On Thursday morning Melbourne time, Australians woke to the eerie realisation that a big tech company had followed through on its big threat. Only we didn’t learn it from any official news sources on our Facebook newsfeed.
We Aussies were suddenly blocked from posting and seeing news content on Facebook. If we tried to post a link to a news story, a pop-up informed us that, “This post can’t be shared.” It went on: “In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.”
What was more: Every Australian news outlet Facebook page had been wiped of posts. Even international publications’ pages were cleared for us; while you could still see posts on Slate’s Facebook page, when I looked at it, I saw none. “No posts yet,” it read. What was worse: It soon became apparent that many other important pages had been cleared too—including state health departments, just days before Australia was to begin its vaccine rollout.
The shocking but entirely foreseeable move came, as the pop-up said, in response to government legislation, which had passed the parliament’s lower house with bipartisan support on Wednesday night. The News Media Bargaining Code—which would force “designated digital platforms” to pay new publishers for links they display, redistributing some of the advertising revenue they have eaten into—had been a matter of contention for many months: Facebook threatened to pull news in September, and in January Google threatened to pull its whole search engine if the code went ahead as it was. Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg was in regular talks with CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai and expressed confidence that an agreement would be reached. He seemed to be right: Google started striking multimillion-dollar deals with publishers in the weeks leading up to the bill’s passage. But someone took their eye off Facebook.
After Facebook pulled the news plug, Australian politicians attacked the company for doing exactly what it said it was going to do, with the prime minister arguing that the company had “unfriended” the nation, and demanded the health, weather, and emergency pages be restored—something Facebook quickly did. Others (including me) slammed the government for screwing up the negotiations by making extreme demands and then failing to reach an agreement, in turn screwing over the publishers it was purportedly trying to “help” (not to mention a range of charities, unions, community groups, and sporting organizations).
Just under a week later, the ban has been reversed, with an 11th-hour compromise seeing the government agree to fundamentally weaken the code. The change means the government may not apply the code to a company if it can demonstrate it has made a “significant contribution” to the Australian news industry through commercial arrangements, and it must give a platform a month’s notice before subjecting it to the code. In other words, Facebook just has to strike some deals, and the government will leave it alone. News isn’t back yet, but Facebook’s Australian managing director Will Easton says it will be restored “in the coming days,” while global VP for partnerships Campbell Brown indicated the company could pull news from Australia again if the government were to apply the code to it. Frydenberg wants to pretend this is a win for the government in a “proxy battle” for the world, but it’s the Australian government that has backed down. Facebook was right: News needs it more than it needs news.
But does Facebook need news at all? A few weeks ago, in writing about the Australia vs. Big Tech showdown, I joked that a news-free news feed might be a “blessing”—after all, the newsfeed can be a cesspit of pointless clickbait, inflammatory headlines and inane comments. I wasn’t quite serious: I, like Frydenberg, didn’t think this would actually happen. But what was it like experiencing a Facebook without news?
Scrolling through Facebook on Thursday morning, the newsfeed was still dominated by the news, only it wasn’t through links. It was friends’ statuses and group posts, discussing and digesting and debating the weird reality we found ourselves in—true blue Facebook reacts. “This’ll go down as one of the most prolific policy fucks of history,” one wrote of the government. “Facebook would absolutely prefer to ruin its own product than pay a tiny amount of tax. What a bunch of shitbags,” wrote another. Others, behind on the backstory, were crowdsourcing where they should be directing their anger, torn between the tech behemoth and the conservative government. Many were noting what other pages were missing, in a state of panic, mostly over the charities and social services, which were soon restored. But I was genuinely struck by how many posts I saw from my social network—the people I am supposedly on Facebook to see.
In the days that followed, posts about the news ban diminished, but the presence of my Facebook friends did not. A girl I met in Mexico shouted out her partner’s 30th; a couple celebrated buying their first home; my cousins in England posed with their kids. I saw profile pictures and memes, thank-yous and babies. It was extremely strange, and extremely wholesome, a reminder that good things were happening in the world, too.
I also saw a lot more satire, with beloved satirical news pages that were initially struck down soon restored. The Chaser, among the first to be returned, was like a kid in a candy store, mocking the Murdoch mastheads, along with the public broadcaster on which it used to air, over the fact it could post while they could not. But it also used its spotlight to spotlight some genuine news (“Seeing as we’re the only news site left we figured we might as well start unveiling corruption on a mass scale,” it wrote), sharing a comprehensive list of the government’s corruption (which soon crashed its website). It probably helps that I already liked and followed a lot of satire, but there’s no doubt I was shown interesting and informative content. But I do wonder what was left on other people’s temporarily news-free feeds.
As a journalist, I was devastated by the news ban, fearful as to what it meant for my already decimated industry, and angry at the government for going so hard, reportedly at the behest of big fish like Rupert Murdoch, and hurting the little fish who rely on Facebook in the process. As a citizen, I’m chilled by the display of raw power from Facebook, and concerned about misinformation on the platform should it happen again.
But if I’m being honest, as a user, things felt fine. Better than fine; the newsfeed was lighter, calmer, happier. It felt akin to what Facebook used to be, a social network rather than a news aggregator, and it was about as nice as you’d expect. I didn’t learn anything newsworthy as I scrolled; I learnt things that were newsfeed-worthy. I wasn’t living in ignorance, because I get my news elsewhere, and I really hope Australians learn to as well after this. We shouldn’t be relying on Facebook for news.
I’ve complained before about Australian being a “testing ground” for social media features, because we’re not really an important market. We’re still not; Facebook was able to make an example of us here, a warning to other countries considering codes of their own, because we represent such a small segment of its market. But if this ban had stayed in place and proved popular, could it also have been the model for a new direction for Facebook?
Don’t celebrate too soon, Zuckerberg. I’m not sure I or other users would spend quite as much time on Facebook without news—an amount that had already dropped considerably. But it would be quality over quantity. You know what they say: “No news is good news.” Actually, one of my friends said that, last Thursday. I know, because I saw it on my newsfeed.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.