Failbook: How to Lose Friends and Influencers

By Angus Smith | 20 Feb 21

Facebook tried to use Australia as a warning to the rest of the world about what happens when you try to regulate them. Instead, they have shown that they are no longer the friendly social network and will go to great lengths to get their way.

Australians woke up Thursday morning to thinned out Facebook feeds after the tech giant moved to block its approximately 18 million Australian users from accessing news sites. Anyone who tried to share news articles from Australian webpages was blocked from doing so.

The move was the latest chapter in a dispute over whether or not internet giants such as Facebook and Google should be required to pay news companies for news content posted on their platforms.

But it was also a long-overdue wakeup call.

Australians have been hitting the snooze button on online rights and the power of tech giants for over a decade.

Suddenly, we are all wide awake.

While blocking news services — by a platform that has encouraged people to get their news from it — in the middle of a global pandemic might seem bad enough, many other non-news groups were caught up in the move.

Charities, emergency service organisations, government departments, humanitarian groups, health services, and women’s shelters were also blocked and their pages scrubbed. This all happened while there is flooding in Queensland and Australia is on the cusp of rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable and remote communities.

Many of these groups use Facebook as their primary online interface for communicating with the public.

Vice President, Public Policy at Facebook Simon Milner responded by saying that some of the impacted pages “don’t probably think of themselves as news but under the law they may well be.”

Facebook’s argument is essentially that the laws are broad and vague, so they had no choice but shut everything down and that’s the government’s fault.

No doubt the messaging sounded clever in Facebook’s morning Zoom meeting but it fell flat and instead looked more like corporate extortion.

It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular own goal.

It has left many questioning the power and role that Facebook plays in Australia and around the world.

Facebook’s actions are also a study in hypocrisy. As pointed out by Liberty Victoria, Facebook has been reluctant and slow to take down posts that promote conspiracy theories or spread misinformation about the pandemic. Yet when their (enormous) bottom line was threatened, they managed to act with devastating speed.

“It’s preposterous that Facebook has left in place accounts which share false information or conspiracy theories, while blocking vital health, government, and emergency service sites,” Liberty Victoria said.

The BBC used data-analysis tool CrowdTangle — ironically itself a Facebook-owned company — to compare Facebook posts in Australia relating to COVID-19 and vaccines in the days before and after the ban was imposed.

The investigation discovered that before the ban, the majority of top-performing posts came from legitimate media and health sources. After the ban, the same search revealed a quarter of the posts contained misleading content about Covid-19 or vaccines.

The BBC search found an increase in posts that led to alternative or holistic medicine pages, and anti-vax sites.

Read the full BBC investigation.

Australia has had one of the most successful responses to the global pandemic.

To undermine these efforts in such a spectacular way at such a crucial time is reckless and dangerous.

Facebook tried to use Australia as a warning to the rest of the world about what happens when you try to regulate them.

Instead it’s a warning of what the future looks like if we don’t.