Facebook has blocked Australian media organisations and users from sharing news content on the platform, in an escalating disagreement between tech firms and the Australian government that could ultimately become a test case for media regulations and the way people consume news around the world.
The social media giant announced the decision in response to the government’s plans to require certain digital companies to pay Australian news organisations for content shared on their platforms. Facebook has taken issue with the idea, arguing that its platform generates billions of free referrals to Australian publishers, it said in a statement.
As of today, people in Australia are no longer able to post links to news articles on Facebook, and all posts have been removed from the Facebook pages of Australian and international media organisations, including New Scientist.
The timing of the news ban, just days before Australia’s coronavirus vaccine roll-out begins, has raised concerns. “This is going to make misinformation on the platform significantly worse,” says Belinda Barnet at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.
“They are removing the main source of timely, current and accurate information from their platform,” says Barnet. “It makes a mockery of their public commitment to fighting misinformation, in the middle of a pandemic.”
“Our commitment to combat misinformation on Facebook has not changed,” Facebook said in its statement on the ban. “We are directing people to authoritative health information and notify them of new updates via our COVID-19 Information Centre. We’re also continuing our third-party fact-checking partnerships.”
An estimated 39 per cent of people in Australia use Facebook as a source of general news and will now have to look elsewhere. “It will mean Australians need to learn the hard way that we can’t rely on Facebook for facts,” says Barnet. “We’re too reliant right now, we’re going to have to learn new ways of sharing and accessing information.”
A withdrawal like this hasn’t occurred elsewhere in the world. “It’s very much an open experiment for what it means for misinformation, for news consumption,” says James Meese at RMIT University in Melbourne.
Other governments will be watching the outcome of Australia’s legislation closely, particularly in Canada, which has seen recent pushes for media reform, says Meese. “Across the world, people are looking to Australia as a test case,” he says.
The ban initially removed many non-news pages too, including Australian health authorities, emergency services and the national weather bureau. Charity organisations, including a childhood cancer research institute and a domestic violence helpline, were seemingly also affected.
A Facebook spokesperson told New Scientist that Australian government pages shouldn’t have been affected by the decision. “As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted. However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”
Google last month threatened to withdraw search engine services from Australia if they were subject to the media regulations, but the tech giant has since signed payment deals with media companies, including Seven West Media and News Corp, and may be exempted from paying for news content displayed in Google searches.
More on these topics: