Federal health halts Facebook advertising but brands stay put

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 22 February 2021

The health department, and reportedly other government ministers, have paused advertising on Facebook amid calls for a national boycott in response to the platform’s ban on news content.

Finance minister Simon Birmingham, answering a question on ABC radio national: "It is my expectation that we will pull back from advertising on Facebook while they undertake this type of terrible activity, pulling down sites inappropriately of seeking to exert power or influence over our democratic systems."

The government will be looking at all its advertising, he says.

Last week, the social media giant stopped Australian users from being able to view and share news content. The move was in response to the proposed news media bargaining code, which aims to govern how Facebook and Google pay certain publishers for their content.

Other organisations, such as government departments and charities have also been caught in the ban, which Facebook says it’s working to reverse.

Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders program yesterday, health minister Greg Hunt said that his department would not be using Facebook to advertise its vaccine rollout campaign.

“I spoke to my office to make sure on Thursday that we were not doing that,” Hunt said.

“I will check with my department but, on my watch until this issue is resolved there will not be Facebook advertising.

“I reaffirmed yesterday that there has been none commissioned or instituted since this dispute. Basically you have corporate titans acting as sovereign bullies and they won't get away with it.”

Facebook is still working with government departments to share their messaging around COVID-19, including on the vaccine rollout.

“We’ve been engaging with the Australian Government to outline our ongoing concerns with the proposed law,” says Will Easton, Facebook Australia managing director.

“We will continue to work with the government on amendments to the law, with the aim of achieving a stable, fair path for both Facebook and publishers.

“Our commitment to combat misinformation on Facebook has not changed. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked with the government to direct people to authoritative health information and notify them of new updates via our COVID-19 Information Centre. We're also continuing our third-party fact-checking partnerships with AAP and AFP, who review content and debunk false claims online.”

Thinktank The Australia Institute has also put out a call for a national Facebook advertising boycott until news content is restored.

According to the institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Facebook makes more than $2.5 million per day from paid digital advertising.

“Facebook’s Australian news blackout shows both its enormous market power and its contempt for fact-based journalism,” says Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.

“That’s why all levels of government, from federal to local, civil society and business should review the amount of money they spend on Facebook and consider suspending further buys until Facebook returns news and civil society sites back to their network.

“We do recognise that some organisations, due to Facebook’s enormous market power, have become wholly reliant on Facebook advertising to reach their audiences and for those for whom where suspension is not possible, a broader review of this dependence is timely.”

However, industry insiders say that unless the news ban causes Facebook user numbers to fall, they won’t be pulling advertising from the platform.

INC Digital Media CEO Loan Morris says the news ban won’t make Facebook less attractive to advertisers.

“The advertisers we work with haven’t raised any desire to shift away from Facebook right now,” Morris tells AdNews.

“I guess everybody is waiting to see whether this ban will have a real impact on audience numbers though we won’t really know that until Facebook releases its numbers which doesn’t happen that often.

“At the end of the day it all comes down to whether the audience you’re targeting is using this platform so we are closely monitoring this evolving situation for our clients, noticing any impact on performance and we are mostly having discussions around contingency plans and diversification of platforms.”

GroupM Australia CEO Mark Lollback says agencies are also waiting to see what the impact will be on user numbers.

“While time will tell as to how the newsfeed quality and the user experience will be impacted, we will continue to monitor consumer conversations as we support clients in how they navigate and use these platforms in their media planning,” Lollback says.

“Our priorities remain the same – to enable a responsible and effective media marketplace, and ensure that our clients continue to access quality, brand-safe inventory and media that engages with their customers meaningfully.”

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