Facebook and Google could not have reacted more differently to Australia’s move to make them pay for news content. They both started from combative positions, but as the new media code drew closer to reality, Google lowered its fists, while Facebook went straight for the head.
Facebook’s dramatic use of its might to try coerce a government – it reversed its news ban in Australia on Tuesday after obtaining a few last-minute concessions – only reinforce growing concerns that the social media giant is too big, too powerful and needs to be reined in. Given several countries have signalled pursuing similar legislation, the global chain reaction of regulation Facebook sought to fend off might actually have been accelerated courtesy of its abrupt behaviour in Australia.
But the reactions from Google and Facebook to Australia’s looming media code – Google has reached deals with numerous Australian media companies, including Guardian Australia – aren’t so surprising when one considers recent trends, and Facebook’s past behaviour.
Facebook has gone nuclear before – in 2018, when it decided overnight to change its algorithm to deprioritise news content in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That sent referral traffic to media publishers plummeting, in Slate’s case by 87%. It also forced the closure of then-millennial-favourite Mic (and the loss of over 100 jobs).
Facebook sent its message to the media industry back then – no longer prioritising news, now prioritising friends and family. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg said exactly that when explaining his algorithm change in 2018:
“The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups. As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.”
A few shifts have taken place since then on multiple fronts. Google replaced Facebook as the main driver of traffic through Google Search for many media companies and is now launching a series of products designed to help users reach news content, including Google Discover, Google Web Stories and Google News Showcase.
The latter two products have already been launched in the United States but are still in the process of rolling out globally, so Google’s decision to do deals with Australian media companies to create content to live on these Google products was completely in line with the tech giant’s priorities.
The second major change that has taken place since 2018 is user behaviour. Major policy shifts by digital platforms, either as a result of their own volition as with Facebook, or imposed by government regulation, are almost guaranteed to provoke a shift in user behaviour. Users – all of us – are not passive in this muddled digital world, and user behaviour can also influence how platforms shift … see Instagram’s launch of Reels in response to the TikTok phenomenon, or Stories in response to Snapchat.
Australian users, in line with global trends, had already developed new habits to consume news after Facebook’s move in 2018. Although Facebook has maintained its top spot as the main social media platform used for consuming news, that has plateaued in several western countries, and in Australia’s case been declining, according to the annual Digital News Report published by the University of Canberra.
Sora Park, professor of communication at the University of Canberra and one of the report’s researchers, says that only 6% of those users turn to Facebook as a sole source of news. The remaining 94% encounter news content on Facebook, but also seek or encounter news elsewhere, either directly from news outlets or other platforms.
“[The decline is] not only because Facebook has changed its policy to be more friends and family, and less of news and politics, it’s also because other platforms have grown a lot in the last five years.”
YouTube and Instagram, both originally launched as primarily entertainment platforms, have in recent years seen growing consumption of news content. Australian news consumption on YouTube has grown by 40% since 2016, making it second to Facebook as a news source in the country. Instagram usage among Australians for news content has grown by 200% in that same time (from 3% in 2016 to 9% in 2020).
And publishers and tech giants have responded in kind. Many newsrooms are investing more into these growing platforms, and tech giants are facilitating the shift in user behaviour.
The key in understanding user behaviour, Park says, is recognising that many users are not actively seeking news on these platforms, but encountering news content “incidentally”.
“There’s a big difference between incidental and active news consumption … People actively seek news on Google Search or Google News or Apple News. But social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, people mostly consume news incidentally.
“If you’re not really interested in news and you’re not really engaged, [incidental] consumption gives you some information about the world and increases your interest, and then you might seek news.”
Facebook and Google’s polar opposite reactions to regulation in Australia are advanced warnings to media publishers across the world: do not rely on Facebook to engage incidental, or passive, news consumers – something media companies should have prepared for after 2018 – and shift to growing platforms such as Google’s various products, including YouTube, as well as LinkedIn, TikTok, and, ironically, Facebook-owned Instagram.
• Antoun Issa is the off-platform editor at Guardian Australia