OCT 18, 2021 / Facebook

Facebook’s news ban is a timely reminder to check what you read online

As you’re probably aware, Facebook’s recently been making some very big changes to the way Australians use its services. Specifically, and in reaction to the media bargaining laws before Parliament, Facebook opted to instead block any Australian user from sharing news from any Australian or International news source, as well as blocking international users from sharing specifically Australian-identified news sources.

While there’s an inevitable political element to much of this – and for the record I think there’s some big flaws in the media bargaining laws and in Facebook’s approach – the reality of their inclusion of a charged fee system for anything identified as “news” – itself rather nebulously defined under the legislation, for both better and worse – gave the company two options. It could work within that system, effectively paying for the links its users actually uploaded, or not at all – and it chose the latter.

This rather quickly became more than just a story about the big masthead newspapers, however, as Facebook’s approach to the problem was to apply an algorithm to determine if what was being shared counted as “news”, and if so block it, as well as hiding posts from any publicly facing page that it also defined as “news”.

Now, that’s arguably fair enough for, say, the Melbourne Age or the Brisbane Courier-Mail, but less clear-cut for health services pages, the Bureau of Meteorology or many small business or club pages that suddenly found themselves bereft of content and unable to share any actual new posts as well. For what it’s worth, Facebook has stated that some of the pages were removed in error and will be reinstated, but it also noted that the broad definition of news didn’t leave it with much choice if it wanted to remain compliant with the law.

It’s something of a stark reminder of the essential power of Facebook, especially if you’ve used it to build up a group or share information, because those facilities were always only offered to you on Facebook’s terms. It’s a private company and, while staying within the scope of Australian law (albeit in a highly problematic way) it can do what it likes with its own web space.

The issue here, however, goes beyond whether Facebook should be contributing specifically to the coffers of larger news organisations, however, because it also highlights another issue that can only get worse from here on out. Facebook has long had a problem with the propagation of false information, whether that’s outright wacky conspiracy theories, poorly researched “scientific” arguments or even opinions-masquerading-as-facts, used to propel a particular argument, sell some specific PR spin, or in many cases con people out of their money.

Facebook’s ban works on the content it identifies as “news”, but it’s far from a precise model. For some time, it was possible to share a news story if you also included any kind of still image or GIF before dropping the link into your post, although Facebook seems to have closed that particular loophole. There’s still some link shortening services that seem to work if you really must share news, but where it becomes a bigger problem is if someone else is sharing more contentious material on a site that Facebook doesn’t classify as news.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that someone shares a very bad bit of advice around the current pandemic, and what you should do. This already happens on Facebook quite a lot, but presuming it passes Facebook’s “this isn’t a news site” check, it would go up, uncontested. You could argue against it – and in the case of that kind of “advice” you’d be smart to – but you wouldn’t be able to cite evidence to the contrary from, say the ABC, Fairfax/Nine or News Corp titles, because Facebook wouldn’t actually let you share them!

As such, while at a consumer level we can’t do much to modify Facebook or the Government’s stances right away, it becomes even more important to double-check what you’re reading on Facebook. It’s good general advice for anything you read online, really, but when the right to reply isn’t present, it’s an even more pressing matter.

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Alex Kidman
Tech Journalist