Facebook has put its bottom line ahead of the interests of its customers by banning news outlets but letting misinformation run rampant, Marc Daalder writes

Facebook has had enough and is putting its foot down.

At long last, the major tech company has scraped its platform of undesirable content.

Am I referring to far-right propaganda? No, that’s still widely available across dozens of pages and groups, including New Zealand-specific white supremacist entities that issue death threats against politicians.

What about medical misinformation? Given anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine rallies for four New Zealand cities are still being organised on Facebook, I guess not.

Maybe the online hate that the United Nations found played a “determining role” in the genocide of the Rohingya? Nope. Nationalist- and military-linked pages in Myanmar were allowed to foment hate for years before being taken down and the same anti-Muslim bigotry is widespread elsewhere on the platform.

No, what Facebook has had enough of is news. Australian news, to be specific.

News? No. Genocide? Yes!

In response to proposed legislation that would force Facebook to pay Australian news outlets for links to news sites that are posted on its platform, the company has stripped news outlets from its website. Visit the Facebook page of The Age, for example, and you’ll see it has no posts up.

But Facebook’s ban extended beyond news outlets, temporarily shutting down domestic violence hotlines, weather services (during bushfire season) and state health departments (during the coronavirus pandemic).

That the company can so thoroughly censor vital services during a crisis puts the lie to its argument that it is merely a platform and not a publisher or public forum. When so many people use Facebook to access news about critical issues (four in 10 Aussies rely on Facebook for general news but half rely on it for news about the pandemic), the website can’t claim that it has no broader obligation or duty to serve the public interest.

None of this is to say that Facebook doesn’t have legitimate concerns with the proposed legislation. But the company’s willingness to use its monopoly on information flows to defend its bottom line shows it is a bad actor that needs to be reined in.

In the absence of reliable or official sources, Australians are now left with a platform rife with misinformation and fringe, conspiracist media outlets, just days ahead of the country’s vaccine rollout.

It’s telling that Facebook refused to turn off its platform in 2018, after half a million Rohingya were expelled from Myanmar on the basis of lies spread on the website, because “Facebook does a good deal of good,” but is more than willing to have a tantrum and shut down access to vital news over a proposal that it help prop up an industry that actually does do some good.

In March 2018, UN investigators reported that thousands of Rohingya had been killed, hundreds of thousands subjected to ethnic cleansing and Facebook “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.”

“I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended,” one investigator said.

Just three days later, Facebook executive Adam Mosseri said the company’s value in Myanmar justified keeping it online there. What, specifically, did Facebook offer people in Myanmar that outweighed fomenting a genocide? “Connecting people with friends and family, helping small businesses, surfacing informative content. If we turn it off we lose all of that,” Mosseri said.

There are more recent examples as well. Over the course of 2020, Facebook hosted plots to destroy critical mobile phone infrastructure which telcos warned could see calls to 111 in emergency circumstances blocked. It shrugged at medical misinformation about the coronavirus and waited until after conspiracy theorists had used its platform to spark a global movement against common sense public health measures to take action.

In the United States, Facebook served as a coordinating centre for activity disputing the results of a free and fair election. Ultimately, it would be used to organise an attempted insurrection.

The discrepancy highlights Facebook’s priorities – not people, but profit. It was willing to throw a fit over paying for news but hardly shrugged at complicity in genocide, worsening a pandemic and almost ending a democracy. There’s no reason it wouldn’t have the same impact here, if it had the chance.

Clearly, Facebook is willing to take drastic measures to protect its interests. Our Government should be willing to take equally drastic measures to protect ours.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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