Facebook’s threat yesterday to stop Australians sharing news content on its platforms if the government forced big companies to pay local media outlets could leave us less well-informed and allow misinformation to flourish, experts have warned.

That shakedown leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We still don’t know what kind of content will qualify as news. And, most worryingly, we don’t know what social media platforms already rife with fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories will look like when the legitimate stuff is gone.

A newsfeed without news

There’s a good chance that if Facebook carries through with its threat, most Australians won’t notice a huge change to their newsfeed in the short term at least. How much actual news a person might see on their feed tends to be influenced by a bunch of variables: what pages they like, what their friends engage with, even the time of day they’re scrolling.

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Instead the impacts could hit particular demographic groups. Plenty of Australians do still rely on Facebook for news. The most recent Digital News Report for Australia found 57% of people get their news from social media, 39% from Facebook.

Queensland University of Technology digital media professor Axel Bruns said he was most concerned about people already disengaged from the news who might stumble on information through social media.

“There’s a large [number] of people encounter news serendipitously,” he says. “This could hurt people with limited interest in the news. They’re going to encounter a lot less news content.”

People who don’t otherwise read or watch the news tend to be younger and often tend to be of a lower socioeconomic status, Bruns said. For that group being able to incidentally get bits of news content from social media is hugely beneficial.

Those issues will be heightened if news content was blocked on Instagram, Curtin University’s lead of internet studies Tama Leaver said. Media companies increasingly try to reach a younger, more diverse audience on that platform by presenting news in novel ways, through videos and stories.

That loss of incidental interaction with news content will leave young Australians less informed about the state of the country.

Only fake news left

But here’s the other thing about those younger, less engaged news consumers. They tend to fall much easier for misinformation and conspiracy theories, the kind of garbage that’s been amassing on Facebook and which it has been totally incompetent removing.

Bruns and Leaver worry that when good, well-reported news is gone, the balance will tip towards disinformation and junk.

“If you want to look at one person who would benefit greatly from the lack of competition for real news you look at Clive Palmer,” Leaver says.

“He’s shown that you can sway a lot of people with consistent advertising that wouldn’t be counted as news.”

Yesterday the top Facebook link from an Australian page was by Craig Kelly, the Liberal backbencher who regularly uses his page to promote conspiracy theories about climate change and COVID-19.

Facebook has always been dominated by people like Kelly. The difference is if news from reputable outlets like the ABC is gone, he’s all that’s left.

It’s also unclear how Facebook would cut down on misinformation. It currently has fact-checking relationships in Australia which rely on local news outlets.

Will it happen?

Whether Facebook carries through with its threat is still a big if. It has refused local media requests and won’t go into the details of what content would be limited.

Its options are to either restrict certain domain names or put a blanket limit on Australian users from sharing news.

Bruns said there was an element of gamesmanship in Facebook’s tactics.

“What they’re trying to do is set a precedent,” he says. “So much of this is not about what happens in Australia, but sending a message to other regulators around the world in larger or more important markets.”

Leaver said while Facebook’s threat was, for now, just that, the government should take it very seriously. Facebook has little to lose by getting rid of news in Australia.

We, on the other hand, could be left with an even more poisoned social media landscape.

“I don’t think that’s a good thing for democracy,” Leaver says.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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