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Facebook has announced it will restore news content to its users in Australia.

The tech giant has blocked news to Australians on its platform since last Thursday amid a dispute over a proposed law which would force it and Google to pay news publishers for content.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg had told him the ban would end “in the coming days”, after the pair had talks.

Mr Frydenberg said amendments would be made to the law.

“Facebook has re-friended Australia,” he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

The government has been debating the law — seen as a possible test case for regulation globally — in the Senate, after it was passed in the lower house last week.

Why did Facebook block news content?
Last Thursday, Australians woke up to find they could not access or share any news stories on their accounts.

Facebook argued it had been forced to block Australian news in response to the proposed legislation.

The government’s news code aims to set up a “fairer” negotiation process between the tech giants and news companies over the value of news content.

What happened after Facebook blocked news in Australia?
Facebook blocks news content in Australia
But it has been strongly opposed by Facebook and Google — both argue the code misunderstands how the internet works. Facebook has also said it gets little commercial gain from news content.

But the Australian government says the code is needed to “level the playing field” for news publishers, which have seen profits slump in the internet age.

Why has it changed its mind?
Facebook said on Tuesday that it had been reassured by recent discussions with the government.

“Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to forced negotiation,” said Campbell Brown, vice president of global news partnerships at Facebook.

“We have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers.”

Facebook already has its own “showcase” product — Facebook News Tab — through which it pays media organisations a fee to display their stories on its platform. This feature however, is only available in the UK and US.

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Google had also threatened to withdraw its primary search engine from Australia, but the company has recently agreed deals with local media companies including Nine Entertainment, Seven West Media and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Facebook’s move to ban Australian news was a big risk last week. It made global headlines — not least because it also initially restricted some government health-department and emergency services pages.

Some have been perplexed by the move. Why would Facebook openly court such negative headlines?

Critics called the move undemocratic — authoritarian even. There are claims that fake news on the platform increased since the ban — though that’s difficult to prove.

But Facebook isn’t the only voice to say these new laws are badly drafted.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, said he was concerned that forcing companies to pay for certain content could make the internet “unworkable”.

The proposed law was also seen by some as heavily influenced by the lobbying operations of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — which owns many of Australia’s major newspapers. The law’s intention was to protect struggling journalism, not to line the pockets of a media dynasty.

There does now appear to be movement on both sides. Crucially, Facebook objected to the idea of a “forced negotiation’ with news outlets, which it now believes is off the table.

However although both sides have moved, and both will claim victory, this whole episode has damaged Facebook.

Politicians from across the world offered support to the Australian government — there were even accusations of bullying by the social network.

And considering Facebook desperately doesn’t want these laws replicated in other countries, antagonising Australia’s allies may not have been the smartest of moves.

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What does the government say now?
The government and Facebook have reached a compromise of sorts.

Australian authorities will introduce four further amendments, including one that means the government may not apply the code to Facebook if it can demonstrate a “significant contribution” to local journalism.

They include a two-month mediation period before government-enforced arbitration kicks in — giving parties more time to reach a private deal.

Australia’s largest locally-owned company Nine Entertainment said it was “pleased” the government had found a compromise and was looking forward to resuming talks about a commercial arrangement.

Critics of Facebook say the company’s ban on news appearing on its platform in Australia has made it more difficult for people to access reliable sources — and increased the influence of bad and misleading information.

But is there any evidence of this since the ban was imposed on Thursday?

Unintended consequences
It quickly became clear that one effect of the tech giant’s move was that in addition to news providers, emergency services were also being blocked.

Some Australian government health-department and emergency-services pages found that their Facebook accounts had been affected.

They were later restored after Facebook was notified.

Critics of Facebook say the company’s ban on news appearing on its platform in Australia has made it more difficult for people to access reliable sources — and increased the influence of bad and misleading information.

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But is there any evidence of this since the ban was imposed on Thursday?

Unintended consequences
It quickly became clear that one effect of the tech giant’s move was that in addition to news providers, emergency services were also being blocked.

Some Australian government health-department and emergency-services pages found that their Facebook accounts had been affected.

They were later restored after Facebook was notified.

Has bad information increased?
We can’t give a definitive answer to this for all Facebook users in Australia.

But we’ve done some digging with data-analysis tool CrowdTangle, itself part of the Facebook family of online products.

Using CrowdTangle, it’s possible to look at the most popular Facebook posts related to a particular topic over a given time in a given country — it therefore gives you a pretty good idea what’s been shared on that subject.

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In one example, we looked at Facebook posts from pages in Australia related to Covid-19 and vaccines over two 24-hour periods — before and after the ban was imposed.

In four separate searches before the ban, the overwhelming majority of the top 20 performing posts and links came from verified pages of well-known media organisations, government and public-health bodies — only one or two posts with potentially misleading content.
After the ban, the same searches revealed up to five posts containing misleading content about Covid-19 or vaccines
After the ban, a search for posts with links to external websites led us to content from alternative- or holistic-medicine pages, some expressing anti-vaccine views. These pages weren’t classified as “news”, and following the ban they could still be accessed via Facebook.

Facebook has responded to its critics by saying its commitment to combating misinformation has not changed.

“We are directing people to authoritative health information and notify them of new updates via our Covid-19 Information Centre,” it says.

“We’re also continuing our third-party fact-checking partnerships with AAP (Australian Associated Press) and AFP (Agence France-Press), who review content and debunk false claims online.”

However, Peter Bodkin, editor of the AAP fact-checking team, says his news organisation’s content is being restricted. The AAP can still rate and label posts on Facebook and tack on links to reliable AAP stories, but users cannot share the site’s articles themselves.

Fact-checking sites are, of course, accessible without any need to go through Facebook.

However, Russell Skelton, of ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) fact-checking project with RMIT University, points out that the ban affects precisely the audience that fact-checkers want to reach.

“Some 11 million-plus Australians use Facebook as their primary source of news,” he says.

“Facebook’s action has certainly prevented us from engaging with a more diverse audience who do not come to the ABC news website for their information.”

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