Facebook’s decision to block all news in Australia could be the catalyst for users to ‘break up’ with the social media giant, commentators say.
After all, the pervasive social media platform has been luring us in, getting us addicted, and then harvesting our data for profit, they say.
“In the latest Senate committee hearing, Facebook declared that news items shared or posted on Facebook are only less than 5 per cent of people’s news feed,” Associate Professor Benedetta Brevini from the University of Sydney’s Department of Media and Communications said.
“But as a political economist of communication, I know very well the incredible benefits that platforms get in aggregating news and information. They lock their users in, by attracting them into their digital estate.”
Professor Brevini said Facebook used content from news publishers to make its site more attractive to users, keep them scrolling, commenting and liking, all to harvest their data.
“They create behavioural profiles which are incredibly valuable,” she explained to The New Daily.
“They then use that data to target the same users with more sophisticated advertising.”
Professor Brevini said Australians should think of new ways to share their lives with each other, using the internet as a public resource, instead of making profits for huge tech companies overseas.
“[Facebook] claimed for so long they couldn’t deal with misinformation, then in half a day they decided not to share news content any more. They can do whatever they want,” she said.
“So let’s just say ‘OK don’t worry’, and share news on other platforms.”
The almighty algorithm – the highly secretive method Facebook bases its user experience on – has undergone huge overhauls in recent years.
In 2016 and 2018, it changed how it worked so posts by ‘friends’ were seen more than those from news outlets and companies.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne, an associate professor in public policy, social and political sciences from the University of Melbourne, said Facebook’s algorithm preferences the posts it thinks users will interact with.
“We end up with a feed that caters very well – maybe too well – to our biases,” Dr Rosewarne said.
“While we’re logged into the platform, every keystroke we make – in the platform and outside of it – is registered.
“This is why if we start Googling shoes we’ll soon be bombarded with Facebook ads for shoes. Targeted ads are a very visible consequence of Facebook’s use of this data.”
For all the connection that it brings – helping us keep in contact with people or sharing nice moments in our lives – it also facilitates hate crimes, bullying, terrorism, and has played a major role in helping spread fake news, she said.
“It is a business, and when we use the platform we should always be aware that this is a private company and not public space, as much as it might sometimes feel as such,” she said.
I think we should see other platforms
“Can I break up with Facebook?” said Tama Leaver, a professor of internet studies at Curtin University.
“I think people are now asking that question … having seen the callous way they’ve been treated.”
If Facebook commits to upholding its ban on news publications, the value of users’ news feeds will plummet, Professor Leaver told TND.
“People will share personal stories and wonderful pictures of cats, but if that’s not interspersed with serious news – which many people look to – its value will go down for them,” he said.
“There are other platforms that are equally, if not more deserving of our eyeballs.”
But it’s not going to be easy.
Popular alternatives like Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook, so even if you delete your Facebook account, you won’t have disentangled yourself completely from the tech giant.
“The real challenge is convincing your friends to migrate off the platform so you can still talk to them,” Professor Leaver said.
But Marc Cheong, a research fellow in digital ethics and social media at the University of Melbourne, said weaning ourselves off Facebook – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic – would be “tough”.
“During the lockdowns we had everywhere, Facebook was one of the social media channels to stay in touch with our friends and network,” Dr Cheong told TND.
One benefit of the news blockade, he said, was that it may drive more people to access their news directly from reputable publications.
“Hopefully it encourages people to go straight to The New Daily‘s website, or the ABC’s website to access news themselves without overdependence on social media being a news source,” Dr Cheong said.
On the other hand, the ban could create a vacuum for conspiracy theories and misinformation to flourish on Facebook.
“Facebook has had a big misinformation problem for a couple of years, and it hasn’t solved it,” Professor Leaver said.
“It’s done some PR about COVID or vaccine misinformation, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. In Australia, if that’s all you’ve got left today, that’s what’s going to fill the void.”