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Facebook is blocking Australian users from sharing or viewing news content on its platform in protest at prospective regulation – leading to fears of a boom in misinformation on the platform.
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 and the Bureau of Meteorology – 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’
Critics in Australia asked whether the ban was a responsible move in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially as some health agencies have been caught up in the ban.
“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, 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 also 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
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.
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.