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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

MediaMarch 8, 2023

After three years away, Stuff has (accidentally?) returned to Facebook

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

In 2020, during the middle of the first Covid-19 wave, loudly quit Facebook. Now, nearly three years on, it appears to have made a quiet return.

In early July 2020, The Spinoff reported on “an experiment” being carried out by New Zealand’s largest news site, Stuff. “Effective immediately, Stuff is trialling ceasing all activity on Facebook-owned networks,” an internal memo to staff read. “This experiment applies to all Facebook pages, groups and Instagram accounts across our entire group.”

Just months after Covid-19 spread across the world, and after New Zealand entered its first nationwide lockdown, a news organisation opted to stop sharing everything – even matters of national importance – onto the world’s most prominent social media 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 off publishing hate speech and violence,” the email continued. “The current experiment is in the context of the international Boycott Facebook movement, and applies until further notice.” The site’s editor in chief Patrick Crewdson at the time said Stuff would be monitoring the impact of the boycott week by week to “see how it goes”.

Stuff’s boycott remained staunchly in place for about a year. No posts, no comments, no shares – nothing. In 2021, there was a brief return in order for select stories detailing relevant Covid-19 statistics to be shared. A Stuff project titled The Whole Truth was also given a Facebook click boost. As BusinessDesk reported, Stuff had chosen to share “vital” stories related to the pandemic and the lockdown. “We decided that given the seriousness of the current situation and the level of response required, it was important for us to ensure we made good, accurate information available as widely as possible,” a spokesperson said at the time.

The following year, there was a short burst of content about the death of Queen Elizabeth II shared to Facebook. Still, all in all, after two years, Stuff’s presence on Facebook remained minimal. 

But in 2023, it appears Stuff’s approach to Facebook has shifted. (It’s worth disclosing here that The Spinoff has a content sharing agreement with Stuff.) Data from social analytics tool Crowdtangle showed that Stuff had the fifth largest Facebook presence of any local media outlet in the week ending March 5, an average of roughly 18 posts per day. By comparison, NZ Herald shared a whopping 102 each day and The Spinoff about 16.

Earlier in February, Stuff had shared as many as 21 posts a day, Crowdtangle showed, while in mid-January that number was zero.

At first glance there seemed to be a common theme among Stuff’s choice of posts since its quiet return to Facebook in recent weeks. Many of the articles fitted within the parameters set out in 2021 – namely, stories of vital importance. For example, there were a number of stories about climate change as well as reporting on Cyclone Gabrielle and the immediate responses. Several of these pieces received significant levels of engagement, one racking up 23,000 reactions. 

But it wasn’t all disaster-related. A February 20 article on a student flat that was ransacked in Dunedin made the cut, as did a recent recall of hummus. More trivially, there was a piece headlined “volunteer’s overnight vigil to protect dotterel chick from stalking cat” while another shared in March queried whether the size of KFC’s chicken had been shrinking (spoiler: it hadn’t).

Two recent posts on Stuff’s Facebook

While the posting has returned, Stuff has opted not to switch on comments on any of its posts. That’s a similar position taken by RNZ, which has continued to post articles to Facebook consistently but, for some time now, not allowed people to directly engage.

It’s a curious time for Stuff to make a grand return to Facebook. The platform has been making it harder for news outlets to reach audiences, including in this part of the world. In 2021, for example, it implemented an outright ban on Australian news outlets (this position was later softened). Here in New Zealand, media outlets have been bargaining for their own deals with Facebook.

So what’s changed for Stuff over the past few weeks? Turns out, according to a spokesperson, nothing. Stuff’s policy to only use the social platform for “critical public service announcements” remains, but evidently isn’t always followed – though no one seemed to have noticed until asked for comment by The Spinoff. 

“It appears there has been some inadvertent loosening of our approach and the team has been reminded of our policy,” the spokesperson admitted.

At the time of writing, the posts remain on Facebook.

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