These graphs tell the story of the Facebook news ban — and what happened after – ABC News

If there was any question about Facebook’s power to direct traffic to news sites, these graphs put the matter beyond doubt.

Key points:

Just under two weeks ago, when the social media platform blocked Australians from accessing news content, traffic to Australian news websites tumbled.

At the time, this story was told with a simple line graph using data provided by the popular analytics company Chartbeat, which is used by many Australian publishers (including the ABC) to see how many people are reading their stories.

The graph showed what you’d imagine: the amount of traffic referred to news sites from Facebook (for example, when a user taps or clicks on a posted news link) had gone off a cliff on the morning of the ban, or at about 6:00am AEDT on February 18.

Without these referrals, overall traffic to Australian news sites from within the country fell by 13 per cent.

This graph shows what happened next:

As we already know, referrals to Facebook plummeted on the day of the ban, which was a Thursday, and remained low through the weekend.

That was the weekend that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg were busily negotiating the details of the proposed news media bargaining code.

On Tuesday, the pair announced they has struck an agreement. Facebook would sign the code and the government would grant a few key concessions.

Facebook said it would restore news “in the coming days”.

A man does a Zoom meeting in the office

Supplied: Treasurer’s Office

But the ban stayed firmly in place for the following two days, on Wednesday and Thursday. It wasn’t rolled back or eased in any way.

On Thursday, February 25, Parliament passed the news media bargaining code, including the four last-minute concessions that had been won by Mr Zuckerberg.

Then on Friday morning, about 6:00am AEDT (or mid-morning on Thursday at Facebook’s Californian headquarters), Facebook opened the floodgates again.

Australian news organisations saw a sudden rush of traffic from Facebook.

The referrals were flowing once more.

But there’s a little more to the story

Axel Bruns, a professor in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), has taken a more fine-grained look at the effect of the ban by crunching the numbers on news links posted on Australian Facebook pages.

This graph follows broadly the same pattern as the Chartbeat one, which showed total news page views referred by Facebook.

Professor Bruns said activity on Facebook was “more or less back to normal”.

“The taps have been turned on again,” he said.

Beyond this, however, there are a few interesting details.

The graph appears to show that after Facebook instituted the news ban, it spent time stamping out attempts by some users to evade its news ban — to continue the tap metaphor, it stopped the drips.

This work continued while the Australian government and Facebook negotiated an agreement, and then after Facebook announced it would lift the ban.

A small but significant number of Australian news URLs were still being shared on Australian Facebook pages between February 18-23.

You can see that on the graph as the regular daily bumps in the number of links posted.

From February 23-24, however, the bumps are gone: the news ban workaround had apparently been found and blocked.

“Maybe that was another warning,” Professor Bruns said.

“A warning to say that we’ve banned most things and know some of you are getting around in some form and we have ways to make that stop.

“It’s another way of saying, ‘let’s resolve this or we’ll really cut off everything’.”

So … everything’s back to normal?

Everything is back to normal — or at least almost.

The one piece of data that’s lower than usual is the volume of interactions (likes, comments, shares) with news URLs on Australian Facebook pages.

A drop over the weekend is normal, but it remained low on Monday.

“They certainly don’t look as strong yet as they did before,” Professor Bruns said.

The most obvious explanation for this is that nobody has been posting news URLs for a week so there are fewer URLs around to interact with.

If this is the case, we can expect to see interactions rise in the next few days.

If not, the explanation may be more interesting.

It could show that Facebook has tweaked its algorithm so that less news content is now being displayed in the feeds of Australian users.

Under this scenario, people would be posting news URLs in pages, but fewer people would be seeing them and having the chance to interact.

Before you get excited, though, there’s not much evidence to support this.

Professor Bruns said he and other researchers will be closely studying the figures over the coming weeks to see if there’s been any change in the algorithm.

A third explanation for the drop in interactions is that the short-lived news ban has changed the way people use Facebook and taught them to go elsewhere for news.

Again, that would be an unlikely outcome, Professor Bruns said.

“For a brief outage like this we wouldn’t expect to see any massive changes in behavioural pattern,” he said.

“If the ban had lasted for a month or longer, then the situation might be a bit different.”

For the moment, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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