Friday 19 February 2021 6:00 am

Australian Facebook ban: A political gamble gone terribly wrong

Anna-Sophie Harling is the Managing Director for Europe at NewsGuard.,

This week, Google and Facebook took two different approaches toward Australian policy changes that would force the tech giants to pay for linked news content on their platforms.

Google announced a long-term deal with News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Facebook, meanwhile, called the Australian government’s bluff and abruptly blocked Australian users from sharing or viewing all news content.

The dramatic bust-up has made one thing painfully obvious: Facebook’s algorithms have terrible news judgement. Australians logging onto Facebook on Thursday morning found not just news pages blocked, but also the pages of local and state governments, health departments (during a global pandemic), fire departments (at the height of bush fire season), and many more pages providing public service information.

As of Thursday afternoon in London, the Facebook pages of the UK Sky News and Telegraph were also blank, seemingly caught up in the algorithm’s inability to differentiate between the British and Australian versions of major news outlets.

And yes, Australians are still able to access the emotionally-charged, outrageous, misleading content favoured by black-box algorithms that maximise financial revenue at the expense of user safety One page, dubbed ‘Australians vs. The Agenda’, discourages users from getting the COVID-19 vaccine and is tagged as a ‘News Company’. Mysteriously, it clung onto its presence on the social media giant while crucially important platforms were pulled down.

Today, in response to Facebook’s blocking of news content, the page shared a post saying, “Our Australian Ministers are so pissed off that they won’t be able to distribute their COVID-19 fear-mongering and propaganda to the Australian public.” And links to Facebook’s own fact checking partners in Australia can no longer be shared on the platform. Facebook’s political gamble could have calamitous results for efforts to fight the pandemic, including take-up for the COVID-19 vaccine in Australia.

So why did Facebook do it? It’s not opposed to paying news publishers. Both Google and Facebook are doing one-off deals with selected publishers for Google’s News Showcase and Facebook’s Facebook News tab. However, these deals are only with a select few large publishers, leaving smaller or digital-only news sites with no compensation.

The reason Facebook has taken this drastic step is because it’s seriously concerned about the threat of international regulation with real teeth, like the UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill, the EU’s Digital Services Act, and antitrust cases building up around the world.

Unfortunately, in this high-stakes game of chicken, credible Australian news publishers and those who benefit from the public service they provide will be collateral damage. Regulators around the world, including in the UK, should double down.

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