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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Facebook Is Giving Up on News—Again

Facebook is done with news. First, there was a multiday standoff with the Australian government on news payments, followed by the quiet removal of a revenue-sharing News tab from Facebook in the US. And then came an all-out news link ban in Canada. And now, Meta is killing off the News tab in France, Germany, and the UK, where it is also ending funding for a well-liked local news project. As in Canada and Australia, the change of policy in Europe preempts legislation across the EU as well as the UK that may see the social giant asked to pay for news it shares.

Facebook-owner Meta said this week that it would remove the News tab in all three European countries by December, meaning it will no longer pull in articles to show in the app. Users may well shrug, but it also means the end of payments to the news media taking part. Meta said it would continue to honor existing deals, but would not renew them when they expire—and would not make paid-for news partnerships in the future. "It looks like Meta is pushing the reset button, but very few news organizations are prepared for that," says Sarah Anne Ganter, an expert in platform regulation and governance at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

This is not Meta's first news strategy flip—every few years, it has introduced a tool to pull in external news, before refocusing to prioritize posts from friends and family. Trending Topics lasted four years before conspiracy-theory scandals sparked its closure. Instant Articles lasted longer, but the media industry didn't mourn its passing earlier this year; a Columbia Journalism Review study showed more than half of launch partners quit within three years. In 2020, Meta tried another tactic, adding a News tab to Facebook apps to surface stories while paying the media organizations supplying the content.

The tab was already ditched in the US last year. No idea what tab we're talking about? You're not alone. The News section isn't on the social network's website—just the app, where it's buried deep in the menu. So it's no surprise that news makes up just 3 percent of viewed content, according to Meta in a blog post announcing the changes. Instead, Facebook will again pivot to video.

At the core of all these changes is Meta's apparent unwillingness to pay for the news it shows users on Facebook. News is one source of content that helps keep Facebook users on the platform rather than moving on to another site or app. But news media have been hard hit by the shift online, losing control of the lucrative advertising market to Google and Facebook, hitting budgets, and leaving local papers fighting to survive. Through the years, Meta has sought ways to financially prop up news organizations, but so far nothing has worked—and now it appears to be giving up.

Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

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During its most recent experiment with news, Meta reportedly paid UK news organizations millions of dollars, alongside running a “community news project,” a program that funded 100 local news journalists in news deserts across the UK. In 2021, Meta donated £5.9 million (around $7.3 million) to fund a further two years of the scheme. That initiative has now also been shelved, something that Henry Faure Walker, chief executive of NewQuest, the UK’s second-largest publisher of local newspapers, called “a cynical move from a company that takes billions of pounds from the UK advertising market and built their Facebook platform in part by free riding the quality content that news publishers provide.”

Facebook's willingness to pay for news is ebbing right when it is about to be told by legislators that it has to pay for news. Meta has gone to quite extreme lengths to resist legislation on the subject.

In 2021, the Australian government passed a law requiring digital platforms such as Meta and Google owner Alphabet to pay to show news content. Meta played hardball, not only banning news links from being shared across Facebook but also stopping users from posting links to non-news sites such as official government health pages—during the pandemic. The standoff ended after the government agreed not to apply the requirement to Meta if it signed enough revenue-sharing deals with media of its own accord.

The debate in Australia was largely seen as one between Facebook and the media outlets owned by Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch—which dominates most newspaper markets, says John Quiggin, senior fellow in economics at the University of Queensland. "At least in the parts of social media I frequent, Murdoch is so unpopular that most people took Facebook’s side automatically," he says, adding that the standoff was a draw, with Murdoch's organizations and other large media, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, receiving payments while smaller publishers have seen very little or nothing at all.

Next came Canada. Earlier this year, the Canadian government passed a law requiring large digital platforms—essentially Meta and Alphabet—to share revenue with news companies. In response, Meta banned news links from being posted across the social network in Canada, poorly timed as it came amid a summer of horrific wildfires, with local news outlets that had previously relied on Facebook struggling to get the word out on evacuations and other vital developments. Google plans to do the same when the law actually comes into full effect in December.

Sources in Canadian news media say the Facebook link ban has had a noticeable impact on referral traffic and engagement across Meta's apps, but the real anxiety is over what route Google will take at the end of the year. "We will see over time what short- and long-term consequences the removal will have, particularly if it remains in place," says Ganter.

The UK doesn't yet face a links ban, and Meta stressed in its blog post that "people will still be able to view links to news articles on Facebook." But it could happen.

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The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill currently working its way through the UK Parliament could see Meta (as well as Alphabet) labeled as holding Strategic Market Status (SMS) and therefore asked to financially contribute to content creators to ensure fair competition in the digital market. The amount paid would be decided under arbitration, with the Competition and Markets Authority issuing fines for companies who refuse to pay. Similar systems are under consideration in Malaysia, New Zealand, and the US; the EU already has a law in place that has led Google to sign revenue-sharing deals with more than 300 publishers.

Alphabet and Meta are pushing back, claiming that news isn't even very valuable to them. On Google, news-related queries make up just 2 percent of Google Search, according to the company’s own statistics, while Meta said news stories make up just 3 percent of what people see in their feeds. Instead, according to Meta’s “widely viewed content report,” only 6.2 percent of content seen in feeds links to a source outside Facebook. However, other research contradicts those numbers. A Pew Research Center survey in 2021 showed half of US adults get news on social media at least some of the time.

In Canada, Jean-Hugues Roy, a researcher at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), used Meta's CrowdTangle tool to find out what people were seeing on Facebook after the news ban. What he found was largely clickbait, family posts, and recipes. "One quickly gets bored," he says.

Although he didn’t find evidence that disinformation was filling the vacuum left by news—as some had predicted—he wasn’t entirely reassured. "Since Meta has started to remove news content, I realize that clickbait can be more toxic than I previously thought," he says. He found examples where news stories that had been banned from the platform had been repackaged by clickbait sites. “Some news percolates, but through pseudo media organizations that feed on news articles and spike them with made-up details and sensational titles,” he says.

For news organizations, Meta’s erratic news strategy shows the fragility of their decades-long pact. Traditional media has relied on digital platforms for distribution, handing over huge amounts of power to tech companies.

News might make up small percentages of eyeballs for Google and Facebook, but those scraps of referral traffic and spare millions in donations and revenue-sharing certainly helped the struggling media industry. But after years of flip-flopping, killing projects, and now banning links and pulling funding, Meta has made clear that Facebook isn't a dependable distributor for news.

“Somewhere on the way, many news organizations lost touch with their audiences,” Ganter says. “It will require some deep work to disintermediate the relationships with their audiences—or to create new platforms where audiences and news organizations can meet on terms that are less disadvantageous for journalism.”

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