Recently Facebook banned news from its platform in Australia in opposition to the proposed news media bargaining code. The ban not only disabled Australian news organisations from sharing content on their Facebook pages, it also hid all their past posts and, with them, ordinary users’ discussions in the comments.
Facebook has since reversed the ban. Still, the extraordinary move revealed something many of us technically knew but perhaps hadn’t fully grasped before: we don’t own the content we post on these platforms and can lose access to it at any time. For academics whose research depends on these sources, this may have devastating consequences.
“These social media platforms ultimately are commercial enterprises. In part, they make their money from selling access to data, so not all of this content is simply freely available,” says Professor Axel Bruns, a researcher at the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre. “So much of our lives now happens in social media spaces, in the same way perhaps that in the 1800s or so, letters between people would have been a really important source,” Bruns says. “Interactions and public responses by social media users to what’s happening in the world are a really important source of information not just right now … but also in the future.”
These interactions will be particularly relevant for historians looking back on the 21st century. Since the 1960s, historians have shifted their focus from the study of major events and figures to include a broader range of perspectives on the past, but one of the challenges this poses is finding material on the lives of “ordinary people”. Most people don’t leave a detailed archive of their lives in traditional, institutional archives, so historians turn to diaries, personal letters and oral histories as evidence.
The advent of social media, then, seems like a dream. Avenues for ordinary people to record their activities, thoughts and feelings, and to interact with institutions and each other, have exploded. Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson, a senior lecturer in Australian history at the University of Sydney, notes that the 2020 US election was “unprecedented in terms of the circulation of different types of what historians will call ‘primary sources’ on the internet”.
“Many people voted based on what they read on Facebook. More than that, they debated with each other about these ideas on Facebook, in a way that they were never able to do before,” she says.
I’ve watched this transition from traditional to online sources first-hand. As a student researching the history of universities, I often use student newspapers as a source. Letters to the editor are especially useful as they shed light on public opinion on current affairs as well as the types of people engaging with these conversations. But when I co-edited Honi Soit, the University of Sydney’s student newspaper, in 2017, I watched this section of the paper dwindle. We struggled to fill even half a page with letters some weeks as people took their comments and discussions online instead, mostly to Facebook. The letters section became less representative of general opinion as a result. The discussions between students online were often more robust, but the problem for researchers is that they are not completely public or archivable in the same way as newspapers, for instance.
“We often think of Facebook and the internet like we would think of a library or a cafe – where we are freely taking part in public discourse,” Loy-Wilson argues.
This poses a problem not only for researchers, but anyone who treats Facebook as an archive of their life. Access to precious memories, such as photos with family and friends, could be lost at any time. Some people also use Facebook groups to share sources on their family history with others researching this topic, explains Loy-Wilson. “The problem is, it happens really fast, often it’s not documented, people can delete their comments or they can unfriend you,” she says.
According to Bruns, the only way to archive social media data without breaching the platforms’ terms of service is through their APIs (application programming interfaces), which limit the volume and type of data that can be saved. For instance, Facebook allows large pages to save a record of their posts through CrowdTangle, but this record does not include the comments on those posts. Individuals can download a far more comprehensive archive of their Facebook information, including their posts, photos and videos they’ve shared, and their comments and reactions to other people’s content.
Problems with archiving social media content on a broad scale could severely limit historical research in the future. “If we’re not going to have access to these [social media] archives, we’re actually going to fall back into an elitist, censorious kind of history, the very kind of history that modern historiography was invented to critique,” Loy-Wilson says.
What the temporary Facebook news ban has made very clear is that we cannot rely on social media companies to guarantee free, independent access to content posted on their platforms now or in the future. Although social media seems public, the platforms can extinguish access or delete content at their whim.
One solution is for individuals to donate their Facebook data to libraries and archives, which the National Library of New Zealand encourages. However, this is not a complete solution, because it will produce “a much smaller and far less representative archive”, Bruns notes.
As social media corporations have shown us repeatedly, they are motivated by profit over public good. We need to work urgently to independently archive the important social interactions that occur on their platforms on a broad scale.
• Siobhan Ryan is a history student and freelance writer based in Sydney