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Analysts and journalists are warning that Facebook's decision to block Australian news sites could undermine democracy and help misinformation flourish in Pacific Island nations.
Australia's Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja has also hit out at the tech giant, accusing it of “impeding public access to high-quality journalism in Australia and across the Pacific.”
Facebook faced a storm of criticism on Thursday after it stopped users from posting Australian news articles in their Facebook feeds, in a sharp escalation of its battle with the federal government over media bargaining laws.
The company's move could have a particularly significant impact on the Pacific, where Facebook is by the far the most popular platform used to share and read news online.
Amanda Watson from the Australian National University (ANU) — who is an expert in digital technology in the Pacific — said Facebook had an outsized presence in the region.
Dr Watson said many people in the region would be “shocked” when they realised they could not access Australian news on their Facebook feeds.
“People are only now digesting the ramifications.”
“Let's hope it can be resolved somehow because so many in the Pacific use Facebook as their means to access information,” she said.
Facebook's dominance had been consolidated because the region's largest telco, Digicel, has offered affordable mobile data plans which offer users free or cheap access to Facebook.
Many Pacific users would be unlikely to pay for more expensive data plans which would allow them to regularly access sites outside of Facebook and YouTube.
The ABC had been using Facebook to provide news in both English and Tok Pisin to Pacific Island countries.
The ABC's Radio Australia Facebook page has more than 100,000 followers in the Pacific and the organisation estimates it reaches half a million people across the region every week.
Senator Seselja called Facebook's actions "disappointing."
“In many Pacific countries Facebook is the primary avenue to access legitimate Australian news content, and for many Pacific Islanders, Australian news is a key source of reliable, fact-checked, balanced information,” he said.
Experts say Facebook's move could have unintended consequences.
The President of the Media Association of Solomon Islands, Georgina Kekea said the decision would damage public discourse in the country.
“Some of the issues being covered [by Australian organisations], some which our journalists do not cover, we like to share those stories through Facebook,” she told the ABC.
“Most Solomon Islanders use Facebook as a platform where discussions can be generated ... and also making the government accountable for the things that they do.”
The Shadow Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, blamed the federal government for the problem, suggesting the Coalition had mishandled its dispute with the Silicon Valley giant.
“Facebook's move has the potential to significantly affect people in the Pacific islands by reducing their access to news and information,” he said.
“This is the latest example of how the Morrison government's so-called Pacific Step Up has become nothing but a Pacific Stuff Up.”
Facebook's decision also creates serious problems for not-for-profit groups who use social media to share news about the Pacific.
The founder of The Pacific Newsroom, Sue Ahearn, said the move would leave a significant gap.
“Australian news content is really important, especially in countries like Fiji and a lot of other Pacific countries,” she said.
“[The press] is under pressure, journalists face great difficulties in being independent. The voice from Australia is really important.”
The ban on Australian news will not stop Facebook users from sharing news articles from mainstream media organisations based in Pacific Island nations, or from New Zealand and international outlets.
But Ahearn said blocking Australian news sites would still leave a vacuum which could easily be filled by conspiracy theories cultivated by both overseas and Pacific Island-based Facebook groups.
And she warned rampant misinformation could undermine the success of Australia's push to roll out an ambitious coronavirus vaccination programme across the Pacific.
“Australia is about to pay for the [COVID-19] vaccine to be distributed in Papua New Guinea. But there's a huge misinformation campaign underway on Facebook in PNG, saying that COVID doesn't exist, it doesn't affect Melanesians, that we shouldn't take the vaccine,” she said.
“So there's actually a need for clear and accurate information to be getting through to the Pacific about the vaccine. And to have this information cut off now, that's really disruptive and quite dangerous.
Facebook's move has also drawn an angry response from Pacific community groups in Australia.
Nai Tuuut from the Pacific Community Council of Far North Queensland said her organisation relied on Facebook to share community news, as well as vital public health information in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Without us being able to share Australian news or even the Queensland Health is unable to post on Facebook, that just makes it extremely hard to keep our community up to date and just aware of what's going on,” she told the ABC.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media