Please note this article discusses topics such as self harm and suicide. If you are struggling, please reach out to Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, or Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.
As Facebook (and, social media as a whole) becomes more ubiquitous and relevant in the lives of Australians, and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues (forcing people to reach out to particular online services to meet their specific needs), it has become increasingly pressing for social media to be held responsible and accountable for the actions of their users.
Recently, Facebook have been held to account and accusations of “deliberately putting lives at risk” after the platform intentionally took down Facebook pages relating to emergency services, suicide prevention and health last year as a ‘negotiation tactic’ with the federal goverment.
The reason being? These pages were sharing articles and content “…after legislation for the media bargaining code was passed in the lower house.” (https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/facebook-deliberately-blocked-australian-government-and-health-care-sites-last-year-report-20220506-p5aj0u.html).
Sample of Blocked Pages
- Suicide Prevention Australia
- Fire and Rescue NSW
- Bureau of Meteorology
- Australian Council of Trade Unions
- Save the Children Australia
- Burnet Institute
- ACT Health
- Safe Steps Family Domestic Violence Response Centre
- Mission Australia
- SA Health
- Roses in the Ocean
- Rural and Remote Mental Health
- Standby Support After Suicide
In 2021, former Chairperson of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Rod Sims has lashed out (backed by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and the head of Suicide Prevention Australia) noting that Facebook play an integral role in protecting the livelihoods and lives of Australians; and labeled the removal of such pages and community services as negligent.
Meta has since apologised for their actions, and noted that the pages were removed inadvertently.
It turns out, however, that at least internally, Meta were whistling a different tune. Documents and emails leaked by whistleblowers (first published in the Wall Street Journal) noted that the intentional move was initially praised by head executives at Meta.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reports “…chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said it helped Facebook secure “the best possible outcome in Australia” while chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg believed it had set a new standard of “thoughtfulness” and “precision of execution…”. While the ACCC has confirmed that whistleblowers have indeed come forward, they would not elaborate further. (https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/facebook-deliberately-blocked-australian-government-and-health-care-sites-last-year-report-20220506-p5aj0u.html)
What are the legal implications here? Unfortunately, the law has not caught up to the ethical and moral obligations of social media providers (at least, not in this case). As a public company Facebook and Meta are free to act in whichever way they like – there’s currently no legislation that enforces social media companies to be held responsible for maintaining pages relating to social services, political parties and whatnot. Their only obligation is to the board and their shareholders.
What do you think? Leave a comment below and let us know