May 16, 2024 | The Age

Elise Thomas on a potential social media ‘news ban’ in Australia: “No news will not be good news”

ISD Senior OSINT Analyst Elise Thomas‘ op-ed on Meta’s potential ‘news ban’ in Australia was published by outlets The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. In the article, Elise discusses what might happen if Meta imposes a ban against news publishers within its operations in Australia: increasing polarisation and misinformation; boosting ‘news personalities’ opinions, while suppressing actual news; incentivising Facebook campaign tactics seen during the Voice referendum campaign in the country. She also points to issues that have developed in Canada where a similar ban is in place.

“The key thing to recognise is that what Meta has done in Canada is not a ‘news ban,'” she writes. “It is not a ban on all content containing news information, it is a ban on media organisations. News information and political content is still readily available across the platform, but instead of coming from professional media, it now comes from a variety of sources with their own agendas. Research suggests that only 29 per cent of Canadian Facebook users reacted to the ban, which began last year, by seeking out other sources, such as going directly to a media organisation’s website. […] Pages often post “news-ish” content, presenting real information but with a spin that favours their own positions. Users also see more posts from groups and pages they are already following, which has the potential to increase the echo chamber effect of social media.”

Elise notes that Facebook is currently the main news provider for Australians on social media, and with the 2025 state and federal elections on the way, there would likely be an influx in polarising content from sources with their own agendas, including ‘news personalities’ and commentators who would be free to post news related content. While news organisation links would be barred.

“Perversely, one result of the media ban may actually be to boost specific members of the media, like shock jocks and commentators, over their journalist colleagues who are doing straight reporting without building their own public profile. The consequence of this would likely be a more acerbic and polarised public debate.”

She ends the article with a few recommendations for advancing social cohesion and conserving democracy. If the ban were to go through, Australia should ensure “Meta is at least consistently enforcing its own policies on harmful and misleading content, potentially via the upcoming legislation on mis- and disinformation. They should also consider incorporating requirements for increased transparency and more access to data for independent research to monitor disinformation, hate and polarisation into the Online Safety Act as part of the current review.”

She also urges Australia to partner with Canada and other jurisdictions in creating a united front against Meta and other tech platforms. “Co-operating with other countries on a united approach significantly raises the stakes, and the costs, if the companies choose not to comply.”

Elise acknowledges that the goal would be for Australians to be weaned off relying on social media for their news. But this would require building digital literacy and teaching society, and future generations, how “to seek out news from trusted sources rather than passively consuming it via an algorithm…”

“In the short term, […] we must be aware that standing up to Meta will come at a cost. For the immediate future, no news will not be good news.”