Facebook is so opposed to paying publishers for news it is threatening to boot ‘content users don’t want to see’ off the platform altogether

Side shot of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in 2019
Mark Zuckerberg, Meta CEO, testifying before Congress in 2019.
Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Where does journalism live these days? It’s still available in print, but any 21st-century news consumer knows it’s largely on social media, especially Facebook.

And now journalism is at the center of the latest dispute between Facebook and the U.S. government.

Big tech companies have set the algorithmic rules for what stories, articles, and videos people see on their feeds, and nearly half of U.S. adults reported receiving their news from social media last year. Media critics credited (or blamed) Facebook and Twitter for platforming misinformation, sometimes in the form of intentionally fake news, during the 2016 presidential campaign ahead of Donald Trump’s election.

But that was a different time.

Facebook and its parent Meta are now leveraging the journalism/social media dependency as Congress considers new legislation that would force the social media company to pay publishers for the content it displays.

“If Congress passes an ill-considered journalism bill as part of national security legislation, we will be forced to consider removing news from our platform altogether rather than submit to government-mandated negotiations,” Meta spokesperson Andy Stone tweeted Monday. 

Stone was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act currently pending in Congress, which includes a journalism competition bill that, if passed, would require tech companies to pay news outlets for their content.

The bill, known as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, received a boost on Monday after reports filtered through that bipartisan agreement had been reached to include the provision in the larger defense act, which needs to pass before the end of the year to keep the military funded.

Facebook’s media dominance

The new bill is intended as a financial lifeline for news outlets struggling to remain competitive in the digital age.

Facebook, Twitter, and Google have taken on many of journalism’s traditional roles in today’s more tech-savvy media world as social media platforms became the primary news delivery vehicle for most consumers. 

The emphasis on shareability and virality has forced news outlets to change their approach to content, with many legacy publishers pivoting to novel forms of content, often in response to what social media companies see driving the most engagement. Meta applications including Facebook and Instagram, for example, began urging news publishers this year to produce more stories in short video formats to stay competitive with rival platform TikTok.

With news outlets increasingly starved for visibility, big tech companies have been able to reap the lion’s share of the profits, although it hasn’t always been this way. 

In 2015, when Facebook and Twitter were first venturing into the news industry, Facebook launched its Instant Articles initiative that displayed news stories from dozens of external outlets seamlessly within the platform’s website. At the time, Facebook’s model was generous to publishers, who received 100% of ad revenues appearing around the article. Facebook recently announced its Instant Articles feature will be phased out by April 2023, as the platform moves away from hard news and prioritizes video stories.

The end of Instant Articles comes after a washout for several digital media firms, as Big Tech has asserted its dominance in online advertising, especially Meta and Alphabet. Industry leaders including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—owner of the Wall Street Journal, among others—have been lobbying regulators to force companies including Facebook to pay publishers for their content, even if it means losing the social media company as a partner.

News outlets registered their first big win with policymakers last year in Murdoch’s native Australia, where the government passed a law forcing platforms including Facebook and Google to pay publishers to share their content.

Big Tech news debate

In response to Australia’s landmark ruling, Facebook temporarily blocked access to news stories on its platform in the country, although the company quickly changed its mind as negotiations with the government and local news outlets progressed.

Facebook has argued in response to both Australia’s law and the pending bill in the U.S. that there is not necessarily much profit for the company in its news operations, while also framing its current model as a public good.

“Publishers and broadcasters put their content on our platforms themselves because it benefits their bottom line—not the other way around,” Meta’s Stone said. “No company should be forced to pay for content users don’t want to see and that’s not a meaningful source of revenue.”

Opponents to the pending bill representing over two dozen interest groups, trade associations, and media companies issued a joint statement Monday urging Congress not to pass the bill. 

The coalition criticized the proposed law, saying it could increase the amount of misinformation spread online, set a dangerous political precedent of forcing users and platforms to pay for once-free content, and that the bill could disproportionately benefit large publications, leaving local outlets in an even deeper crisis. 

Critics of the current news paradigm have criticized the approach of Facebook and other Big Tech companies as unfair and a threat to free journalism while defending the bill. The News Media Alliance, a trade association, wrote in a tweet on Tuesday that the proposed law would establish a “level playing field that’ll ensure small & local publishers can negotiate for fair compensation from dominant tech companies that profit from their work.” It added that the current model has so far been “terrible for American democracy.”

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