Facebook should ban news everywhere

The social network is banning news in Australia. But they should think bigger!

Facebook has gone nuclear on Australia:

The company announced Wednesday that it would no longer allow Australian publishers to share news on Facebook or allow Australian people to view or share international news sources.

Australia is set to pass a new law that is nominally supposed to “help journalism” but is pretty stupid and won’t accomplish its goal. This Facebook move is in response to that.

But!

Banning news on Facebook is not a crazy idea. Indeed, I increasingly think it would be good to do globally.

I owe my entire career to a talent for making news on Facebook go viral , so this is a bit of an about face. But let’s back up: there are lots of ways to get news on the internet, but Facebook is fundamentally different from most of these.

Facebook forces news on you. You cannot avoid it. You can come to Facebook to catch up with your family and friends and the newsfeed will show you news stories that have been shared by your friends.Eventually you will read one of them and the algorithm will take that as a sign of affinity for the subject matter and the publisher and sooner or later you’re going to have a needle in your arm.

I used to talk about this as a moral good. If you believe that journalism should have impact and that society would be better off if more people are engaged than Facebook is a godsend. It turns people who do not consider themselves news consumers, into consumers of news.

All the other delivery mechanisms and platforms are designed to appeal to someone who will signal in more deliberate ways a desire to consume news. You can google something, you can open Apple News, you can turn on CNN, whatever. Facebook does not require that first step.

This multiplied everyone’s audiences many times over. Publishers have spent a decade not only optimizing social media management but pivoting their entire news rooms to chase social media shares.

But Facebook is also almost uniquely ill-suited to be the instrument that introduces news to definitionally low-information users. It is almost entirely driven by the shares of your social graph. If you have 100 dumb friends and they share dumb things, the news you see is dumb. You, not being a traditional news consumer, don’t have the reader literacy to even know it’s dumb. And the cycle goes on and on and then the world explodes.

Facebook—and social media at large—is a place where people define themselves to other people. The explosion of news on Facebook incentivized people to define themselves by what they read and what they believe. But that’s not a good way to define yourself!

If Facebook banned news globally it would be bad for publishers in many ways. Everyone’s revenues would go down and there would be layoffs and some places would close and various business models would be proven not to work, and that’s what’s going to happen in Australia which is very unfortunate. These are companies that have invested in this platform for a long time and then all of a sudden that equity is worthless. It’s like having money saved in your mattress and then catastrophic inflation strikes.

A lot of people who get news in Australia through Facebook—say 50%, but probably not that much—will get it some other way. There are lots of great products for this! Many of which are monetized better than Facebook. But 50% won’t and that will have consequences for publishers.

But Facebook is a bigger thing than journalism, and getting it right is one of the most urgent questions of our time.

With regard to the specifics of this Australia ban, there are lots of questions about implementation. What constitutes “news”? Is this just link posts? Are whacko bloggers going to be able to share their posts? Are they all just going to start making viral meme images which are virtually always less informational than links? Facebook is a company made of human beings and they constantly have a hard time enacting policies evenly, so I don’t know how optimistic to be about this.

But, banning news on Facebook shouldn’t be a nuclear option. We should start to seriously consider it as a mainstream solution to lots of the problems wrought by social media.