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Why there’ll be Stuff-all on Facebook

Publisher Stuff is turning its back on Facebook. Anna Rawhiti-Connell explains why, and how that might affect readers

In a bold move, one of our biggest media companies announced on Monday it will cease all activity on Facebook and Instagram for an unspecified time.

Stuff’s action follows in the wake of growing condemnation of Facebook, namely from big advertisers who have embarked on a boycott by pulling their advertising spend from the Silicon Valley giant.

This move is bigger than an ad boycott and I am sceptical of the power of these boycotts. They’ve happened before and the demands are vague. As another commentator, Vaughn Davis, has pointed out, they’re not that big a deal when you’re a multi-billion-dollar company that can shift spend to other media easily. Companies often do things to be seen to be doing things and the boycott reflects public sentiment about Facebook. Action against Facebook is also a great way of deflecting other criticisms these companies may face. To them, Mark Zuckerberg makes a convenient bogeyman.

Stuff’s move is a bold one because it suggests we’re moving beyond tinkering around the periphery and instead focusing on the structural rot at the core of Facebook’s architecture.

New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel recently wrote a piece entitled ‘Facebook Can’t Be Reformed’, saying:

‘The architecture of the social network — its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content — will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale.’

What we are asking Facebook to do when we call for greater moderation or censorship power over the never ending supply of content, is to moderate the functioning of the human brain and human behaviour. These are explicitly manipulated by social media networks through anticipation and reward mechanisms, and then monetised. The little dopamine hit you get when you’ve just posted something and are anticipating the responses encourages you to seek more of it.

Driven by ego, and I mean that in the very Greek sense of the word, social media gives us the chance to say ‘I am’ without committing much, without having to wrestle with uncomfortable or complex issues and, very often, without the empathy greater understanding breeds.

Social media networks reward simple, binary statements and inflammatory headlines, often loaded with emotion, with engagement. They amplify the worst of us and prey on our baser instincts. This is what breeds division. This is what undermines democracy. This is what eats away at faith in institutions and each other. And Facebook, though the main culprit, isn’t the only one complicit in keeping the whole thing alive.

We are all complicit, though some wield greater power than your average user. Stuff’s move acknowledges its complicity within this system.

I’d like to think Stuff’s experiment in opting-out is based on more than just a perceived moral obligation or shifting public sentiment. I’m not privy to thinking behind the move but I suspect there’s been a growing sense of incongruity between the noble statements about the importance of journalism in this era of 5G and “Plandemic” conspiracy theories, and Stuff's participation in the system that breeds these theories and amplifies them. If it is to be true to the definition of the fourth estate, the fourth pillar of democracy, how can it participate in a system that is accused of ripping at the very thing they are part of upholding?

On its site, Stuff runs banners saying, ‘Trusted journalism has never been so important’ and ‘Local journalism is vital to a thriving and connected community’. Its move off Facebook is the walking of that talk and it’s to be applauded.

Whether it’s enough to break the rest of the industry’s bonds with Facebook is another story. Stuff is in a relatively unique position. It has a big enough audience to weather the likely drop in traffic and has said said it will monitor this closely. It has strong digital infrastructure with the website and app, and arguably fewer people breathing down its neck about digital metrics following Sinead Boucher’s purchase of the company.

It’s a good chance to test whether Stuff's own platforms and any plans for audience engagement outside Facebook have the legs to sustain the business. Traffic creates the eyeballs needed to sell to advertisers, and that’s still an important revenue stream. But I’d also argue a slightly smaller but well engaged audience with stronger brand loyalty and greater trust in Stuff is equally as appealing to advertisers. This move may also enhance its reputation for would-be donors, a growing revenue stream for most news organisations in New Zealand.

Building castles in the sand through over-reliance on Facebook was never a sustainable plan. Facebook has shifted the goal posts so many times and there’s a good case for media companies investing more time and energy into really proving their value to people, rather than just expecting we will value them. For all its ripping at the fabric of society, Facebook played a big role in changing people’s expectations and behaviour. While individual networks may rise and fall, the revolution brought forth by democratising publishing and the emphasis on earning attention cannot be reversed.

There is one watch-out though that applies to all of us. And that’s the issue of access. It was put to me by a very wise media industry insider that there are people who only access news via Facebook, and that some of those people have traditionally been under-served by mainstream media. If you remove news from Facebook, what guarantee do we have that they will adopt new behaviours? Do they just stop reading the news if new organisations aren’t fishing where the fish are? It’s a push versus pull argument. If you don’t put it in front of people on a site they visit frequently, are you reducing access to news? There’s not an alternative news aggregation service that can touch Facebook and there is a real convenience in being able to go to one site and get all your news from multiple outlets.

There can also be something of a sneering snobbery about Facebook from those of us who prefer to swim in the shark infested waters of Twitter and like to consider ourselves ‘media literate’. My reading habits are not yours and yours are not the general population’s. I would hope Stuff considers this and looks at ways to build and develop audiences, and to ensure readers feel welcome and diverse voices are given room.

Something like Black Lives Matter flourishes on social media in part because it’s disintermediated. It also stands as a rejection of the way many people have been excluded from seeking accountability and justice within mainstream institutions, including traditional media.

Instead of looking at the mass mobilisation of people as publishers as an existential threat, Stuff’s move might raise and celebrate the virtues of journalism: credibility, trust, and the balanced mediation of information.

The challenge for Stuff and any media organisation contemplating a similar move is to not look at this as a simple rejection of Facebook but to take the opportunity for a wholesale examination of the negative influences that social media has had on the craft of journalism.

That should clear the way to a more sustainable focus: meeting the needs of an audience that demands better news experiences and services – ironically, in a way, because Facebook has given people the platform to ask for them.

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