Members of Facebook’s oversight board, which some have likened to an internal “supreme court”, have been called on to speak out or step down after the platform shut down swathes of media and key public information sites during a battle with the Australian government.
The social media giant suspended pages – including those of government bodies and state health departments before the national coronavirus vaccine rollout – as part of a showdown with officials over a new law that would force it and other platforms to pay for links to news content.
That constituted an “attack on democracy”, an open letter from dozens of prominent charities, media and campaign groups around the world, including Save the Children Australia, Hope not Hate, and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, warned.
“Access to reliable and quality information is integral to our democracy and our society,” the letter said. Taking it down, “gives room for misinformation and hate speech to fill the void left behind.”
Facebook may wait up to a week before unblocking some of the pages of hundreds of non-media organisations caught up in its news ban, the Observer understands, while anti-vaccination content and misinformation continues to run rampant.
Facebook has long argued, in response to calls for controls on its sprawling social media empire, that self-regulation is more effective than government regulation, pointing to bodies such as the oversight board.
But that body moves slowly to judge only past controversies, so it cannot weigh in on fast-moving events as they happen, said Maria Ressa, the co-founder and CEO of Philippine news site Rappler, who was targeted by President Rodrigo Duterte for her work.
It also has “no say on the design of the platform itself, which is where the problem lies”, she adds. As a member of the “Real Facebook Oversight Board”, a campaign body calling for more accountability, she also backs the open letter.
The crisis in Australia has highlighted for her the problems with its current model. Rappler partners with Facebook to provide fact-checking on the site for news produced in the Philippines. But because the ban restricts Australian users and publishers from viewing or sharing all news, the country’s large Filipino diaspora has been effectively left vulnerable to misinformation, she said.
“The thing that infuriated me was that every single news organisation from the Philippines is not visible in Australia. But the government propaganda (is) visible in Australia,” she said. “So now essentially, for Filipinos and the Filipino diaspora, you will see the lies, but you will not see the fact check.”
That shows a massive disconnect between people in Facebook who say they are committed to keeping the site safe and supporting democracy, and those working on the business side and handling the Australian law, she said.
A senior executive has since apologised for taking down health and government sites, and prime minister Scott Morrison says Facebook is back at the negotiating table. But the company has publicly indicated no change in its opposition to the proposed law, which senior executives say sets “an unworkable precedent”.
By contrast rival tech giant Google has struck more than 50 deals with Australian publishers to feature their journalism in its News Showcase product.
Guardian Australia is the latest media company to reach an agreement, just days before the Senate debates the federal government’s news media code.
“Quality journalism is both a public good and a highly valuable asset for publishers and platforms alike, as this deal demonstrates,” Dan Stinton, managing director of Guardian Australia, said of the deal.
“We also congratulate the …Australian government on the development of the digital platforms and news media bargaining code, with this world-leading legislation providing the necessary regulatory environment to secure fair commercial deals that will sustain Australian journalism into the future.”
The news media code would require Google and Facebook to negotiate payment for content from news publishers, and if no agreement can be reached, an arbiter will decide the financial terms of the deal.