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Facebook slammed over news takedown ahead of vaccine rollout


Doug Hendrie


19/02/2021 4:37:22 PM

The ban has triggered a major backlash from doctors, leaders and public health experts.

Newspaper headlines about the Facebook news ban
Facebook’s news ban is poorly timed, according to experts. (Image: AAP)

Facebook’s shock decision to stop Australian news from being shared ahead of a nationwide vaccine rollout has been slammed by GPs and public health experts as potentially dangerous.
 
Experts warn the move could open the door to wider circulation of vaccine misinformation, as some antivaxxer pages have remained unaffected, while users are now also unable to post authoritative articles in response to online debates.
 
The sudden ban – dubbed ‘irresponsible and dangerous’ by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt – also saw some official government Facebook pages and health sites lose their content, though most were restored within a day.

Chair of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative Professor Allan Fels said it was ‘unconscionable’ for Facebook to restrict access to vital government information sources.
 
The ban is a response by the US-based multinational to proposed media bargaining laws designed to force social media giants to compensate publishers for sharing news.
 
The shock move came as a new survey by Australian National University researchers suggests more than one in five Australians say they are unlikely to get the COVID-19 vaccine, almost double previous estimates.
 
RACGP Vice President Dr Bruce Willett told newsGP the move by Facebook could make the lives of GPs more difficult, and demonstrated the dangers of being ‘dependent on a single foreign-owned monopoly’.
 
‘We know social media is rife with misinformation,’ he said.
 
‘Removing authoritative sources of information, whether from traditional media or from governments and experts skews the information available to people.
 
‘We know there is [much] information on social media purporting to be authoritative but that is not. It is unfortunate that they’ve removed evidence-based information, but not the non-evidence based information.’
 
Dr Willett said GPs are already having to deal with vaccine misinformation, alongside normal concerns about vaccines in the lead-up to the nationwide immunisation push.
 
‘With people concerned about vaccines, we’re likely to have to spend considerable time [reassuring patients],’ he said.
 
‘The more confusion there is in society, the more we will have to pick up the pieces and [address] the information vacuum.
 
‘I’ve had three patients ask me about the vaccine just this morning. I asked all three why they were concerned. They all said friends and family were saying it was a problem and that they shouldn’t have it.
 
‘That ties into Facebook. Many people make these decisions on emotional grounds.’

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Dr Bruce Willet says Facebook’s decision to remove authoritative articles from legitimate publishers will make GPs’ lives more difficult.
 
Other prominent doctors also lined up to condemn the move, with Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Dr Omar Khorshid describing it as irresponsible, while the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) expressed concern that their page had been cleared of content.
 
RACP President Professor John Wilson said it is ‘irresponsible to remove access to critical information shared by health agencies during such a difficult time when the community needs the highest standards of care we can deliver’.
 
Melissa Sweet, managing editor of social journalism site Croakey, told newsGP the ban demonstrates that it is imperative for the health sector to be involved in debate over the role of social media giants.
 
‘The sector needs to engage with these broader debates around regulating these platforms, given how important accurate health information is during a pandemic,’ she said.
 
‘What we saw from Facebook this week is one reason why this is important – but it’s not the only reason.’
 
University of Sydney vaccine hesitancy expert Professor Julie Leask said the timing ‘couldn’t be worse’.
 
‘Three days before our COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination from news organisations and some government and public health organisation pages,’ she said.
 
‘This is the very time we rely on people accessing vaccine information easily, from their preferred platform.’
 
Professor Leask told newsGP she is concerned how the ban will affect people’s ability to respond to debate over the vaccines with authoritative news.
 
‘Let’s say you get a report of a new adverse event following immunisation,’ she said.
 
‘The major way you communicate with the public over any vaccine issue, whether it’s fainting at a clinic or an unexpected side effect, is through mainstream media. For people who only use Facebook – they won’t have answers to the questions that story would raise.
 
‘What they will have access to is opinion and anecdote from other people, without counterbalancing that with factual information we still rely on from the mainstream media.’
 
Professor Leask said that the Facebook ban will more than likely disadvantage smaller players in public interest journalism, such as Croakey.
 
Media experts say the new ban appears directly at odds with Facebook’s reported efforts in recent years to tackle misinformation spreading on its platform, widely seen as a response to rising public concern over how easy it is to spread false information.
 
Social media misinformation has been linked to everything from global COVID-19 hoaxes to anti-vaccine advocacy in Samoa to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, with a Facebook manager noting the company had not prevented its platform from being used to ‘foment division and incite offline violence’, according to the New York Times.
 
Swinburne University media lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet said the ban indicates Facebook is ‘prepared to abandon the main source of fact-checked and accurate information on their platform to avoid falling under the news media bargaining code’.
 
‘They were never serious about fighting misinformation,’ she said.
 
Macquarie University journalism expert Dr Tai Neilson said the ban will make it ‘more difficult to challenge the misinformation that circulates on the platform’.
 
‘This couldn’t come at a worse time – in the middle of a health emergency when the public needs timely and accurate information most,’ he said.
 
Facebook Australia and New Zealand managing director William Easton wrote in a blog post that the proposed legislation ‘fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content’.
 
‘It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia,’ he said.
 
‘With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.’
 
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Dr Oluwafolabomi Joshua Omowo   23/02/2021 8:11:58 AM

It is a poor choice of options to use FB as a way to disseminate credible information. Indeed it would make a lot more sense for the RACGP to advise going to reputable sources of information such as credible websites rather than bemoaning the behavior of FB. Facebook should never be countenanced as a source of credible information. Then again the argument behind the proposed legislation is flawed but that is an argument for another day.