believe “news will find them”.

Highly invested news consumers will always find the news somewhere else. Those who see news only when people in their networks share articles will miss out, and may not even notice what they’re missing.

News is already hard to find on social media

Social media users are on these platforms for many other purposes than to follow the news. Most Australians don’t actually care much for news in the first place.

According to this year’s Digital News Report Australia, 68% of Australians actively avoid the news, and 41% suffer from news fatigue. After years of wall-to-wall reporting about pandemic, ecological, domestic violence, financial and military crises, this is hardly surprising.

Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code was conceived with a flawed assumption that social media play a central role as a conduit to news content, and that Facebook wouldn’t follow through on its threats to ban news.

But Facebook’s parent company Meta did exactly that, and shows no signs of changing that approach. Indeed, even where it doesn’t actively ban news content altogether, it is now substantially reducing news visibility in the feeds of its users.

This is because news has long tended to be more trouble for Meta than it’s worth. Not only is news a minute subset of all Facebook content, but it also generates an out-sized amount of unhappiness and controversy that requires costly moderation.

Meta also knows that reducing the visibility of news on its platforms doesn’t substantially impact on user experience. By its own calculations, only some 3% of the posts Facebook users see in their feeds contain links of any kind.

This can’t be independently verified without greater data access for independent researchers than the company currently provides, but certainly aligns with the everyday experience of ordinary Facebook users. Even of these 3% of posts, only a fraction link to news sources, let alone Australian news sources.

Our own analysis during the brief Australian news ban in February 2021 showed only a very minor impact on the posting and engagement patterns on Australian Facebook pages. Many users may not even have noticed news was suddenly missing from their feeds.

What can Australia do now?

In 2021, the news ban was temporarily resolved by Meta agreeing to voluntarily make some payments to a select few Australian news organisations.

In exchange, the then Morrison government elected to not “designate” Meta under the bargaining code, meaning the provisions didn’t apply to Meta’s platforms. These agreements are now coming to an end and Meta has already stated it has no interest in renewing them.

This gives the Albanese government the choice between applying the code to Meta after all, or allowing the agreements to expire without consequence. The latter would effectively kill off the News Media Bargaining Code as a meaningful piece of legislation.

Formally “designating” Meta to make it pay news publishers is likely to backfire. Meta is building an obvious argument here: if its platforms carry only a limited amount of Australian news content, why should it be forced to share revenue with Australian news publishers?

Both in the court of public opinion and in any legal proceedings it may pursue, such an argument is likely to prove highly persuasive.

A smarter solution to support local news

Australian news media need financial support, but the bargaining code was always severely flawed legislation. It should be abandoned at the earliest opportunity.

There is a better way for the Albanese government to tackle the real issue at stake: media revenue.

Right now, most Australian news media outlets are struggling to survive. Since news media moved online, audiences now expect news for free and most readers are not willing to pay. That leaves many publications without a sustainable business model and in need of public subsidy.

But we don’t usually provide subsidies by forcing profitable companies to negotiate directly with unprofitable ones, like the News Media Bargaining Code does. An alternative model is needed.

One option could be to use the corporate tax generated from digital platforms to support public-interest journalism by Australian media organisations. This would mean taxing the platforms’ revenues appropriately and fairly in the name of Australian citizens and in the national interest.

However, this would also require a stronger quality framework for what constitutes public-interest journalism. The latest round of journalism lay-offs in Australia shows we are rapidly running out of alternatives if we want to sustain quality, diverse Australian news content into the future.

by : Axel Bruns, Professor, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

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