Aussies ask important questions about online media consumption

The Australian government has tasked one of its agencies to investigate what impact digital platform providers such as Facebook and Google are having on competition in media and advertising services markets.

For the moment, the scope of the enquiry is relatively unclear, though the ACCC has stated part of the investigation will be to see whether the new platforms are affecting traditional media’s ability to fund the development of content. The last thing any democratic government is the end of media outlets who educate and inform the general public, but how much influence government should have on the commercial activities of any business is a difficult equation to balance.

“The ACCC goes into this inquiry with an open mind to and will study how digital platforms such as Facebook and Google operate to fully understand their influence in Australia,” said ACCC Chairman Rod Sims.

“We will examine whether platforms are exercising market power in commercial dealings to the detriment of consumers, media content creators and advertisers. The ACCC will look closely at longer-term trends and the effect of technological change on competition in media and advertising.”

Facebook and Google are of course doing nothing wrong. They have popular platforms were they push what they consider to be relevant and attractive content to the consumer. Most of the time this content is more conversational or entertainment related, as this is more popular with the consumer. Heavier news stories are much less likely to catch the attention of someone on the train who is just trying to kill five minutes until the next stop.

As these more entertainment driven content titles are more attractive to the online consumer, they are also attracting the lion’s share of advertisers budgets. As a result, titles which are more news related content are operating on slimmer budgets, and are therefore not able to take advantage of the commercial news platforms offered by the likes of Google and Facebook. For the more traditional content providers, it is a negative trend, which is only fuelling another negative trend.

Some might say we should let market conditions dictate the future, but recent events have shown what happens when commercial platforms, where content visibility is essentially pay-to-play, have such powerful influence over the consumer. The election of President Trump has been criticised due to the distribution of fake news and what some might call misleading propaganda, while some have also argued a misinformed electorate led the UK towards Brexit.

Unfortunately, those with the most cash are sometimes the ones who lean on sensationalist claims which fuel misinformation, or perhaps bankrolled by parties which have a bias. The latter is of course very difficult to prove, and is not stating recent events have been influenced by such nefarious activities, but it is an idea which should not be lightly dismissed.

Traditional media is dying a slow and painful death at the hands of online platforms, and more entertainment-orientated titles. But this is the choice of the consumer, and the internet giants are simply addressing a need with a solution. Should this be considered wrong? Of course not. But will this lead to a general public which is less informed?

As you can see, it is a very difficult challenge for the ACCC, and one which could have global implications; governments tend to learn from each other. How do you preserve the capitalist freedoms which Western society is built on, with the need to ensure the general public is appropriately informed on topics which might not be the most click-baity?

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