When Australian media went dark on Facebook: A timeline and analysis

Publishers across Australia abruptly saw their content go dark on Facebook last month, limiting their ability to reach audiences across the world. Now that the ban has been lifted and traffic appears to have returned to its previous levels, our Data Science team wanted to understand the ban’s impact, primarily:

1. How did the ban affect overall traffic in Australia and its surrounding regions?

2. What was the severity of Facebook’s absence as a driver of referrals to Australian publishers?

More on the timeline of events, corresponding traffic data, and our findings, below.

Facebook goes dark in Australia: A timeline of events

Here’s a timeline of our data across Australia and its surrounding regions. First, we delve into the referral data within the country on Feb. 17 *, as shown in the graph below:

  • Prior to 10 a.m. — more than 10% of visits from users within Australia were being driven by Facebook. 
  • After 10 a.m. — traffic begins to decline significantly as the ban’s effect begins to emerge across the country and surrounding areas
  • By 5 p.m. — traffic steadily fell from there, with less than 2% of visits being driven by Facebook

*times in UTC

From an international perspective, the change has perhaps been even more stark. Just before the change, more than 25% of traffic to Australian news websites from visitors outside of the country was driven by Facebook. After the fact, only 5% of international visitors were being driven by Facebook.

Our data confirmed what Facebook stated publicly — Australians, along with the rest of the world, were effectively blocked from seeing media sites on Facebook.

Referral traffic from Facebook in the following days

Traffic in the early portion of the following week showed similar results. 

By the afternoon of Feb. 22, total traffic from outside Australia decreased by 30% on average and 33% on average from within Australia, according to our analysis.

As we see above, this continued through the week until breakthroughs in talks between legislators and Facebook ultimately lifted the ban. This is indicated by the significant rise in referrals — from less than 10,000 pageviews to more than 100,000 — in referral traffic on Feb. 26. Pageviews continued to climb in the subsequent days, returning closer to pre-ban levels.

What we know about Facebook’s impact in Australia

In some countries, Facebook’s disappearance would not have had such a drastic effect on the news industry. However, Facebook’s traffic is notably strong in the Australian market: while 12% of visits to publishers globally were driven by Facebook, 15% of visits to Australian publishers were driven by Facebook. A 3% difference may seem insignificant, but it translates to tens of thousands of lost pageviews to publishers.

This relatively high level of Facebook traffic helps illuminate why tensions are so high: publishers, seeing such a high fraction of their traffic coming from Facebook, are demanding revenue, and Facebook knows that it has value as a major traffic driver.

The substitution effect: Did users move to other platforms?

In prior research, we’ve found that when Facebook was completely down, users shifted from Facebook to other platforms and traffic remained constant or even increased. This situation is quite different: Facebook is alive and well in Australia, with only news content blocked. Nonetheless, this led us to ask two questions:

1. Was demand for news inelastic, with users switching to other platforms? 

2. Or, when news content was pulled, did traffic simply fall?

Overall, our data suggests that Facebook’s disappearance resulted in a hit to publishers’ traffic numbers — when Facebook’s traffic dropped off, overall Australian traffic did not shift to other platforms. Perhaps the largest effect has been on readership of Australian sites from outside of the country. Because that readership was so driven by Facebook, overall international traffic had fallen day-over-day by over 20%.

What’s next? Our (very) early take

Overall, our data shows that the effects were short-lived — traffic has normalized within and outside Australia. 

Previous outages have shown us that we cannot rule out reader adaptation — audiences may eventually respond to this scenario in new and surprising ways. That said, there is still much to learn about the long-term impact of the ban as the news continues to unfold. We’ll be continuing to closely monitor the situation and update you with more relevant data, if warranted.

In the meantime, you can continue to follow coverage from ABC Australia, BBC, and Axios.

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