Facebook's news ban heightens the risk of misinformation and conspiracies spreading in Australia, critics warn

  • Facebook banned news outlets from sharing articles in Australia in protest at potential regulation.
  • Experts said the removal of reliable news sources could exacerbate misinformation around the pandemic.
  • Experts bashed Facebook as nothing but ‘cute cats and conspiracy theories’ following the decision. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Facebook is blocking Australian users from sharing or viewing news content on its platform in protest at prospective regulation – leading local news media and critics to warn of a potential uptick in misinformation.

In an unprecedented move, Facebook on Wednesday began restricting Australian news organizations from sharing links to their journalism on their pages.

The upshot is that no Australian user will see news articles from domestic news pages or outlets in their news feeds. All non-Australian users are unable to see posts from major local outlets such as The Australian, ABC Australia, and News.com.au.

A host of public service institutions – including the fire department, the Bureau of Meteorology, and some health agencies – have also been caught up in the wider news ban and are currently prevented from posting at all.

‘Facebook will become little more than cute cats’

While Facebook is responding to the imminent threat of regulation that would force it to pay news publishers for linking to their content, its angry critics claim the ban is irresponsible while the pandemic continues.

“Without fact-based news to anchor it, Facebook will become little more than cute cats and conspiracy theories,” said activist Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology campaign group. “At a time when the importance of facts in dealing with a global health crisis are critical, Facebook’s decision is arrogant, reckless and dangerous.” 

David Swan, technology editor at The Australia, which has been impacted by the ban, wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday: “Facebook’s offensive is an astonishing abdication of responsibility for a platform that a sizeable percentage of the Australian population who use Facebook, and rely on it for their daily news and information.”

Australia has offered fertile ground for conspiracy theories, with recent coverage highlighting the growth of domestic variants of the widespread QAnon conspiracy theory. A May survey from polling firm Essential found that around one in eight Australians blame Bill Gates and 5G for the coronavirus pandemic. 

Australians are increasingly reliant on social media to access news, according to a 2020 study by the University of Canberra, comprising more than 2,000 Australians. The survey found 39% of Australians use Facebook for news, though this is lower than the global average of 42%.

It also found 36% Australians are worried by misinformation on Facebook, a higher percentage than for news sites and other platforms.

Facebook’s move attracted political criticism abroad too.

In the US, Democrat congressman David Cicilline hit out at the company on Twitter, writing: “If it is not already clear, Facebook is not compatible with democracy. Threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly power.” 

Meanwhile Damian Collins, the former head of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee in the UK, who is well known for his public stance against Big Tech platforms, accused Facebook of prioritizing profits “at the expense of democracy.” 

He said: “The spreaders of hate speech and disinformation can do their worst in Australia, it’s the real news Mark Zuckerberg is stopping you from sharing. Facebook is protecting profits at the expense of democracy, so we need to stand up for each other in this fight.” 

Facebook takes the nuclear option

Facebook’s decision is in light of a long-running dispute between Australian officials and the tech giants  over Australia’s proposed “news media bargaining code.”

Politicians are set to debate the new law, which would force Facebook and Google to pay publishers for every news article they display in their search engine results or news feed, respectively.

Not everyone is convinced by the current structure of the regulation, or of the Australian media’s plight.

Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, wrote earlier in February: “If it works, seems like it will mostly benefit big incumbents (e.g News Corp & Nine), and at least initially funding is tied to FB and Google who are well entrenched but subject to anti-trust scrutiny.”

Danish media analyst Thomas Baekdal accused the Australian media of hypocrisy, writing on Twitter: “If you as a newspaper truly believed that COVID-19 information is important on Facebook, then you would be allowing free sharing as much as possible. But that’s not what you are doing. You are instead trying to limit and control sharing, and to get Facebook to pay you for it.”

Announcing the firm’s ban on news links, Facebook managing director for Australia and New Zealand Will Easton wrote on Wednesday: “This legislation sets a precedent where the government decides who enters into these news content agreements, and ultimately, how much the party that already receives value from the free service gets paid.

“We will now prioritize investments to other countries, as part of our plans to invest in new licensing news programs and experiences.”

Easton wrote that news comprises just 4% of content that users see in their feeds. He also wrote that Facebook referrals to Australian news publishers were worth AU$407 million ($316 million).

Facebook has taken the nuclear option by banning news sharing. Google threatened to yank its search engine from Australia, but has subsequently taken a softer approach and is racing to offer publishers lucrative deals for its Showcase platform, through which users can access paywalled content for free.

Insider approached Facebook for comment. 

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