Federal senators will grill Facebook on why it hasn’t clamped down on anti-vaxxer protests organised on its platform, with Labor warning the social media giant had “serious questions to answer” on its activity in Australia.
The latest hearing of the Senate’s committee examining foreign interference through social media will take evidence from Google, Twitter and various government agencies on Friday, but Facebook is firmly in the sights of several senators.
“Despite all its claims of acting to stem the publication of false information, the platform clearly continues to be used to spread misinformation, for hate speech, and to make violent threats,” Greens communications spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young told The New Daily.
“It’s not good enough and Facebook has some serious questions to answer about their role, especially in a health pandemic,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
But the social media giant defended its response, saying it deleted numerous Facebook and Instagram pages used to organise anti-vaxxer rallies last weekend.
The foreign interference committee, formed last year, focused much of its attention on TikTok during initial hearings.
But with the continuing COVID pandemic and critical vaccine rollout casting more light on the dangers of misinformation and extremism online, Friday’s hearing will be used to probe how platforms are responding to this growing area of concern.
Facebook’s global head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher, plus its Australian head of public policy Josh Machin, will appear at the hearing.
A May report from Reset Australia warned COVID “supercharged” anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theory communities online, with a 300 per cent explosion in membership of such Facebook groups.
Senator Hanson-Young said she was troubled by the role Facebook played in organising huge anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer rallies seen across Australia.
“It’s quite clear these rallies were organised in the modern-day ‘town square’ which is Facebook,” she said.
“I want to know what role Facebook is playing in preventing promotion of this dangerous activity, which puts lives at risk. There are parallels with the shocking Capitol riots from earlier this year, which we know were promoted heavily on Facebook.”
As TND reported, the rallies were organised by a large number of disparate groups across Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and other online platforms.
Some are planning further rallies this weekend, but NSW Police has warned of a huge response in Sydney to discourage any such follow-up.
Senator Hanson-Young also called for Facebook to take greater action in combating misinformation spread by politicians and public figures.
In recent times, politicians including George Christensen and Craig Kelly have been criticised for sharing material critical of vaccines and lockdowns, as has former celebrity chef Pete Evans.
Mr Kelly and Evans have both had pages deleted from Facebook.
“There also seems to be no accountability for politicians who are amplifying these dangerous messages on their own pages,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“People are telling me they have reported posts for dangerous misinformation, and yet the posts stay up.”
In a statement, Facebook – which also owns Instagram – said it had worked quickly to take down pages linked to the weekend rallies.
“We closely monitored events in Australia at the weekend and removed several Facebook groups, pages and Instagram accounts for violating our policies,” a spokesperson told TND.
“We’re in contact with local law enforcement and we continue to take action against any content that violates our policies.”
Facebook’s recently released transparency report, detailing what it was doing on misinformation, noted it had removed more than 14 million pieces of harmful COVID content globally since the beginning of the pandemic, including 110,000 Australia-specific posts.
But with a federal poll due by May, Labor senator Jenny McAllister, the committee chair, said she had concerns on what Facebook was doing to safeguard democratic elections in Australia.
Senator McAllister told TND she would also ask Facebook and Google “about the actions they will need to take to safeguard our democratic processes in the face of government inaction and disinterest”.
TND also reached out to Google and Twitter for comment, but did not receive a response by publication time.