As Facebook pulls Australian media content from its platform, domestic violence charities and support services get caught in the crossfire
LONDON, Feb 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Australians woke up to blank Facebook news feeds on Thursday, some domestic abuse charities and other community groups also lost posts, after the social media giant blocked all media content in a deepening dispute with the government.
Facebook's surprise step was criticised by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages and welfare networks had been scrubbed from the site along with news.
The dispute centres on a planned Australian law that would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals to pay news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or agree a price through arbitration.
"There will be a variety of unintended consequences. Content blocking of this nature can result in more unnecessary outlets being blocked, rather than less," said Monash University's Carsten Rudolph, associate professor in information technology.
Facebook said it had blocked a wide swathe of pages because the draft law did not clearly define news content. It said its commitment to combating misinformation had not changed, and pledged to restore pages that had been taken down by mistake.
Domestic violence charities, including national service 1800RESPECT, Safe Steps in the state of Victoria, Queenland's DVConnect, and local groups like Women's Community Shelters were among those that had posts removed.
"These pages are so important - they provide critical information and resources for women experiencing domestic and family violence, as well as raise public awareness," Queensland's Minister for Women Shannon Fentiman wrote on her Facebook page.
"This is an outrageous move from Facebook, especially during a pandemic," said Fentiman.
The Victorian Council of Social Service, a social advocacy body, said welfare charities were being caught in the crossfire.
"It looks like they're collateral damage in a fight between Facebook and the Federal Government. It's beyond outrageous that time-critical information is being denied to vulnerable and at-risk communities," the group posted on Twitter.
"This is an issue between the government, media organisations, media regulators, Facebook, Google, etc. Charities and frontline social service organisations have no dog in this fight. We are getting caught in the crossfire."
Many countries have already reported spikes in calls to domestic abuse hotlines during the pandemic. At the same time, lockdowns are making it harder for services and charities to reach women isolated at home, the United Nations has said.
Every three months of lockdown could result in 15 million more cases of domestic abuse than would normally be expected, according to the UNFPA, the U.N. sexual and reproductive health agency.
Many government-backed Facebook pages have since been restored but several charity pages and all media sites remained dark, including those of international outlets like the New York Times, the BBC, and Reuters.
With the country about to roll out its COVID-19 vaccination programme, there were also concerns that removing news outlets from the platform could lead to misinformation about vaccines.
"The timing couldn't be worse," said Julie Leask, a professor at the University of Sydney who researches vaccine hesitancy.
"Three days before our COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, 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.