Civil society groups are concerned Facebook’s news ban will undermine Australia’s democracy and thereby leave room for misinformation “to fill the void.”
Meanwhile, a new voluntary code (pdf) to combat the spreading of disinformation was introduced by the Minister for Communications on Feb. 22.
In an open letter published by Reset Australia on Feb. 18, which has garnered both local and international support, Facebook was urged to reverse its decision to block Australian news access.
Facebook’s actions were in response to the Morrison government’s News Media Bargaining Code that, if passed, will see the social media tech company pay for Australian news content.
“Facebook’s decision to take down content in Australia is an extreme, and nuclear option,” executive director of Reset Australia, Chris Cooper, said in a media release.
“Facebook didn’t just wipe Australian news. It also silenced the voices of Australia’s civil society—from charities, unions, even political parties. This has serious consequences for democracy,” he said. “And now they are borrowing from the playbook of authoritarians and dictators, holding Australians hostage to benefit their own business interests.”
Websites for the state Queensland Health Department, Victoria Police, the National Bureau of Meteorology, members of Parliament, and even non-profit organisations such as 1800 Respect and trade unions saw their pages restricted and all content wiped.
In response, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described Facebook’s actions as “arrogant.”
“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it,” Morrison wrote on Facebook.
New Rules for Big Tech
Facebook’s decision to block news content sharing came as Australia begins to roll out COVID-19 vaccinations across the nation.
“Facebook blocking news in the middle of a pandemic, when accurate information is a key plank of the public health response really tells you all you need know about how much Zuckerberg cares about Australian society and cohesion,” Cooper said.
“Facebook is basically telling Australians that rather than participate meaningfully in regulatory efforts, it would prefer to operate a platform in which real news has been abandoned or de-prioritised, leaving misinformation to fill the void.”
Additionally troubling for Cooper was that Reset Australia’s research demonstrated that the blockage on Australian news did not stop misinformation about COVID-19 or “fake news” from being posted. This was despite Facebook marking it as false.
“We don’t have oversight on how these algorithms operate, only that they amplify the most sensationalist content to keep us online and keep Facebook making megabucks from our engagement. The absence of news on the platform will only compound the echo chamber effect,” he said.
While Cooper has criticised the Federal government’s new voluntary code on disinformation, he agrees there should be new regulations on social media.
“Globally, it is clear new rules are needed for Big Tech. There is no doubt about that. As a society, we need to be able to harness new technology for the greater good and not purely for someone’s profit.”
The Federal government’s new voluntary code of disinformation aims to “empower consumers to make better-informed choices of digital content, disrupt advertising and monetisation incentives, strengthen public understanding through strategic research, and improve transparency over measures used to combat disinformation and misinformation.”
Daniel Y. Teng, Victoria Kelly-Clark, and AAP contributed to this report.