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Misinformation runs rampant as Facebook says it may take a week before it unblocks some pages

Guardian Technology 19 Feb 2021 05:28

Facebook may wait up to a week before unblocking some of the pages of hundreds of non-media organisations caught up in its news ban, while anti-vaccination content and misinformation continues to run rampant on the social media platform.

Content designated as news was blocked on Facebook in Australia on Thursday morning in response to the federal government’s news media code, which would require the tech giant to negotiate with news publishers for payment for content.

The decision continued to make waves globally on Friday, with leaders at the virtual G7 summit discussing the issue and US legislators setting out plans for a series of related antitrust bills, starting with one that would make it easier for small news organisations to negotiate with tech giants by allowing them to work as a group.

In Europe, the European Commission president urged the US to join the EU in creating “a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”. Ursula von der Leyen cited the storming of the US capitol as “a turning point for our discussion on the impact social media have on our democracies”, adding: “We just cannot leave decisions, which have a huge impact on our democracies, to computer programmes without any human supervision or to the board rooms in Silicon Valley. The latest decision of Facebook regarding Australia is just another proof for that.”

But the social network was under pressure over the continued blocks on public service content affected by its action. It has blamed the situation on the government’s broad definition of what is considered to be “news” in the code. Hundreds of other pages have been barred from posting content, including health department and emergency services pages, family violence support pages, Western Australia opposition leader Zak Kirkup’s page, and even a page for mums in Sydney’s north shore.

“We’re just at the very beginning of what for us is quite a big campaign where we’re going to spend quite a bit of money on Facebook,” he said. “And the irony is that they’re cutting off the hand that feeds them. It’s just crazy so it took me two hours down a rabbit hole of trying to find somewhere on Facebook’s website where you can actually contact them.”

“I spent the first 20 minutes of that live chat trying to explain that we’re a small to medium enterprise, we are not a media organisation. He kept coming back and saying ‘yes but you published stories’. I said ‘but we’re not a publisher they’re stories about funerals, we’re a funeral business’.”

Some other pages were restored on Thursday and Friday, but Guardian Australia understands it could be up to a week before many of the pages are even reviewed.

He said in a post, shared with Guardian Australia, Facebook had applied the definition of news as per the definition in the code’s legislation.

“An appeals process for the ban will launch on Feb 25 and you can request your page be assessed as outside the news ban. All of the government pages/sites caught up in this should be reinstated.”

Australian news sites recorded a steep decline in traffic as a result of the block. Audience tracking company Nielsen reported total sessions for news content declined 16% on Thursday compared with the last six Thursdays, while total time spent declined 14%.

Social tracking website Chartbeat also reported overnight that Australian news sites recorded a decline of more than 20% in traffic due to Facebook cutting off news sites. Prior to the change, about 15% of visits to sites within Australia were being driven by Facebook, but after the change, that had dropped to less than 5%, the company said.

“Our first foray into real journalism has been so popular it completely crashed our website. We’re beginning to understand why the Herald-Sun never publishes proper journalism.”

Separately, dozens of pages and groups dedicated to promoting conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination misinformation and the alt-right have continued to operate unhindered by the company’s broad-brush ban on news content.

One 7,000-member group, which is dedicated to promoting the baseless conspiracy that the 1996 Port Arthur massacre was staged, posted an edited video which uses a 2015 speech by former Liberal party senator Bill Heffernan to falsely allege the existence of a widespread pedophilia network in Australian politics. The conspiracy theory, which has become a key tenet of Australia’s QAnon community, has been shared twice since the ban was introduced.

Facebook’s ban also missed alt-right operators such as Avi Yemini, who has previously been banned from Facebook for hate speech and has become a key part of the growing conspiracy movement in Australia by promoting a steady stream of content linked to and shared by the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination groups. Despite calling himself a “journalist”, Yemini and his associated pages continued to post unencumbered to his more than 100,000 followers on Friday.

The Australian government is trying to resolve issues with Facebook, but there is no clear timeline on when or if news media will be restored.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, repeated that the government would not be backing down from the code.

“But the idea of shutting down the sorts of sites they did yesterday, as some sort of threat, I know how Australians react to that and I thought that was not a good move on their part.

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FacebookAustraliaUrsula von der LeyenNicola MendelsohnInglis
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