Facebook makes key news change in warning sign for publishers

Technology giant Meta will stop using humans to edit news on Facebook before the end of the year, telling Australian publishers it could not afford to spend large amounts of money in areas it believes users are not overly interested in.

Meta’s local news partnerships boss Andy Hunter informed Australian media companies on Thursday of the company’s plans to move to automated news content, the latest sign of its ambitions to distance itself from publishers that have demanded millions of dollars for the appearance of articles on its website and its focus on keeping its users away from TikTok.

Meta will now automate all news that appears on its website, a reversal of a 2019 decision to hire editors to curate content for its users.

The decision will result in a change in positions for a small local team who handpicks stories for the website’s news tab. It will not affect existing multimillion-dollar deals struck with local media companies for use of their news content.

“Along with European curation deals expiring, we plan to end our in-house curation of Facebook News in Australia by the end of the year,” a Meta spokesperson said. “This update will have no impact on our commercial deals and the Facebook News product will still be accessible in Australia.”

The decision means a reversal of a 2019 decision to recruit editors that could work on the News Tab, a section inside the company’s mobile application that gives readers the most recent and relevant stories. There are no current plans to dissolve the News Tab from the local version of the application and website.

Meta told publishers it would reallocate these resources to other areas, such as short-form video, and that it could not spend large sums of money in areas that didn’t engage users. It claims finding news is now a small part of the Facebook user experience.

News-sharing was once an important part of the Facebook platform, but its parent company has made it clear in recent months that its priority was with creators who generate large sums of money for platforms such as TikTok. Facebook renamed its main screen the “feed” (it was previously the news feed) in February and in July signalled at plans to reallocate resources from its News tab platform to focus more on the creator economy.

One article said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg was not enthused by making news part of Facebook’s wider offering because of regulatory efforts. Most industry observers believe it will use this shift in strategy to avoid legislation.

Meta was easily the most vocal critic of a law introduced last year in Australia called the news media bargaining code, which was a federal government effort to force Google and Facebook to pay eligible large and small news publishers to display articles in the search engine and “newsfeed”.

The $US240 billion company ($376.9 billion) went to extreme measures – removing all news from its platform – to avoid having to comply with legislation introduced by parliament last year and has threatened similar measures in Canada in recent weeks. While it effectively complied, Meta’s recent rhetoric indicates future deals could be at risk. Any removal of Meta funding would hinder those plans and cause a headache for the new government.

Efforts to reduce investment in the news also coincide with plans by the Ardern government to force Meta and Google into commercial negotiations with its news publishers. The Australian government is reviewing the assessing the effectiveness of the code and is expected to release its findings before the end of the year. It is under pressure to legally force Meta to negotiate with news outlets because of a failure to strike deals with companies such as SBS and university-funded publication The Conversation.

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