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Relationship Status: It’s Complicated. Can Publishers Really Break Up With Facebook?

By Leni Maiai

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

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It’s an irony played out on a daily basis — media publishers’ deeply held resentment for what has been described as a ‘hostile foreign power,’ coupled with their ongoing need for Facebook to continue reaching and growing their audiences. So what’s the best path forward for these embattled media organizations?

Image courtesy of Glen Carrie via Unsplash.
Image courtesy of Glen Carrie via Unsplash.

Last week Time Magazine grabbed international headlines when it ran a pale-blue, vacant-staring Mark Zuckerberg on its cover with a notification prompt to delete Facebook, or to cancel.

Time’s cover, and the story inside, suggests that Facebook (and its wunderkind boss) is living through a PR nightmare it may never wake from. The article details bombshell allegations from an ex-employee that Facebook has been knowingly conducting a system of ‘profits over people; the live-streaming of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch in 2019; its use for inciting violence in the Capitol raids; and more recently the day-long implosion of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram due to an unrelated technical mishap.

But ‘delete’, as the bold cover implies, Time did not. Instead, the publication posted the cover (several times) to its own Facebook, garnering plenty of online interaction.

It’s an irony played out on a daily basis — media publishers’ deeply held resentment for what has been described as a ‘hostile foreign power,’ coupled with their ongoing need for Facebook to continue reaching and growing their audiences.

So what’s the best path forward for these embattled media organizations?

Untitled presentation

Image credit: Facebook.

The case for clicking “yes” on Time’s cover

For Sinead Boucher, each fresh public meltdown from Facebook spells another series of phone calls to her Wellington office.

“We have been contacted by so many overseas media organisations, industry bodies, all grappling with their own relationship [with Facebook] and sort of wanting to do something, but being nervous about it,” said Sinead Boucher, owner of Stuff, Aotearoa’s most visited online news outlet.

A year and a half ago Stuff set about a very public breakup with Facebook. Sinead would describe it closer to a break, or a “long term experiment,’ but the message was clear — things were over between the news organization and the social media giant.

“The first big change in our relationship came as a result of the Mosque shooting in March 2019, which was, as we all know, live streamed on Facebook. At that time we made the decision to stop doing any paid advertising of our own because we didn't feel it was right to fund an organization that facilitated that kind of atrocity, the livestreaming of it, to occur,” Boucher said.

The next stage of the breakup came early last year during boiling points in the Black Lives Matter protests and global lockdowns. Stuff recognised that Facebook was becoming a vehicle for disinformation, and, in a sweeping decision, stopped posting to its millions of readers across Instagram and Facebook — despite pulling in 20% of its online traffic through social media at the time.

“I think it was fair to say there was some nervousness from the team because it was unknown, but that quickly fell away after we did it,” Boucher said.

By all measures, the trial has been a major success for Stuff. Its digital revenue is “really significantly up on a year ago,” donations from the public spiked to its highest ever levels, and internal research has shown large increases in audience trust for the organisation.

So has Stuff’s breakup triggered a collective movement with others following suit? The short answer is no.

For starters, they’re hanging out again, kind of.

Stuff decided at the onset of the Delta variant in New Zealand that it would return in a limited role to post only essential health information, as well as other crucial public announcements such as when floods hit Auckland.

Around the wold, advertisers joined a boycott of Facebook last year, which ended about as quickly as it started. Even in Australia, where debates between publishers and Facebook rage, they’re still begrudgingly sharing a bed.

Although Stuff has returned to make posts on COVID-19, the break-up (mostly) still stands and the organization has become the lonely poster child for the one that got away.

Boucher maintains that Stuff did it for themselves and she wasn’t necessarily expecting to spark a worldwide movement, but there’s a hint of frustration when she speaks of other media’s ongoing use of the problematic platform.

“I can't criticize others, but what I would like to say is that I think that as journalistic organizations, we should keep examining it and really thinking about it. Is it right for our journalism to sit on this platform? Is it right for us to support them?”

The case for clicking “cancel” (and regulating instead)

Dunca Greive, owner of independent news outlet The Spinoff, is the first to give props to Boucher for Stuff’s bold move — but it ends there for him.

“I always say to our staff that we're journalists, not activists. I would rather continue to cover the big story, write about it, talk about it,” Greive told The Org.

The Spinoff has a younger-skewing readership and, as a new-fangled outlet, derives significant traffic through its social accounts. For Greive, the moral victory of a Facebook moratorium would be simply overwhelmed by the many, many shortcomings.

“To me it would be tantamount to stop using roads or stop using electricity. You can do it, but it makes it really, really hard on yourself without having any impact whatsoever on the thing you're effectively protesting about,” Greive said.

In a column published to The Spinoff titled Google and Facebook are brilliant and dangerous and entirely out of control, Greive draws the analogy between Facebook and our historic relationship with cars: “Over time we introduced tools to reduce the downside – speed limits, drink driving laws, better roads, emissions parameters, airbags, crumple zones, seatbelts – while still retaining the social and economic benefits of all that mobility,” he writes.

The essential role news outlets play in bringing about this change, he argues, will be in telling these stories. Explaining to the public why they should care about these big nebulous issues, and in helping the government wrap their heads around the knotty problems and their role in fixing them.

“I just don't think framing it as this purely evil company is particularly useful,” Greive said.

“It’s obvious that they have cracked some kind of a code where they have basically found a flaw in our economic system and are exploiting it in an extraordinary way. I don't blame them for that, by the way, I blame us as a society and particularly our governing classes for not addressing that.”

Where the blame lies is a topic Greive and Boucher firmly agree on.

New Zealand, like many other countries around the world, has struggled immensely to regulate Facebook and other large technology outfits. Reporting of Facebook’s most recent publicly available New Zealand filings (from 2014), show that the company paid just $43,000 in tax, and, despite the global backing of the Christchurch Call following the terror attacks in 2019, it’s difficult to point to any particular point of progress.

“Scroll forward two years since the Christchurch Call and has anything come of that, really? No, I don't think so,” Stuff’s Boucher said.

Granted, there have been Government press releases indicating change on the horizon, but the movement could be described, at best, as glacial.

Greive points to a number of contributing factors for the seemingly flaccid political will on this front. The sheer complexity of it, the fear politicians might come across dumb, worries about retribution -- as was seen briefly in Australia, and, interestingly, that Facebook has become too invaluable of a tool for top politicians (such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern) to speak directly with their constituents.

“I realized that regulating technology is really difficult, but I think because of the complexity, we have just said, ‘well, it just can't be done,’ and that's why we have the situation we are in now. I say let's at least start an earnest conversation about it,” Greive said.

It’s a story playing out the world over: Governments trying (or not) and mostly failing to get a firm handle on big tech.

And while Governments’ position as an eventual change maker may be gaining some shape, the picture of the media's role in it all is less clearly defined: an observer, a lobbyist, or an activist?

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