In the week ending 20 February, users of Facebook platforms in Australia found links to many external sites no longer available.
Facebook claimed they aimed only to cut links to news outlets, but the bans were more wide-ranging including some trade-union and campaigning organisations (such as Living Income For Everyone, LIFE, where Workers’ Liberty people in Australia are active), as well as state bodies.
Facebook have stated that some of the bans have been errors, but it is unclear which will be reinstated or when. It has gone for “shoot first, question later” maximum disruption.
That is its response to a law currently progressing through Australia’s parliament which requires platforms such as Facebook to reach an agreement to pay for the news content that people click through to.
The disruption is not trivial. Access to web-based material is structured by social media platforms and search engines. Private corporations determine much of what people see.
Television is still the most popular source of news, but social media is catching up and is the main source for younger people. People’s access to news from media organisations is often through social media platforms, either through Facebook’s feed or through user posted links.
Facebook is limiting users’ access to the web to protect its profits and is willing to push governments around to do that. Success in Australia would be a base for Facebook to block similar moves in the EU (there is already a more limited version of the Australian law in France, where Facebook chose not to pick a fight).
Some corporate news organisations are dominated by right-wing propaganda (the Mail Online is the fourth biggest globally), but others provide more reliable news (within limits, and if we read critically). The first and second globally are the New York Times and Guardian. We have an interest in the serious bourgeois news media not becoming an eviscerated husk supplying trivial click-bait for social media platforms.
But we can’t align with the Australian government, either. The state represents ruling class interests. It suits states to have a cosy relationship with their own media (often right-wing, as in Australia, where the Murdoch empire dominates). Google, which has accepted the Australian law, is soon to launch News Showcase, a curated newsfeed likely to reflect only the mainstream commercial press.
Neither Facebook nor the state will guarantee a free press.