Facebook’s decision on February 17 to ban Australians from posting and sharing content from both Australian domestic and international news sites has far reaching implications. The catalyst for the decision is in response to Australia’s proposed Media Bargaining Code, expected to pass into law within days. Similar laws, modelled off Australia’s code, are being considered in the UK and Canada.
The ban did not turn into a PR win for Facebook. Unsurprisingly, Australian media outlets decried the move and Facebook’s poor implementation saw Australian Government Departments, public health services, charities, and even retail pages taken offline. This resulted in a negative public sentiment and once again #DeleteFacebook started trending globally—moving what Facebook may have hoped was a regional incident onto the global stage.
As independent companies, Facebook and all platforms can and will make decisions at any time that are in their best interest. This is not to argue Facebook’s decision was right or wrong, rather that advertisers, brands, and even society at large are at the mercy of decisions platforms deem acceptable on their services. This includes advertising.
Given how Facebook’s ban has played out in the court of public opinion, advertisers now find themselves, as with the July 2020 #StopHateForProfit boycott, in a position where the decision to advertise on Facebook may come under public scrutiny and criticism.
To navigate situations such as this, at Mediabrands we developed “Media Responsibility Principles” to help bridge the gap between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and media investment strategy, enabling clients to make a commercial decision that aligns with their company values.
However, outside of media responsibility, the #DeleteFacebook movement, or important debates about the critical need to fund journalism—there is another issue at play, and that is competition.
Google and Facebook are under intense anticompetitive scrutiny in multiple countries. In light of Facebook’s recent decision, this will only intensify. The Australian Prime Minister called out “the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply” and ominously for Facebook, the US Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Chair, Congressman David Cicilline tweeted, “Threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly power.”
Adding to the swirl around Facebook, the same week saw recently unsealed court documents alleging that Facebook knowingly allowed inflated “Potential Reach” numbers and failed to act “because the ‘revenue impact’ for Facebook would be ‘significant.’” While Facebook has stated that “the allegations are without merit and we will defend itself vigorously,” it adds another ill-needed cloud to the company.
In the context of Facebook’s rejection of regulations, metrics issues and rallying against iOS 14 privacy changes, it raises a question about how much Facebook’s words and actions can be trusted and whether Zuckerberg’s 2019 calls for regulations around privacy, harmful content, and data integrity were genuine or simply political showmanship?
If there is a lesson in Facebook’s recent Australian action for marketers and metrics report—beyond the immediate issue of funding news and journalism—it is that we need a vibrant, competitive advertising ecosystem and cannot be reliant on a single partner. Overdependence on a single supplier, whether a publisher as a source of traffic or a platform as a place for advertising, is not good business. It always puts us one step away from the risk of bans, calls for boycotts, or public backlash that could harm brands and businesses.
Privately expressing frustration at issues such as media pricing, content moderation decisions (or lack thereof) by platforms, or imbalances of market power can only be fixed if we invest our media budgets in a way that fosters market competition. Otherwise, as advertisers and agencies, we will be left with regulators asking us what role our decisions made in consolidating power in the hands of a few.
Joshua Lowcock is chief digital officer of UM and global brand safety officer of Mediabrands