City News

All news is fake news to Facebook

Time for Facebook to face the facts. Image: Google

By LAWRENCE GIBBONS

Facebook has refused to let the City Hub promote a news story written by the preeminent investigative journalist Wendy Bacon.

The censored report criticised changes to state planning guidelines which will pave the way for the Star casino (with possible links to organised crime) to build a new high-rise development in Pyrmont. Appearing in the City Hub’s 25th anniversary edition, the article cited Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s objection to a new casino tower, saying the process was nothing more than “zombie planning.” 

In social media terms, the City Hub sought to “boost” Wendy Bacon’s story to reach more readers. Why would a local publication even want to give Facebook money? In 2018 the company introduced new policies that buried posts from media organisations big and small. Several years earlier Facebook reduced the priority given to all posts on business pages, including those put up by news outlets.  As a result, unless a publisher pays money to Facebook, only a fraction of a page’s total followers will ever see a given news item. 

While Facebook has been busy burying news from legitimate media organisations, its role as a source for news information and disinformation has grown exponentially. A recent Pew Research study found that social media is now the primary source for online news. Of the more than 2.4 billion internet users, nearly two thirds get their breaking news from social media. If you want a story to be read where people get their news — on Facebook, you need to give money to Mark Zuckerberg and co. Assuming they will even take your cash. 

So why did Facebook prevent the City Hub from promoting Wendy Bacon’s story? A media spokesperson at Facebook explained,  “As this ad is of a political nature, it discusses Lord Mayor Clover Moore, the associated page and account looking to publish this ad will need to be authorised as part of our advertising process for running ads of a political nature.”

In recent months Facebook has implemented new policy guidelines that classify all paid news posts about anything to do with politics as being paid political advertising. If a media outlet reports on anything from a controversial casino development to the opinions of a democratically elected official that story cannot be boosted unless the media outlet first requests permission to place political advertising on Facebook.   

In the lead up to the US election, changes that were made to address concerns of fake news and foreign interference in the election process have been applied to all news stories that appear on the social media site. As far as Facebook is concerned it is all fake news. A report that is fact checked by a professional journalist is the same as a conspiratorial post written in a Russian troll factory.  Facebook has become Fakebook. 

The move has been roundly denounced overseas. David Chavern, the CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade association of some 2,000 North American newspapers stated, “This is bad for journalism… It implies that the reporting and opinion of professional journalists is not a reflection of editorial judgment, but is instead designed solely to manipulate readers for money. This is a message that will be embraced by the dictators and authoritarian governments who love to denounce real reporters and actual journalism.”

A global group of media organisations sent a letter to Zuckerberg denouncing the new policy saying, “Facebook will undermine journalism’s role as the Fourth Estate and legitimise anti-journalism narratives around the world. This is not a marketing or business issue. We see your policy as another step toward furthering a false and dangerous narrative that blurs the lines between real reporting from the professional media and propaganda.”

The bottom line is that Facebook can afford to turn away the $AU25 the City Hub attempted to spend to promote Wendy Bacon’s news story. Political advertising is big business for Facebook. From May 2018 to November 2019, political advertising accounted for $AU1.2 billion. The largest political advertiser on the platform promoted the man who denounces all credible journalism as “fake news.” The campaign to re-elect Donald J Trump spent $AU28 million on Facebook. The American election is big business and the rest of the world is clearly an outpost for the US based global media empire.

While traditional media outlets around the world watch their markets evaporate, Facebook and its digital offsider Google gobble up more and more digital advertising. From politicians to cream puffs to poodle parlours, dollars that once went to support serious journalism have quickly evaporated. Despite press releases and platitudes to the contrary, it is has grown increasingly clear that America’s tech duopoly wants total market control of all global advertising dollars at the expense of serious journalism everywhere.

Here in Australia, following an inquiry by the ACCC, the government has pledged that the tech titans will pay Australian media companies when their content is accessed via their sites. The Australian media duopoly of News and Nine has long been losing money to the tech duopoly of Google and Facebook. For years Rupert Murdoch has lobbied the government to implement laws that would force Facebook and Google to pay local media outlets for their content. Last week Federal Treasurer Josh Freidenberg pledged that Silicon Valley will pay Australian media companies for stories that appear on their platforms. Facebook has threated to prevent news items from being posted by anyone in Australia if this happens. Based on overseas experiences it is unlikely Facebook is bluffing. They do not want Australia to set a precedent that would be followed by other countries whose media sectors are also struggling. 

This would not be the first time a government has attempted to force the tech giants to pay for using local news content. In 2014 Spain introduced a similar scheme and Google closed-down its Google News service permanently. The impact on traffic to Spanish media sites was severe with visitor numbers falling substantially. Recent studies suggest that major media organisations with a large digital footprint were less impacted over time. The nation’s largest newspaper, El Pais actually saw an increase in traffic. Presumably as a large and established media brand they had less need for external sources to bring readers to their site. In short Nine and News will survive. But the impact on smaller media companies – particularly during a global pandemic – is anyone’s guess.

In a Trumpian era where all news is fake news, it is increasingly clear that Facebook has little interest in supporting or promoting serious public interest journalism anywhere in the world anywhere on its platform. 

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