It’s good that Facebook will finally pay for using other people’s news content, writes columnist Rachel Peters. But that money shouldn’t go directly to the big corporates

When Facebook was launched it really was a social network. My generation, millennials, were early adopters, and the way we used it was radically different from today. First, the advertising on it was comparatively minimal. There wasn’t a news feed to constantly scroll on. For ‘status updates’ we attempted to write funny anecdotes, not the urgent novellas that people post today, and certainly the nerdiest thing you could have posted was a news article.

We used it primarily to expand our social circles, to connect with people we just met. Having over 2000 friends was an enviable target. When we went to parties, we took photos on our digital cameras and uploaded the whole lot of them the next day. We wanted people to see how much fun we were having. The word ‘selfie’ was invented, and everyone started accusing my generation of being raging narcissists, but we were not narcissists (well not all of us), we were just having a fun time online.

Facebook kept growing and changing, they introduced new features and a new layout, we always hated the changes, but then we collectively became more addicted. The news feed became a central feature, which encouraged spending more time on the platform, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. They introduced a like button, which gave us more gratification, people started sharing more, commenting on everything. Businesses started running pages, the boomers arrived, so did the news platforms. It moved from being a social network to a one-stop shop. Now Facebook even has Marketplace to compete with Trade Me.

As the same time, Web 2.0 brought great change and uncertainty to newsrooms. Advertising spend went digital, with Google and Facebook becoming the dominate players in that market. Sales of physical copies of papers dropped significantly, and all the time we were spending on social media meant that our attention was not being spent reading articles or watching news. Everyone started complaining about ‘the media’, even more than they used to. The clickbait, the rushed copy, push notifications because a penguin walked into a café and made friends with a dog, or something equally as absurd.

It is against this backdrop that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation started lobbying the Australian government for the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which would make Facebook and Google pay for links to news articles. The language used by the government around the bill draws on values such as ‘fairness’ and ‘public interest’, but of course, for Murdoch, one of the great henchmen of neoliberalism, there is also self-interest. The bill is hardly revolutionary, and it favours established media companies over encouraging a diverse media landscape.

But it also sets a precedent for Facebook to start paying for some of the content it shares. Facebook and Google argue they are platforms, not publishers, and therefore they should not have to pay for content, but the fact they use sets of data to curate content towards an individual’s preferences means that they exist in a grey area between being publishers or neutral platforms.

Even if news is only a small part of Facebook’s overall traffic, the design of Facebook is very intentional, and based on how it wants people to behave when they are on the site. They themselves built their platform to be the one-stop shop on the internet, the site everyone opens when they log in to their computer or their phone, and they have huge control over how people use their platform through the behavioural data they collect.

It is fundamentally wrong for someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a tech entrepreneur, to have so much control over a key source of communication and news consumption. Regulations which make big tech at least pay something for the content they carry should be welcomed. However, it would be better for payments to go to a contestable fund for public interest journalism rather than benefit the more established media companies, as is the case in Australia. As more countries look to regulate social media platforms (France has introduced similar regulations to Australia), New Zealand will need to look at whether we can negotiate with social media companies to build a more sustainable media industry.

Facebook was set up as a social network, but it is so much more than that now. It’s where our Prime Minister goes live to answer questions from the public, its where people share petitions, its where your great-aunt in Australia shares anti-vax conspiracy theories.

But the bottom line is it’s also a global communication platform which profits from selling audiences to advertisers through hosting and curating news content that it does not pay for. No ‘likes’ for that.

Rachel Peters is a media and communications researcher and lecturer at Auckland University of Technology.

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