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

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

At a hearing in the Australian Parliament last month, Meta again proposed banning links to news on Facebook and Instagram in Australia. This would be a repeat of the ban it imposed 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 give a portion of their advertising revenue to news publishers.

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

This had extremely negative consequences for Canadian news organizations. Not only did the Canadian law not result in Meta generating revenue for news producers, it also significantly reduced inbound user traffic from Meta's social media platforms to their websites.

What happened after the news ban in Canada?

The ongoing news ban in Canada has had several important effects. First, the removal of direct links to news articles has led to 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 particularly affected regional and local news sites, for which Facebook is often a major source of audience traffic. This is particularly worrying at a time when regional and rural areas in Canada and Australia are already at risk of becoming “news deserts.”

News outlets and readers have circumvented the bans to some extent, developing evasion techniques such as publishing article content without links or screenshots of articles.

But such tricks can never fully replace lost audience attention, nor do they help news organizations generate revenue for their content (as website traffic from ads does).

Instead, news coverage on Facebook is mostly replaced by political discussions that do not directly reference or link to the news they refer to. This separation also opens the door to the spread of well-intentioned misinformation or targeted disinformation.

Ultimately, those who suffer most from the situation are those users of the meta-platforms who are least interested in news and believe that “the news will find them”.

Interested news consumers will always find the news somewhere else. If you only see news when people in your network share articles, you are missing out and may not even notice what you are missing.

News is already hard to find on social media

Social media users use these platforms not only to follow the news, but also for other reasons. Most Australians are not particularly interested in news anyway.

According to this year's Digital News Report Australia, 68% of Australians actively avoid the news and 41% suffer from news fatigue. This is hardly surprising after years of nonstop coverage of pandemics, ecological crises, domestic violence, financial and military crises.

Australia's News Media Bargaining Code was based on the false assumption that social media played a central role in the dissemination of news content and that Facebook would not follow through on its threats to ban news.

Yet that is exactly what Facebook's parent company Meta has done and shows no signs of changing its approach. Even where it does not actively ban news content, it is now significantly reducing the visibility of news in its users' feeds.

This is because news has long been more trouble than it's worth for Meta. Not only does news represent a tiny portion of all Facebook content, it also generates a tremendous amount of discontent and controversy that requires costly moderation.

Meta also knows that reducing the visibility of news on its platforms does not have a significant impact on the user experience. By its own calculations, only about three percent of the posts Facebook users see in their feeds contain links of any kind.

This cannot be independently verified without independent researchers having more data access than the company currently provides, but it certainly corresponds to the everyday experience of ordinary Facebook users. Even of those 3% of posts, only a fraction link to news sources, let alone Australian news sources.

Our own analysis during Australia's brief news ban in February 2021 showed very little impact on posting and engagement patterns on Australian Facebook pages. Many users may not have even noticed that news was suddenly missing from their feeds.

What can Australia do now?

In 2021, the news ban was temporarily lifted when Meta agreed to voluntarily make some payments to a few select Australian news organizations.

In return, the then Morrison government chose not to “name” Meta in the collective agreement, meaning that the provisions did not apply to Meta's platforms. These agreements are now expiring and Meta has already stated that it has no interest in renewing them.

This leaves the Albanese government with the choice of applying the code to Meta or allowing the agreements to expire without consequences. The latter would effectively destroy the News Media Bargaining Code as a meaningful law.

Formally requiring Meta to pay news publishers is likely to backfire. Meta is making an obvious argument here: if its platforms only contain a limited amount of Australian news content, why should it be forced to share revenue with Australian news publishers?

Such an argument is likely to prove extremely convincing both in public opinion and in any legal proceedings.

A smarter solution to support local news

The Australian news media needs financial support, but the collective bargaining agreement has always been a deeply flawed law and should be repealed at the earliest opportunity.

There is a better way for the government of Albania to address the real problem: media revenue.

Currently, most Australian news media are struggling to survive. Since news media went online, readers have come to expect free news and most are unwilling to pay for it. As a result, many publications do not have a sustainable business model and are reliant on public subsidies.

But we do not normally provide subsidies by forcing profitable companies to negotiate directly with unprofitable companies, as the News Media Bargaining Code requires. We need an alternative model.

One option could be to use corporate taxes collected by digital platforms to support Australian media journalism in the public interest. This would mean taxing platforms' revenues appropriately and fairly on behalf of Australian citizens and in the national interest.

But this would also require a stronger quality framework for public interest journalism. The recent wave of layoffs in Australian journalism shows that we are rapidly running out of options if we are to maintain high-quality and diverse Australian news content into the future.