February 18, 2021

It’s been two days since Australian fact-checkers have been able to publish their content on Facebook’s NewsFeed. Their URLs have been considered news content and are now blocked on the social media platform.

While trying to find other ways to spread their articles and conclusions, Australian fact-checkers warn that Facebook’s move could exacerbate the spread of false information, especially as the country prepares to start its COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

In a blog post Wednesday, Facebook’s VP of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown explained that the company’s decision to ban news content in Australia was a response to a proposed bill — about to be approved — that would require tech companies to pay Australian news publishers for the content posted on social media platforms.

“What the proposed law introduced in Australia fails to recognize is the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers,” Brown wrote.

She also said in her statement that news publishers choose to put their content on Facebook in the first place and emphasized that the platform has been a net positive for news distribution in Australia.

The news ban, however, has cut off Australians from accessing fact checks produced not only in their country but also in other nations.

Ellen McCutchan, a fact-checker with RMIT ABC Fact Check, said all the posts from her organization’s Facebook page have disappeared and that they’ve been locked out from adding any new content to their page. She is in Australia.

“A number of our IFCN colleagues such as AFP Fact Check (France), Full Fact (United Kingdom), and FactCheck.org (United States) have also had their content blocked here. Some of these organizations are part of Facebook’s own fact-checking initiative,” McCutchan wrote in an email to the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Third-Party Fact-Checking Program (3PFC) has two partners in Australia: Australian Associated Press and Agence France Presse. Currently, the only way to find their work on the NewsFeed is by finding a post that has been fact-checked. In this case, the link appears as a “related article.”

(Full disclosure: Facebook requires its fact-checking partners to be verified signatories to the IFCN’s Code of Principles). The two fact-checking organizations produce fact checks that get appended to disputed posts.

Facebook’s partners are caught in a paradox in which they can assess content for the platform, but can’t use it to distribute their own work. They’re limited to the system built by Facebook.

“We’re still able to rate posts as before, and users in Australia can access our articles by clicking the links that Facebook attaches to posts,” wrote AAP fact check editor Peter Bodkin in an email.

The IFCN reached out to Facebook to ask about the effect of the Australian media ban on their Third-Party Fact-checking partner, but the company hasn’t replied yet.

Major concerns

Just like McCutchan, Bodkin is worried about the impact of Facebook’s decision on the informational ecosystem.

“There is clearly a major concern in not being able to limit the spread of misinformation, as much of our work relies on people using fact checks as a resource to call out false information on the platform as they see it,” Bodkin wrote.

McCutchan also said she sees this blocking cutting down on the effectiveness of fact-checkers’ work.

“In order to be effective, we really need factual information to be put in front of the same audience that is consuming misinformation,” McCutchan wrote. “We are concerned that the void left on Facebook by legitimate news organizations will be filled by misinformation.”

McCutchan also complained that fact-checkers’ lack of access to Facebook’s audience stands in stark contrast to the access granted to some of the figures her organization has fact-checked.

“We monitor a wide range of pages, groups, individuals and topics on Facebook, most of which will not have been impacted by the ban,” McCutchan wrote.

Jonny Lieu, a fact-checker for Agence France Presse in Australia, commented on Facebook’s media ban on Twitter, demonstrating how common disinformers haven’t been affected by the decision.

Bodkin told the IFCN he’d been in communication with Facebook and that the company assured him the blocking of fact-checking sites had been a mistake and would be fixed.

Facebook hasn’t confirmed that information, either.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
Harrison Mantas

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