Decoder Newsletter: Facebook & Australia Face Off

Viviana Padelli and Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | February 22, 2021

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  • Australia unfriending: On Thursday, Facebook made the decision to square off against government regulation in a big way: it blocked all news sharing on its platform in Australia. In a blog post, the company let users know that it really, honestly, truly didn’t want to do this, but the other choice was complying with regulation it didn’t agree with. And, you know, no thanks.  

  • Disinformation: In a move that demonstrated just how carefully planned this policy was, Facebook also blocked charities, *its own page*, and health departments… in the middle of a pandemic. Some pages were restored hours later with the company calling their initial ban a mistake, but some pages are still down, with Facebook saying it might wait a week before restoring content. Traffic to news sources, meanwhile, has tumbled, while many pages spreading misinformation were unaffected by the ban, and continued spreading anti-vaxx content as Australia began its vaccine rollout. 

  • Google’s choice: Meanwhile, Google decided to take a different approach, and agreed to pay big publishers -- most notably Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In analyzing how the decision will affect the media industry, Casey Newton wrote that, “Legacy media outlets will become richer — and also more dependent on the tech giants that they excoriate daily for having too much power over them. All the while, the media industry will continue to consolidate, and it will be harder to get or keep a job in journalism.” 

  • Repercussions: Facebook has apparently returned to the negotiating table, but even if it comes to an agreement with Australia, the repercussions of its decision will remain. One widespread analysis is that while Facebook’s move was extreme, it is in reaction to a very problematic law. In TechDirt, Mike Masnick goes further, arguing that Facebook is in fact defending the “open web” against Rupert Murdoch. In Wired, James Temperton argues that with the news ban Facebook finally showed its hand -- it is an advertising platform, and we should start treating it as such. For the BBC, James Clayton pointed out (scroll down for the analysis) that the move could “spectacularly backfire,” drawing attention to Facebook’s power, and forcing more countries to consider regulation.

  • “Mark changed the rules”: Speaking of Facebook, more evidence of the company bending its rules to placate conservatives has emerged, with Buzzfeed reporting that Mark Zuckerberg personally intervened following Alex Jones’ banning to make sure posts supporting the conspiracy theorists could stay up. This created a “more nuanced policy” which made it more difficult to remove right-wing militant organizations following the Jones banning.

  • Reform: On Thursday Reuters reported that Democrats have been discussing ways to regulate Big Tech with the White House. The suggestions included amending or repealing Section 230. Several Congressional hearings on disinformation and regulation have also been announced. Starting this week the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law will look at modernizing antitrust laws. The Communications and Technology Subcommittee and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee will hold a hearing on March 25 on mis and disinformation, while the Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Disinformation and Extremism in the Media Wednesday.

  • Don’t forget the states: When it comes to Big Tech, there is a lot of focus on federal regulation. But what about the states? For those interested, Protocol has a nifty roundup of potential privacy and content moderation legislation in individual states.

  • Taxing digital advertising: In more state news, Maryland became the first state to pass a law taxing digital advertising just a couple weeks ago. By Thursday though, lobbying groups representing Big Tech including the Internet Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had filed a lawsuit alleging the law is unconstitutional. 

  • Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab: Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino, Media Matters’ Angelo Carusone and former DNC chairman Tom Perez are teaming up to combat disinformation aimed at Latinos, NBC News reports. The move comes after an election cycle where Latinos were heavily targeted by disinformation. More recently, reports of a high volume of health disinformation directed at Latinos have begun to emerge.

  • Birdwatch: The more we learn about Birdwatch, Twitter’s crowdsourced fact-checking platform --  the less effective it seems. Poytner just released a new analysis finding that sources are not cited often enough, and partisan influences frequently make their way into the fact-checking center.

  • Research: The Reuters Institute at Oxford University released a paper looking at how to balance protecting the right to free speech with curtailing disinformation. One of the main suggestions? Build a strong media landscape, and increase transparency on social media platforms. Media Manipulation published an analysis of the “Hammer and Scorecard” election fraud narrative, as well as looking at how disinformation can threaten freedom of expression. Harvard’s Misinformation Review has a paper on the correlation between partisanship and vulnerability to disinformation.
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