Facebook “Unfriends” Australian Arts Organizations

Indigenous artists in Roebourne, in the Pilbara (Western Australia) at Big hART’s Songs for Peace. From left to right: Naomi Pigram, Angus Smith, Tyrell Smith, Rachel James Mason, Allery Smith, and Roseanne Pat. Big hART was one of the organizations affected by the Facebook bans. (photo by and courtesy Courtney McFarland)

MELBOURNE  — Australian arts organizations awoke Thursday morning,  February 18, to find their Facebook pages suddenly empty, and that their capacity to share news articles on the site had been stripped overnight.

The social media giant introduced the snap ban in response to the proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which had been passed by the lower house of the Australian government the night before. The proposed code has been designed to “ensure that news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate, helping to sustain public interest journalism in Australia.”

In Facebook’s rush to react, many non-news pages — charities, emergency services, health information sites, Aboriginal services, government organizations, and cultural organizations — were caught up in the ban when the site indiscriminately applied a loose definition of “news publishers.”

By the close of business on Thursday, over 300 arts organizations were impacted by the snap ban. While Facebook worked over the ensuing 24-hours to reinstate a number of pages, irreparable damage had already been done.

Rachel Arndt of Museums & Galleries NSW [New South Wales] told ArtsHub: “It’s social media; it is meant to be social and about sharing, and creating connections and communities.”

Australia is a vast country, and its regional gallery and museum networks play a key role in cultural outreach, especially when it comes to First Nations Communities. Arndt said this demographic is particularly vulnerable to the changes, as many of these smaller arts organizations do not have their own websites and rely heavily on the platform to disseminate information and connect.

“This will have a massive impact on visitor access and programming,” Arndt said.

The union for Australia’s journalists, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), called Facebook’s decision “a desperate act of a company with too much power that thinks it is beyond the reach of any government.”

ArtsLaw CEO Robyn Ayres described Facebook’s action as “heavy-handed,” adding that while news publishers have a legitimate argument, “Facebook appears to have applied to the ban indiscriminately as a form of retaliation, and it certainly demonstrates what monopoly power looks like.”

On his own Facebook page, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the tech company’s actions “arrogant.”

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of big tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he wrote. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it. We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament […]”

The limitations come at a time when Australian arts companies are working double-time to recover from pandemic restrictions. While reporting modest COVID infections, Australia had one of the toughest imposed lockdowns globally, with waves of cultural organizations closed to the public for months on end.

Enoch Mailangi and Justine Youssef facilitate The Past Becomes Our Future in 2020 (photo by Jade D’Amico, courtesy the National Association for the Visual Arts)

The ban especially impacts Australia’s Aboriginal, disabled, and marginalized communities.

Accessible Arts — an organization for arts and disability — said, “We work hard to get media coverage of people and issues related to arts and disability, so this will have consequences for our advocacy and engagement efforts.” CEO Morwenna Collett added that without the platform, it will be harder to enact change.

Also blocked was Big hART, an organization that uses the arts to amplify disadvantaged communities. Spokesperson Bettina Richter said: “Our role is to tell invisible stories, and to raise awareness of communities and issues which are not included in the national debate.”

She described the ban as a “dire blow” for connecting directly to the people they work with.

The MEAA notes: “Facebook makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from advertising in Australia, while media companies are struggling to keep journalists employed and newsrooms open.”

“Unlike Google, which has sensibly begun negotiating content agreements with publishers and broadcasters, Facebook has abused its dominant position and is holding Australian news agencies, advertisers and consumers to ransom with this cowardly response,” the MEAA said.

Arguably, the fear for Facebook goes beyond advertising dollars. This legislation could set a precedent for other democracies.

The proposed legislation was a direct response to the 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which found a significant bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and news media businesses. The proposal requires tech companies to negotiate payment to news media outlets for the right to platform their content.

“Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million,” Facebook said in a statement today. “Despite some of these discussions, Facebook does not steal, take or copy news content.”

This sits in contrast with an article by Jastra Kranjec for BuyShares, released days before the ban. Kranjec reports that “Facebook’s revenue doubled in three years and jumped from $US40.6bn in 2017 to $US86bn in 2020.” Kranjec added that Facebook also witnessed a significant increase in the number of users and revenue amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Proposed Bargaining Code is scheduled to come before the Australian Senate this coming week, before it becomes law.

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