Blocking Australian news shows Facebook’s pledge to fight misinformation is farcical In the middle of a global pandemic and on the back of an announcement that they will ban fake news about vaccines, Facebook on Thursday announced that they will stop Australians from sharing or viewing any real news in Australia.
The dramatic move comes as Australia is about to pass legislation that would force Facebook to negotiate fair payment for news content. Facebook have previously warned that they will respond in this way, and unlike Google, have not announced their own deals with media organisations.
They are prepared to abandon the main source of fact-checked and accurate information on their platform to avoid falling under the news media bargaining code.
The platform has previously acknowledged that it has a “significant problem” with misinformation – and that users deeply value accurate information on the platform.
They have made a public commitment to “building new products to curb the spread of false news”.
But they have decided to shut off real news. This makes their public commitment to fighting misinformation look farcical.
It also makes a mockery of their public commitment to the “long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector”.
Facebook clearly never had the “best interests of the news media industry” in mind.
The news media industry will suffer as a result of this: they are heavily reliant on referral traffic from Facebook.
More deeply, if Facebook really cared about encouraging Australians to share accurate news and information on their platform, they wouldn’t remove the capacity for them to do so. If they really cared about fighting misinformation on their platform they wouldn’t make it worse.
The ban on factual news content is even interfering with organisations that have nothing to do with news and everything to do with the timely delivery of facts: the Bureau of Meteorology was removed by Facebook on Thursday amid flooding rain in Queensland and catastrophic fire warnings in WA.
Charity organisations and local councils across Australia have been removed or impacted. If you are looking for factual information of any kind on Facebook today, it is a mess.
This is a sign of what is to come as well: we cannot rely on this platform any more for factual information. During a health crisis or during an emergency, timely and accurate information needs to be delivered quickly to the Australian population; news outlets and government organisations are central to this response.
Previously, so was Facebook. It had worked hard to make this the case. Over one-third of Australians rely upon Facebook to get news and updates. Their “Crisis Response” pages, which appear during crises like floods or fire, provide quick and timely links to news sources and fact-checked information. Australians are heavily reliant on Crisis Response, particularly in rural areas.
It is an increasingly important component of Australia’s emergency response. To deliver this in Australia, a study in Australia and New Zealand found that Facebook must monitor and track both traditional and new media sources for information and issues – and display these quickly on Crisis Response.
This emergency response function will be crippled too. They are shooting themselves in the foot.
In deciding to remove the main source of fact-checked and accurate information on their platform, they have ensured that their product is suddenly less valuable. It is not going to be the platform that Australians can rely upon during an emergency, or to keep abreast of what is happening as it happens.
We are not going to be able to share news and we are not going to be able to access it – even from some government organisations if Thursday is anything to go by.
We will have to find alternative platforms and methods to keep informed.
• Belinda Barnet is senior lecturer in media and communications at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.
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