Charities swept up in media bargaining fight, as Facebook cracks down on Aussie news
18 February 2021 at 5:23 pm
Facebook is now promising to restore any pages that were inadvertently impacted by the news ban
Australian charities have found themselves caught in the crossfire of the media bargaining laws battle, with a number of organisations’ pages wiped of all content without warning.
Sacred Heart Mission, Save the Children, Oxfam Australia, the Council to Homeless Persons, the Australian Council for Social Services, and Food Bank Australia were among some of the organisations that woke to find their Facebook pages bare on Thursday morning, following the platform’s decision to ban all Australian news publishers.
The move by Facebook is in response to the Australian government’s proposed media bargaining laws, which will require social media companies to pay media outlets for using their content. The bill passed through the House of Representatives on Wednesday night, and is expected to pass the Senate and become law as early as next week.
A Facebook spokesperson told Pro Bono News that the actions the company was taking “are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content”.
“As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” the spokesperson said.
“However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”
Despite this promise, at the time of publication, none of the content from the charity pages had been reinstated.
Confusion and anger sweeps through sector
Organisations impacted by the ban took to other social media platforms on Thursday, to express their confusion and frustration at the situation.
Brianna Casey, CEO of Foodbank Australia, said it was “unacceptable” that one of the organisation’s primary tools to help people connect with food relief was unavailable.
“Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic… hours matter when you have nothing to eat,” Casey said in a Twitter post.
Cathy Humphrey, CEO of Sacred Heart Mission, told Pro Bono News that she’d been given no warning before it happened.
“I feel like we’ve been held to ransom in this process, which is very unfair,” Humphrey said.
Vulnerable people at risk
She said the organisation relied on Facebook to quickly deliver messages to a broad audience, including vulnerable people who used the charity’s services.
“During the recent disasters of the bushfires and coronavirus, we were posting a lot about the changes to our services, in particular when we had to move away from attending a dining hall for meals,” she said.
“Not being able to deliver warnings or COVID-related messages announcing we’re making changes leaves a big gap for us in being able to communicate to the wider community.”
Humphrey said while the organisation did use other social media sites, Facebook was the most accessible and widely used.
“Other social media platforms are really just not accessible to the general community,” she said.
Paul Ronalds, the CEO of Save the Children Australia, expressed similar sentiments.
“Every minute that our page is down is another minute our message isn’t getting out about the needs of children,” Ronalds told Pro Bono News.
A number of Indigenous health groups including Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) and Danila Dilba Health Service, have also raised concerns that shutting down their pages could have a dangerous impact on regional and remote communities during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
Australia’s Phase 1a vaccine rollout begins next week and older Indigenous Australians are among those first scheduled to receive vaccines, but advocates told the ABC that shutting down community media pages could mean people just don’t get the vaccine.
Other, non-news organisations such as the Queensland, South Australian and ACT Health Facebook pages were also wiped, leaving Australians without access to health information about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, labelled Facebook’s actions “unnecessary” and “heavy handed” in a press conference on Thursday.
More than just messaging
The sector is approaching the issue with caution and waiting to see what the changes will mean long term, amid fears that an extended shutdown could have a significant impact on their work.
Ronalds said that Save the Children relied on Facebook as a fundraising tool.
“We use Facebook as an important fundraising tool to reach generous supporters who want to support the world’s most vulnerable children,” Ronalds told Pro Bono News.
Humphrey agreed that it could have financial implications when their organisation is trying to run appeals or events.
She said that it was too early to say what steps the organisation would take to deal with the wipe-out, but that they would seriously have to reconsider how they used the platform in the future.
“At this stage, our gut reaction would be we would fall back on our old methods such as doing direct letters to our donor base,” she said.
“I think it’s challenging thinking about whether we can move to another platform or whether there’s one available that is used across all demographic groups.”