Media outlets and professional content makers were left reeling with Facebook’s unannounced and abrupt ban on news across its Australian platform.
And while the ban has now been reversed, the event has opened up a Pandora’s box of issues relating to the future of organisations’ digital communication strategies.
The world watched on as Facebook flexed its muscle in defiance of the Australian Government’s plans to make the tech giant pay local media outlets for the news distributed on the platform.
However, it wasn’t just media outlets that saw their content wiped. Government, community and private organisations were caught in the crossfire – having ‘news-like’ messages and content briefly expunged from existence.
That included important medical information from health authorities in the midst of the COVID-19.
Cumulatively, media organisations have invested billions and years of time and resources building up their Facebook presence to reach key target audiences during a period of industry flux and declining traditional revenues.
According to technology and social media scholar’s Robyn Caplan and Danah Boyd, the reach of digital platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have seen “longstanding news outlets construct their content with algorithmic and data-centric intermediaries in mind, as well as a host of new digital-first, outlets such as BuzzFeed and Breitbart have emerged to capitalize on the way in which this ecosystem is architected.”
“This was seen in the adoption of data-driven metrics and analytics into newsrooms, as well as the growth of a new set of intermediaries that were fed directly by the Facebook API, whose role it was to analyse and communicate Facebook metrics back to publishers,” the authors write in their paper, Isomorphism through algorithms: Institutional dependencies in the case of Facebook.
While long term strategic news and communications plans built around Facebook had been thrown off previously by alogrithmic shifts implemented by the platform, the sudden Australian ban made the unhealthy power imbalance, between content creator and social media platform, impossible to ignore.
So what does it mean for the future of professional communicators and organisations, which rely on the audience reach and engagement Facebook and other social media has provided?
At minimum, it may require a rethink about the relationship between social media platforms and the businesses that have come to rely on them as a critical component of their communications strategies.
According to University of Sydney’s Fiona Martin, “that’s been the downfall for a lot of businesses that are now solely dependent on Facebook for their marketing strategies. We’ve got to get away from that.”
In earlier days Facebook encouraged content creators to see the platform as a unique opportunity to reach new audiences in the changing media landscape, removing the need for companies to be reliant and bounded by traditional news outlets.
The intermediary was no longer necessary it seemed and companies were free to leverage Facebook’s mass reach to amplify their message to targeted audiences.
The sudden and impromptu news bans in Australia seemed to have severely damaged if not broken that good faith agreement.
And while Facebook may currently be the only social media platform with the market power to contemplate such a move, the same potential dynamics apply to other platforms, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram (also owned by Facebook.)
Organisations and professional communicators may well need to decide if they want to hitch their wagon to a train they may suddenly de-rail.
Or divert the resources into building up long term traction and engagement across owned media, such as websites, blogs, whitepapers and email newsletters.
A lot has changed since Facebook emerged from the East Coast US college dorm rooms in the mid-2000s, selling itself as a digital and global public town square, where anyone could connect, disseminate and discuss ideas, events and products.
It’s gained unforeseeable digital dominance and market share since then, and the news bans show that the platform will act forcefully if its financial interests counter those of its users.
Organisations must now make critical decisions about their long term digital presence and decide exactly who has the ultimate agency over their ideas and content, and in turn how it is disseminated, consumed, and controlled.
If data is the new oil, then digital presence may be the new commercial real estate.