By Sheldon Chanel in Suva
Facebook’s ban on Australian news will cut off a vital source of authoritative information for the Pacific region, government and industry analysts have warned.
Across the Pacific, thousands have found their access to news blocked, or severely limited, after the tech giant wiped all news on the platform in Australia in response to proposed legislation that would require Facebook to pay for content from media groups.
The ban’s impact is especially acute in Australia’s region.
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Across the Pacific, thousands of people are on pre-paid data phone plans which include cheap access to Facebook. Those on limited incomes can get news through the social network, but cannot go to original source websites without using more data, and spending more money.
The region’s largest telco provider, Digicel, with a presence in Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, offers affordable mobile data plans with free or cheap access to Facebook.
In Australia, news from Pacific sites also appeared to be blocked, a significant impediment for diaspora communities and seasonal workers.
From Australia, The Guardian visited the Samoa Observer, Vanuatu Daily Post, The Fiji Times, and Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier. None had visible posts.
Significant expatriate communities
Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and PNG all have significant expatriate communities in Australia.
Dr Amanda Watson, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a researcher in digital technology use in the Pacific, said there was widespread confusion across the Pacific about the practical ramifications of Facebook’s Australian news ban.
“There has not been any clear, accessible and accurate information put out for Facebook users or anything particularly targeted at Facebook users in the Pacific that has explained parameters of this decision,” she said.
Watson said that for many in the Pacific, Facebook was the entry point to, and even the extent of, the internet.
“Facebook is the primary platform, because a number of telco providers offer cheaper Facebook data, or bonus Facebook data. Many Pacific Islanders might know how to do some basic Facebooking, but it’s questionable if they would be able to open an internet search engine and search for news, or go to a particular web address.
“There are technical confidence issues, and that’s linked to education levels in the Pacific, and how long people have had access to the internet.”
Bob Howarth, country correspondent for Timor-Leste and PNG for Reporters Sans Frontières media freedom watchdog, and the former managing director and publisher of PNG’s Post-Courier, said “the Facebook ban on Australian news pages will have a significant impact on Pacific users, especially many regional news providers”.
Sharing breaking news
“As someone who regularly checks literally dozens of Facebook pages, especially in PNG and Timor-Leste, many use the Australian pages for sharing breaking news and a source of ideas and angles for their own news reporting.”
Articles reposted from Australian news sources are often used in the Pacific to rebut misinformation being spread on Facebook, Dr Watson and Howarth said.
“One very popular page in PNG seems to attract more than its fair share of long-longs [an ill-informed person in pidgin] opposing vaccination as the covid pandemic quietly spreads daily,” Howarth said.
The founder of The Pacific Newsroom, Sue Ahearn, told The Guardian the internet had revolutionised communications across the Pacific – historically a region where communication had been difficult – and enabled the instantaneous sharing of news and information that had previously taken weeks or months.
“Facebook and social media are not the be all and end all but they are vital as sources of information. Radio and TV and newspapers remain important, but technology has really woken up the Pacific.
“People are able to share material right around the region and Facebook is the key platform for that.”
Ahearn said the dissemination of accurate and impartial news was vital to countering misinformation across the region.
Misinformation in PNG
“For instance, there is so much misinformation in PNG on covid – people say ‘I don’t believe Melanesians can catch covid’ or ‘I don’t believe what the government says about vaccines’. It’s really important that that misinformation can be countered, and articles from Australian sources are valuable for that.”
Ahearn said the Pacific Newsroom Facebook page had been “overwhelmed” with responses to the Facebook Australian news ban.
“From people all around the world: Fijians in South Sudan, Tongans in Utah, Pacific Islanders are everywhere, and they are telling us they are not seeing anything out of Australia.”
Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, has labelled Facebook’s actions “disappointing”, and argued the tech giant was “impeding public access to high-quality journalism in Australia and across the Pacific”.
“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.
William Easton, the managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said Australia’s proposed media bargaining law had misunderstood the nature of the relationship between the platform and news publishers, and had forced the tech company into restricting news in Australia.
He said the company had chosen to block news “with a heavy heart”.
“Unfortunately, this means people and news organisations in Australia are now restricted from posting news links and sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on Facebook. Globally, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is also restricted.”
Sheldon Chanel is a Suva-based journalist reporting for The Guardian’s Pacific Project supported by the Judith Nielson Institute. This article was first published by The Guardian here and it has been republished with the author and The Guardian’s permission.