Australia urged to balance social media playing field

Kat Wong |

Social media giants are accused of throttling news content and choking traffic to publications.
Social media giants are accused of throttling news content and choking traffic to publications.

The news landscape has become the “canary in the coalmine” as social media giants stretch the limits of regulation, prompting a media executive to call for a new legal regime.

Social media platforms including Facebook and X, formerly Twitter, once filled their feeds with news content to attract sign-ups and engagement.

But now their user bases have grown, the platforms have begun stifling news content and choking traffic to publications.

Instagram users must now explicitly opt in to “political” content, Facebook will soon sunset its news tab and X has stopped showing news headlines and links on posts.

And in March, Meta – which owns Instagram and Facebook – revealed it would not renew its millions of dollars worth of deals with Australian news publishers under the news media bargaining code.

News Corp's Michael Miller.
Social media must meet community obligations, News Corp’s Michael Miller says. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

News Corp Australasia executive chair Michael Miller says it is time to level the playing field.

“These tech giants – especially social media networks such as Meta, TikTok and X – operate outside our legal system,” he told the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“We know the collective damage they cause to our young and elderly, businesses big and small, to our democracy.”

Social media has fuelled issues like cyberbullying, revenge porn, doxxing, trolling, eating disorders and mental health concerns, Mr Miller said.

In recent months, social media’s role in the proliferation of violent content has also been debated after videos of a stabbing at a Western Sydney church circulated on X.

“News media is the canary in the coalmine and this current battle in my industry is part of a much larger struggle, a struggle that will encompass and impact more industries and more people,” he said.

“As a nation, we must not blink now. No company should be too big to regulate.”

He is calling on the government to rein in the tech goliaths by establishing a “social license”.

Tech companies would have to pay for the license and then abide by a series of laws and requirements.

Platforms would be liable for all content that is amplified, created and controlled by their algorithms, and would have to maintain an effective consumer complaints handling system and contribute to funding aimed at tackling mental health issues.

Those that refuse to obey would be penalised and any who agree to the license but break rules would potentially face criminal sanctions.

“If a company wants the right to access every part of our lives, so it can profit from our habits and choices … there’s a price to pay,” Mr Miller said.

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has been involved in major scandals in the US and UK. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

News Corp plays a significant role in the Australian news landscape, owning papers including The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, The Courier Mail and one of Australia’s most-visited websites, news.com.au.

Overseas, News Corp mogul Rupert Murdoch also owns Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and a host of British tabloids.

But questions have been raised over whether the company is qualified to address these issues.

Shuttered British newspaper News of the World was embroiled in a phone hacking scandal in the 2000s and Fox News was forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars over allegations it had published false statements about voting machines used in the 2020 US election.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the idea of News Corp lecturing people on ethics was “a bit ridiculous”.

“They’ve got a terrible ethical record,” he told ABC radio.

But Mr Miller maintains the company has a right to advise tech companies.

“We’ve operated as a corporation for 75 years, many of our mastheads are 150-plus years old,” he said.

“We abide by and are subject to Australian law, we meet our social obligations, we give back, we advocate proactively for a better Australia.

“I can’t say the same thing for the tech platforms.”

AAP