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Facebook condemned for shock shutdown as it begins collateral damage clean-up

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Facebook has attracted condemnation after blocking the pages of some state and territory health authorities, emergency services and the Bureau of Meteorology.

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Queensland, SA and ACT Health and the WA Fire and Emergency Services pages were blanked out on Thursday morning as the tech giant restricted Australian news sharing in response to a proposed media bargaining code.

The pages, which provide crucial health, emergency and weather information and alerts, were restored about noon on Thursday.

The Tasmanian and ACT government pages, along with those of social services and community groups, arts organisations and registered charities, are still blank.

Facebook says it didn’t intend to ban government pages.

“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,” it said in a statement.

“However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt lashed out at Facebook for blocking health pages.

He accused the US firm of putting profit over public safety.

“You may be in it for the money, but the rest of us are in it for safety, protection and responsibility,” Mr Hunt said.

“This is the moment to return to your origins. You were meant to be, as a company, focused on community engagement.”

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow suggested the blockages were tantamount to denying people the right of freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression includes the right to speak and to receive information,” he tweeted.

Dana McKay, a lecturer in computing at the University of Melbourne, says the blocked non-news organisations probably explore topics and use words that commonly appear in the news.

“So anything that looks even vaguely newsy has been caught up in this. And it means they haven’t missed anything,” she told ABC News 24.

McKay said Facebook could have used the more sophisticated approach of black-listing.

But that would have required the tech giant to keep and maintain a comprehensive list of news providers, and accept the risk that some news might slip through.

McKay said Facebook could quickly resolve unintended blocks by simply “white-listing” organisations.

“That’s a relatively quick fix, that’s ‘OK we’re going to let that one through’. But if they’re trying to retrain those algorithms, that can be quite a time-consuming and energy-intensive process.

“That may take days or even longer to get that sorted out, because they’re essentially refining what the algorithm detects as news.”

WA Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup’s page remains blocked but not Premier Mark McGowan’s, with the state election set for March 13.

Kirkup accepted Facebook had made a mistake, but said the situation reinforced the need for the federal media code to be passed.

“While I accept that my page was taken down because of a poorly written algorithm, it speaks volumes how influential these social media giants have become in determining the course of our democracy,” he said.

“This only reinforces why @ScottMorrisonMP was right to intro this mandatory code.”

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ensure people can still get information from official sources after the Facebook pages of Queensland Health and the Bureau of Meteorology were blocked.

The pages of Brisbane City Council, Energex and TransLink were also affected, along with some health agencies in other states.

Palaszczuk today said she was “very concerned” that Facebook’s ban on news being posted or shared in Australia had adverse impacts on other sources.

“They should not be caught up in this ban,” Palaszczuk said, in a news conference live-streamed on her Facebook page.

While the Premier sought to avoid commenting on the news ban itself, she called on Morrison to “see sense and sort this issue out quickly”.

“You cannot have vital information not getting to people when that is where they go to get their source of information,” Palaszczuk said.

“It needs to be fixed up today.”

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Facebook’s actions were wrong, heavy-handed, and would damage its reputation, but the Federal Government would not back down on its new media bargaining code.

Queensland Health and the Department of Premier and Cabinet were lobbying Facebook to resolve the issue. A Facebook company spokesperson reportedly said “government pages should not be impacted” and it was taking steps to restore access to “any pages that are inadvertently impacted”.

The pandemic has drawn people to official health sources. By the middle of 2020, Queensland Health was reaching more than 20 million people on Facebook every week, with almost four million post engagements.

In January 2021 alone, during a lockdown and travel restrictions, the department’s content was seen 65,680,207 times, received 6,448,305 engagements and had 83,867 clicks.

Queensland Health’s executive director of strategic communications, Robert Hoge, said Facebook was a “significant” part of its information strategy, and losing access ahead of the COVID-19 vaccination program was a concern.

“I applaud Facebook for taking action against anti-vaxxers, Pete Evans and other peddlers of harmful views and conspiracies, however they got this one wrong,” Hoge said.

“While our social media platforms have a better reach than many news services, and are more reliable, we are in fact not a news service. Facebook should fix this urgently.”

Queensland Health, like the Bureau of Meteorology, has urged people to go directly to its website for information.

Non-government organisations have also been caught up in the ban, including the RACQ and the domestic violence campaign ‘Small Steps 4 Hannah’ – on the eve of the one year-anniversary of the murders of Hannah Clarke and her children.

Even Facebook’s own Facebook page was blacked out this morning.

 

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