Future Tense

In Australia, Facebook Blocks News (and Everything Remotely Newsworthy)

Two hands hold a smartphone showing Facebook.
Facebook has banned publishers and users in Australia from sharing news content. Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Australia’s Facebook newsfeed lost half its namesake Wednesday when the social media giant banned all access to and sharing of Australian news on its site.

Facebook’s news block was enacted overnight, but the decision to do so had been brewing for quite a while. In 2020, Parliament proposed new regulation requiring Facebook and Google to compensate local news sources for linking to their stories and headlines. Most lawmakers supported the bill, which they hope will revitalize Australia’s local news deserts. The idea is that ad dollars that had been lost over the years to Facebook and Google would now funneled be back to local media companies.

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Google, which had initially threatened to shut down its search engine, caved Wednesday and signed deals for millions of dollars with Australia’s major news companies, including News Corp.

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But Facebook didn’t feel the pressure. Only 4 percent of its posts are news-related. The company made good on what it had been threatening since August: No one inside the country can now view, share, or post news on Facebook. People outside the country can’t view, share, or post Australian news, either. In a  blog post released Wednesday, Facebook’s managing director in Australia and New Zealand, William Easton, claimed that Facebook supports more than hurts the Australian news business, providing them with more than 5 billion clicks over the years. He said that by turning 5 billion clicks into zero, he hopes news publishers will be forced to see Facebook’s value.

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But the machine learning system intended to pull the plug on news has erased much more—including information on domestic violence hotlines, an abortion clinic’s posts, and even Facebook’s own page. During a pandemic, health department pages were removed. During fire season, weather information from the Bureau of Meteorology vanished. During an election in Western Australia, a politician’s page was cleared Anti-vax groups and alien memes remained, though, the New York Times reported. Human rights groups were concerned by this widespread information blackout. “It’s alarming that community support groups, emergency services and charities have had their content blocked,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “We’re particularly concerned with the effect this is having on people in the Pacific, many of whom rely on getting information and news from Facebook due to the nature of their agreements with telecommunications providers.”

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Facebook defended its heavy-handed sweep saying, “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.” The company said it is working to return accidently erased pages, such as those of government organizations and leaders, but didn’t provide any further details on how it would decide which pages to restore and which to keep blocked.

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“It is one of the most idiotic but also deeply disturbing corporate moves of our lifetimes,” said Julian Knight MP, who chairs parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

While some were hopeful that the Facebook news blackout would force people to actually traffic local media sites directly to find news, the first days revealed otherwise. Chartbeat reported a 20 percent drop in global traffic to Australian news sites since Facebook’s ban.

Mark Zuckerberg and Australia’s treasurer, Josh Fryndenberg, met in reportedly “constructive” negations Thursday afternoon. “We will continue to engage with the government on amendments to the law, with the aim of achieving a stable, fair path for both Facebook and publishers,” Facebook said in a statement. Australian Parliament will vote on the regulation, which is predicted to pass, in the coming weeks.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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