Facebook’s news feed block in Australia stokes fear, resistance

Facebook has issued a controversial decision to block news feeds in Australia in response to a planned law that would require the tech giant to pay news outlets who post to and drive traffic to their platform. The move came before the launch of a COVID-19 vaccination program and drew harsh criticism. 

Drew Margolin, professor of communication at Cornell University, studies the way people communicate online and the role of accountability, credibility and legitimacy within social networks. He says Facebook took a big risk in blocking news feeds in Australia and that such a move will encourage future resistance against the social network. 

Margolin says:

“This is quite a big deal because it’s not really about Australia, specifically, it’s about setting the parameters for this struggle ­– and similar ones – all over the world, particularly in the larger markets or jurisdictions like the U.S. and Europe. Importantly, one of the reasons it plays this role is that Facebook is not only tangling with governments here, it is tangling with news media itself. And news media have their own incentives to publicize cases like this, much like when reporters’ rights or freedoms are infringed.  

“In that context I think Facebook took quite a big risk here. Most basically, their decision to cut off news in Australia is a demonstration of their raw technical power and their willingness to use it for their own ends. It reminds me of Mr. Burns’ decision to block out the sun in the Simpsons movie ­­– it stokes fear but also encourages resistance.  

“One effect is to intimidate publics worldwide. To make people think ‘gee, I don’t want Facebook to do that to our country, so let’s leave them alone.’ But the other effect is that by making the public afraid of their power, it creates more incentive for politicians to take them on. It becomes easier to run on slogans like ‘I’ll help take on Big Tech’ – an enemy that even the highly polarized American electorate can agree they share (if for different reasons).”  

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