Australians woke up yesterday morning and found out Facebook wasn't kidding when it threatened to strip news stories from people's feeds.
Within hours, the depth of Facebook's penetration into the nation's media ecosystem was laid bare. Millions used to learning what is happening in the world via their news feed received a message saying: "In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted."
What does this mean? Is it an event as habit-changing as it is sudden, or is it a temporary inconvenience? [Ironically, social media was throbbing yesterday with people finding various workarounds for Facebook's news ban, not to mention inconsistencies in how the ban was being applied.]
Equally important, how did we get here, and what's likely to happen now?
Facebook's action was a response to the federal government's news bargaining code, currently before Parliament, which aims to find a way for Facebook and Google to reimburse media companies for their journalism - which the global tech behemoths use as a way of attracting consumer engagement and, through that, advertisers.
Arguments have been flying around about how much Google and Facebook are actually damaging media companies' revenue, and whether their market dominance actually helps media companies reach larger audiences.
Suffice to say, Google and Facebook both have recognised that some level of payment to media companies is justified. What they are pushing back on is how much, and the exact mechanism by which payments should be calculated.
Pressured by the prospect of legislation enacting a bargaining code that eventually would be decided by an independent arbitrator, Google has been reaching agreements with media companies such as Seven West Media and News Corp (and Australian Community Media, the publisher of this newspaper).
Facebook has chosen to fight. Its chief weapon is that its prevalence in Australians' daily lives will prompt an almighty outcry and force the federal government to weaken or abandon the news bargaining code.
It's a risky strategy. Degrading the Facebook user experience with messages about missing content only serves to remind Australians what they are missing out on, rather than on what they are getting. It may well prompt local Facebook users to look elsewhere.
Longer term, Facebook's news blackout may well improve public discourse. Removing news from Facebook will allow users to more easily distinguish the news media - media content that has been part of an editorial process, however imperfect - from social media, which may have been edited, but mostly isn't.
Facebook may end up becoming even more of a piranha pool of conspiracy theories, of ubiquitious cat videos and smiley kids holding merit certificates, than it already is.
But for publishers, the changes are likely to bring a world of pain, especially for smaller players. Most of us are familiar with posting pictures and videos to Facebook, but there is another side to Facebook called Facebook Business.
Central to it is the Facebook Pixel, a few lines of code enabling Facebook to track users across the web.
If you've ever been bombarded with adverts for cruises on Facebook after you clicked on a cruise line's ad, that's the Facebook Pixel at work. It is so good at tracking and predicting users' behaviour that many are convinced their phones are listening to them.
The Pixel is embedded in the pages of almost every single Australian news organisation. News media companies, along with anyone else, can use that data to track and predict audience behaviour
But if the content is no longer shared as widely, that may dent their audience numbers. Facebook might continue to capture the sharing, but will they deliver that information back to advertisers and media organisations seeking to understand their audiences?
If Facebook and Google were simply commercial outfits that had become hugely profitable, that would be one thing. But their sheer reach and influence in the dissemination of news and information impinges directly on society.
News is a public good, not a private commodity, meaning anyone can benefit from it regardless of whether they have paid for it. This is a good arrangement for the public, but not necessarily for the media company that needs to make money to pay for journalists to find the news.
Absent the ABC and SBS, whose journalism is funded (primarily) by taxpayers, it has been advertising that has provided the bulk of revenue to commercial media outlets.
Media companies have always had both a material and a moral purpose, as C. P. Scott of The Manchester Guardian famously wrote a century ago. To survive commercially, media companies need to attract advertisers. News, which is perennially either interesting, entertaining or important, has long been effective in attracting readers, which media companies then connected with advertisers.
But as the American businessman, John Wanamaker, remarked around the same time: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
In the past decade, Facebook and Google have resolved Wanamaker's lament. As Amanda Lotz wrote in The Nieman Lab in 2019: "Social media and search give advertisers better tools to target messages to more precise groups of potential consumers. It is a phenomenally better mousetrap."
But social media is a better mousetrap, too, for distortion and misinformation, which can have deadly consequences - as we learnt with alarming clarity at the Capitol in Washington on January 6.
- Matthew Ricketson is a professor of communication, and Chris Scanlon is a senior lecturer in communication, at Deakin University.