BRISBANE: Several Australian emergency services were hit by Facebook’s local ban on news content on Thursday (Feb 18), with pages that warn the public about COVID-19 outbreaks, bushfires and cyclones rendered blank.
Fire, health and meteorological services around the country saw problems with their Facebook pages, amid several serious public emergencies.
Facebook moved to block news content on its platform overnight in a dramatic escalation of a dispute with the Australian government over legislation that would force it to pay for the content.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed the government’s Bureau of Meteorology’s page “has been impacted by the sudden Facebook news content restrictions”, urging people to visit the website instead.
This happened as the bureau issued a series of flash flooding warnings for parts of Queensland state after heavy rainfall overnight.
The Western Australia fire department’s Facebook page was also wiped clean as the state braced for “catastrophic fire danger” conditions.
A Facebook spokesperson said official government pages “should not be impacted by today’s announcement” and the company “will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted”.
Western Australian MP Madeleine King described the situation as “Incredible. Unbelievable. Unacceptable” and there were mounting calls for Facebook to quickly fix the situation.
At least three state health departments, which issue regular updates on the coronavirus pandemic to hundreds of thousands of Australians, were also affected.
Several government accounts in the Australian Capital Territory – which incorporates the national capital Canberra – were affected, along with its health department.
“The ACT Government account is verified by Facebook and we have contacted them to rectify the situation,” a spokesperson said.
“The ACT Health Facebook page in particular is an important channel for distributing information about the COVID-19 situation.”
The national sexual assault and domestic violence service, some charities, and even Facebook’s own page also appeared blank to users in Australia.
“FACEBOOK WAS WRONG”: TREASURER
“Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said at a televised news conference on Thursday.
He added that he would continue to hold talks with Facebook on the proposed news payment law.
“This morning, I had a constructive discussion with Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook … we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward,” Frydenberg said in a tweet, referring to Facebook’s chief executive.
“MISINFORMATION” ALLOWED: HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson described the block – which has also impacted charities, Indigenous community pages and even Facebook’s own page – as an “alarming and dangerous turn of events”.
“Facebook is severely restricting and censoring the flow of information to Australians”, she said. “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”
Media groups and Australia’s government have also raised concerns that blocking verified news sources will allow misinformation to proliferate. Several Facebook pages that regularly promote misinformation and conspiracy theories were unaffected by the ban.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook needed to think “very carefully” about blocking the pages of organisations that employ professional journalists with editorial policies and fact-checking processes in place.
“They’re effectively saying any information that is available on our site does not come from these reliable sources,” he told public broadcaster ABC.
“I would imagine that on quite sober reflection, they will start to become quite troubled about what that would mean for how their platform is perceived.”
Australia plans to put to a vote in the coming weeks legislation that would force Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook to pay domestic media companies for the right to use their content.
Facebook’s response contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups – including one announced earlier in the day with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – in response to the regulatory push.