Facebook news ban ‘backfired dramatically’ say Curtin Uni, Monash experts


Facebook’s old motto of “moving fast and breaking things” has “backfired dramatically” in Australia after the company brought in a ban on news content that also removed important government and emergency resources.

Curtin University internet studies expert Professor Tama Leaver told news.com.au Facebook made the overnight decision to ban news content in an attempt “to make a dramatic point”.

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“It’s trying to have people wake up and not be able to find the things they normally find on Facebook. I think they’re relying on people being so upset that they’ll blame the government for that. I have to say, from what I’ve heard from people so far I think it’s backfired dramatically.

“People are angry at Facebook, and when you try and tell Australians what they can and can’t have they tend to turn around and get very cross with you,” Prof Leaver said.

In addition to banning news content, Facebook also scrubbed the pages of several non-news outlets, from government agencies, support and emergency services, unions, retail stores, and even itself.

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The company said those pages “should not be impacted” but they have been.

Facebook put the blame on wording in the draft legislation that it thought was too broad, but said it will “reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted”.

Prof Leaver said one of the reasons for Facebook’s mistake is that it “approached this situation as it does many other things”: By using algorithms that are “quick, easy, and cheap”, but not always perfect.

“In the same way they can’t easily identify misinformation, I don’t think they could easily identify all news websites, and they chose to go broader rather than narrower,” Prof Leaver said.

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The scrubbing of non-news pages had people “quite distressed and angry”.

“There’s a real possibility if there are fires or emergency situations people who normally go to Facebook for that information and don’t understand what’s going on this morning might not know something vital and critical they need to know for an emergency. If Facebook was trying to win a PR war it lost it by not paying attention to how broad its own algorithm for blocking actually was,” Prof Leaver said.

Monash University associate professor in communications David Holmes agreed, saying “removing the BOM feed on a day of potentially dangerous floods in Qld and severe fire danger in WA is irresponsible”.

Monash University information technology associate professor Carsten Rudolph said we need to remember platforms like Google and Facebook “are commercial entities relying on a business model, while using exploitative data mining tactics”.

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Other experts have taken issue with the timing of the action as well as the immediacy with which it was brought in, given how the platform has dragged its feet in the past.

The spread of misinformation has become a huge problem on social media in recent years, and has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 global pandemic that has now extended into its second year.

With health misinformation rife, University of Sydney’s medicine and health professor Julie Leask said “the timing couldn’t be worse”.

“Facebook censor anti-vaccination content ‘for public health’ at the same time as restricting user’s access to local news at the start of a vaccine rollout.

“Three days before our COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination.

“This is the very time we rely on people accessing vaccine information easily, from their preferred platform,” Prof Leask said.

Swinburne University of Technology senior media lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet agreed, saying it showed Facebook “were never serious about fighting misinformation”.

“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,” Dr Barnet said.

University of Sydney media and communications associate professor Fiona Martin said Facebook acted how it did “because they are worried about it setting a precedent for content licensing claims”.

“It will be interesting to monitor the backlash from users,” Prof Martin added.

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Prof Leaver has been watching that backlash and thinks it stems from issues present in a US-based, globally operating company making decisions that impact on a single jurisdiction.

He said Facebook “made these decisions in the US imagining a US audience and has not really taken Australians into account at all”.

While a US audience “tend to be defensive of businesses and dislike government interference”, Australians “dislike the government until they think the government has a point”.

“I don’t think the public is accepting it one little bit,” Prof Leaver said.

“Australia has become an unintended social experiment in the widespread prevalence of misinformation filling the news void, and I don’t think that’s a good thing for Australia, democracy or the news … that sort of motto of ‘move fast and break things’ — as much as Facebook pretend that’s not how they do things now — it still is.”

“They’ve misread the room, especially as the other headlines this week have been Google running around handing out large pots of money to news organisations to avoid exactly this situation.”



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