The biggest news site in New Zealand, and the country’s fifth biggest site overall, Stuff has embarked on an experiment in dropping the use of Facebook and Instagram. It has been launched ‘in the context of the international Boycott Facebook movement’, according to a memo leaked to The Spinoff.
A leaked internal communication from Stuff’s deputy editor shows the country’s largest news organisation launching an extraordinary challenge to the biggest social media platform in the world. In “ceasing all activity” on Facebook and its partner networks, the site’s reproach is likely to make waves around the world.
“Effective immediately, Stuff is trialling ceasing all activity on Facebook-owned networks. This experiment applies to all Facebook pages, groups and Instagram accounts across our entire group,” announces the email.
The decision had been taken for ethical reasons, the memo explained, with global controversy swelling over the platform leading to advertisers choosing to boycott the platform.
“We stopped advertising on Facebook soon after the Christchurch mosque attacks in Christchurch, as we did not want to contribute financially to a platform that profits of publishing hate speech and violence. The current experiment is in the context of the international Boycott Facebook movement, and applies until further notice.”
A range of major international companies have made similar moves, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, Ford, Adidas and Starbucks. Sporadic boycotts have taken place in the past, and the latest round appears to be related to a refusal from Facebook to fact-check posts by US president Donald Trump, who has frequently been accused of using the platform to incite division and violence.
Several days ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told staff that the company had no plans to change policies, and that the advertisers would come crawling back “soon enough”, according to a report on tech site The Intelligence. While a huge share of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising, Zuckerberg also characterised the issue as a “reputational and a partner issue”, rather than an economic threat.
For Stuff, the experiment will almost inevitably cause a decline in website traffic. While the exact proportion of the site’s traffic that comes from Facebook-owned platforms is not known, according to a report from SimilarWeb, 10% of Stuff’s traffic comes from social platforms. A Stuff employee (not the original leaker) later sent through documentation that suggested the actual proportion of traffic from social is slightly lower.
Stuff has about 900,000 likes on Facebook on its main page, along with a range of other more specialised pages and groups. It also has 134,000 Instagram followers, which is generally understood as a less important platform for driving website traffic than Facebook.
The email to Stuff staff is understood to have been sent this morning. The last post on Stuff’s Facebook page was made at about 7.00am, and since then there has been nothing. This in itself is unusual for news sites, which generally heavily use the window between 7-9am to get stories in front of readers.
Stuff has recently come back into New Zealand ownership, with chief executive Sinead Boucher buying the company for $1 from previous owners Nine in Australia. That purchase also involved fending off a buyout attempt from local rival NZME, which publishes the NZ Herald.
It is the largest single employer of journalists in the country, with newsrooms in all major cities, and dozens of individual newspapers in the stable.
During the recent hearings of the Epidemic Response Committee, Boucher told MPs that Covid-19 had hit advertising spending for Stuff properties hard, with revenue halving between early March to mid-April. That also came at a time when interest in news and the need for accurate information spiked.
She told the committee that it was “the news media that is devoting its resources through its journalism to exposing those lies and debunking the myths, and presenting accurate and balanced coverage people can trust,” in contrast to social media platforms that are funded by a range of organisations, including the government.
In a statement, Stuff editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson echoed this sentiment, saying public trust was going to be the “key measure of success” in the future.
“We’ve all seen examples of social ills on Facebook that aren’t compatible with trust – for instance the spreading of fake news and hate speech. Stuff itself is frequently frustrated by other sites posing as our website on Facebook.”
Stuff is also unusual in the world in that it is a news website that is also among the most highly visited sites in the country in which it is based, at fifth in the country, behind Google, Youtube, Facebook and TradeMe.
Generally even major news sites are further down those rankings – for example in Australia, the highest-ranked news site is 12th overall in the country.
Facebook has been approached for further comment, and this story will be updated with responses.