The empty Facebook page of Australia youth publisher Junkee (Image: supplied)

Well shit, turns out they weren’t bluffing. This morning, Australians woke up to a newsfeed without news. Facebook has made good on its threats to block all news content in Australia overnight, hours after the government’s proposed media bargaining code, which forces tech companies to pay outlets, passed the lower house.

It’s been a chaotic morning in the media world. Editors and news directors have been locked in frantic morning meetings. Soothing statements quickly pumped out. Facebook’s ban has been both blunt and arbitrary, dragging pages nobody would consider news into its fight with the Australian government.

And if the tech giant doesn’t back down, the situation could cause huge disruption in an already turbulent Australian media landscape.

While the code has been very good for the big players so far — News Corp and Nine struck multimillion-dollar deals with Google in the past few days — smaller outlets that haven’t gotten a cent from the big tech giants are now robbed of a major source of traffic.

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Who gets cut?

Facebook has never made clear what it defines as “news content”. But on this morning’s evidence, the tech giant seems to have gone nuclear and removed anything with even a vaguely newsy feel to it.

This morning, the Bureau of Meteorology was gone from Facebook. So was South Australia Health (in spite of the ongoing pandemic), Cricket Australia and the Australian Council for Trade Unions.

How did all these pages fall under Zuckerberg’s ban hammer? We do know that the government, when drafting the media code defined “news” incredibly broadly as “issues or events that are relevant in engaging Australians in public debate and in informing democratic decision-making; or current issues or events of public significance for Australians at a local, regional or national level”.

Facebook seems to have taken a similarly broad construction, leaving news feeds around the country disfigured. That’s meant smaller outlets with no real stake in the big showdown over the bargaining code have gotten screwed.

Australian National University academic Andrew Norton discovered he could no longer share links to his higher education blog this morning.

“I hadn’t even read the legislation because I didn’t think it would apply to me,” Norton told Crikey. “I guess I do cover news, but I’m not in any kind of commercial arrangement around it.”

The losers

But Norton is lucky. His blog isn’t hugely reliant on Facebook traffic. Other small publishers aren’t so fortunate. In particular, youth-oriented media sites which have built their brands on Facebook and still rely on it for traffic are worried.

A staffer at Nine-owned youth news site Pedestrian, which derives a significant chunk of its traffic from Facebook, described the situation as “chaos”, with nobody really sure what was going on.

Junkee, another youth-oriented site with a big reliance on Facebook, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“This decision will undoubtedly have an outsized effect on small and medium-sized digital publishers, which will have a significant detrimental impact on the diversity of media voices available to Australians,” it said.

But other small publishers expressed cautious optimism. Bruce Ellen, president of the Country Press Association, tells Crikey Facebook’s response “highlights the fact that the Australian government is so right in pushing for this”.

“It’s really time for Australia and the world to stand up and be counted,” Ellen said. ““The reality is that the move will only strengthen local news outlets.”

A world without news

For many Australians, Facebook is a key source of news. And for many Australians otherwise disengaged with the news, Facebook is probably the only way they keep informed, Queensland University of Technology professor Axel Bruns says.

Those people might stumble on an article because a friend shared it. That engagement, even if peripheral, is now gone.

“If that part of the news chain disappears, then those people who are encountering news don’t any more — that’s where the disruption is most significant,” Bruns said.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about Facebook’s news ban. It could all be even more brinksmanship — Treasurer Josh Frydenberg quickly cited a “constructive discussion” with Zuckerberg this morning.

The tech giant could, maybe, back down. It could tighten up its definition of news in such a way that we can all, at least, get weather updates and cricket highlights.

But what we do know is that a world without news could have worrying consequences for Australia. The ABC provides vital information for people during bushfires. Small Indigenous community organisations are also blocked.

What will be left behind is more potential disinformation, debunkable viral posts, links to YouTube conspiracy. Except now the counterweight to the fake news is gone.

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