Last May, we learned that 14 Canadian media, including The duty and the National Independent Information Cooperative, had signed a personalized agreement with Facebook regarding royalties for journalistic articles circulating on the platform1.
Posted on August 22, 2021
At the end of July, we also learned that three other media, including the Globe and Mail, had also reached an agreement with the American company2. However, far from representing progress, these confidential agreements trap the Canadian media in an emblematic strategy of Facebook: divide and conquer better.
Let us first recall the national context. For the past few months, Canadian lawmakers have been trying to force big American companies in Silicon Valley, including Netflix, to pay their fair share for the Canadian content they often use for free.
We know, for example, that more than 70% of digital advertising revenue now goes through Google and Facebook, which necessarily affects Canadian cultural industries.
Australia has also paved the way this year by passing a bill that forces Facebook to pay the media for the free resumption of their content. We could therefore expect our federal government to do the same in the coming months.
However, historically, Facebook, when it found itself under pressure from the legislative powers, always behaved in the same way. When a State declares that it wants to legislate on the company’s monopolistic practices, the latter systematically tries to circumvent the legislators by signing piecemeal agreements with local media in order to escape any attempt at regulation. Often these signatures involve the creation of meaningless buzzwords as is the case with the Canadian agreement and the famous Facebook News Innovation Test. The media that sign these agreements can then boast of being ahead of their competitors, even if in the end this division has a negative impact on the media sector in the long term.
The example of France
Take as an example the case of France which has been well documented by researchers Nikos Smyrnaios and Franck Rebillard3. In the early 2000s, Google circumvented regulatory pressures when it launched Google France by taking advantage of the division between the media which perceived it as a threat and the others which saw it as an opportunity to increase their market share. Finally, instead of signing a national agreement, Google instead reached an individual agreement with Agence France-Presse in 2007, after two years of legal action, which pulled the rug out from under other less prestigious media. As in the Canadian case, the agreement remained confidential.
The same scenario repeated itself with Facebook 10 years later. Again, the company used divisions within media companies to circumvent the intentions of regulators.
In the end, Facebook came to an agreement in 2017 with a prestigious media group comprising TF1, The world, Le Figaro and The Parisian about a royalty program involving the use of Instant Articles, an interface for publishing articles directly on the platform. As the researchers say, the idea behind this agreement was to create the most attractive media showcase possible and thus convince other smaller information producers to adopt Facebook’s services. A strategy that inevitably bore fruit since most of the other media went deeper into using Facebook after the agreement, but without financial compensation.
A profound transformation of the media
These confidential agreements with Facebook are therefore deplorable not only because they sanctify an atmosphere of competition in the Canadian media sector which, on the contrary, would have a great need for solidarity to get through the current crisis, but also because they profoundly change the the very functioning of the media that participate in it. For Smyrnaios and Rebillard, the relationship of competition that existed at the start between Facebook and the media quickly turned into a relationship of dilution of the media within the major platforms. This means that the media that have established themselves the most within the major platforms have also adopted the rationality induced by the platforms, in particular the concepts of commodification and datafication of users, which profoundly transforms the public interest values of the mainstream media.
What does this mean concretely? We know that the purpose of a platform, at least when it is operated by a private company, is to attract the greatest number of users and to capitalize on the collection and massification of their personal data, all in the purpose of predicting the behavior of its users to increase their loyalty. Media that adopt the Facebook mentality therefore tend to favor circulation and promotion at the expense of the production of articles.
This means that “Facebook specialist” journalists are hired in newsrooms for the sole purpose of promoting articles already written and interacting with readers on social networks.
Facebook also offers attention measurement tools, which allow real-time analysis of the sociometric performance of articles. Journalists therefore receive reports every day indicating how their articles have performed on social networks and how these could improve their performance next time, reports that challenge the traditional values of journalism (public interest, balance, impartiality) .
We see here all the toxicity that confidential agreements with Facebook can represent. Not only do these agreements (which do not even take into account articles already published) prove that some media hope to save their skins instead of transforming their profession in general, but in addition these alliances, and research shows it, tend to change. the functioning of the media from within. For the media collaborating with Facebook who today boast of being at the cutting edge of technological innovations, it should be remembered that this advance will probably turn into a Pyrrhic victory that will eat them away from the inside. Hence the need for the other media to resist and bet instead on a global agreement that will benefit the entire profession.
1 “Facebook will pay for links to Canadian media articles, including The duty », Le Devoir, May 25, 2021
2 “Remuneration of the news: the Globe and Mail and other media join the Facebook program,” The duty, July 28, 2021
3 « How infomediation platforms took over the news : A longitudinal perspective ». The Political Economy of Communication, Smyrnaios, N., & Rebillard, F. (2019)