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Australia Facebook blocks Indigenous health groups, regional media as COVID vaccine rollout nears

07:42  18 february  2021
07:42  18 february  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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graphical user interface, text: Indigenous media organisations like NITV, Ngaarda Media and IndigenousX and legal services agency NATSILS have been caught up in Facebook's restrictions. (Supplied) © Provided by ABC Health Indigenous media organisations like NITV, Ngaarda Media and IndigenousX and legal services agency NATSILS have been caught up in Facebook's restrictions. (Supplied)

Indigenous health and media groups fear Facebook's shutdown of community pages could have a dangerous impact on regional communities during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

Crucial sources of information have been lost as small media outlets, community noticeboards and health services been caught up in Facebook's sweeping shutdown of Australian news.

Facebook has blocked the feeds of Australian news companies on its site and is preventing users from sharing Australian news content.

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The tech giant is pushing back against the federal government's plans to make it and Google pay for publishing Australian news content — a world-leading initiative the companies have fiercely resisted.

But the effect of Facebook's ploy has extended well beyond major media companies.

Several Aboriginal community-controlled health services have had their posts blocked.

They include organisations such as the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) and Danila Dilba Health Service.

CAAC, a community-controlled primary health care provider, vented its frustration on Twitter at the timing of Facebook's move, given the impending COVID-19 vaccine rollout to Indigenous communities.

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Vaccines are a technology that humanity has often relied on in the past to bring down the death toll of infectious diseases. Within less than 12 months after the beginning of the COVID -19 pandemic, several research teams rose to the challenge and developed vaccines that protect from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that License: All the material produced by Our World in Data, including interactive visualizations and code, are completely open access under the Creative Commons BY license. You have the permission to use, distribute, and reproduce these in any medium , provided the source and authors are credited.

"A primary vehicle for health promotion, disabled at a crucial time," it tweeted.

First Nations Media Australia, the peak body for Indigenous not-for-profit media, estimates half of its members have been affected.

"We are outraged that access to First Nations voices has been limited in this way," chair Dot West said.

"Never has our media been more vital than during a global pandemic, especially on the cusp of vaccination rollouts."

'Potentially pretty dangerous'

Australia's Phase 1a vaccine rollout begins next week and older Indigenous Australians are among those first scheduled to receive vaccines.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said Facebook's actions could lead to misinformation from non-verified sources being further amplified, and called on the social media giant to reverse its course.

Acting managing director at NITV Digital, Birpai-Thungutti man Jack Latimore, said the importance of Indigenous media and community pages during the pandemic and ahead of the vaccine rollout could not be overstated.

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"There's a lot of apprehension around vaccines based on mistrust due to past policies and efforts that involved Aboriginal people. There is an almost anti-vaccine sentiment and lots of paranoia," he told the ABC.

"There are a lot of important community health messages that are done through black media organisations. That messaging is needed to get through to vulnerable communities.

"They are not going to believe News Corp messaging. You can't overestimate the strength of ties to these black organisations."

NITV's Facebook account was today blocked from reaching its almost 350,000 followers.

Mr Latimore said the impact on people finding NITV's content would be immediate and damaging, but the effects would be greater for smaller Indigenous media organisations.

"It's important to know that in remote communities, Facebook is pretty much the platform of choice. Unfortunately, for a lot of Aboriginal community organisations and important outlets as well, their content is completely absent," he said.

"Whether they be community organisations that are releasing news onto the community pages on Facebook, or whether it be actual black news media organisations ... it's potentially devastating.

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"Important messaging that we and other black media news outlets or just community help and emergency service announcements, they're not getting those. And that is potentially pretty dangerous."

Facebook cuts off regional news

A raft of rural and regional media outlets are among those hurt by Facebook's restrictions.

ABC Rural has been cut off from its 250,000 followers on the platform, while many smaller regional news outlets have also been left reeling.

Shepparton News chief correspondent Darren Linton said he was frustrated by the move.

"There's a strong flow from the links on Facebook, and more so Facebook is part of having an ongoing conversation with audiences."

While it had been "a convenience for readers", Mr Linton was confident the paper's readers would learn to come directly to its website.

"We haven't gone anywhere. We're still here," he said.

"There's nothing to say this will have a significant impact on us in the long term."

Country Press Australia, which represents 160 news media businesses in Australia, accused Facebook of acting like a "monopoly".

"They have too much power and it's about time somebody reined them in," president Bruce Allen said.

"I think it demonstrates to the whole world, and the Australian public, why the Australian government's actions are so necessary."

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People in regions dependent on social media

Regional Australians depend more on social media for news than people living in cities, according to a recent study by the University of Technology Sydney.

The review found two-thirds of news consumers in regional Australia turned to social media at least once a week, and two in five at least once a day.

"Facebook and Facebook Messenger are more popular social media platforms for news in regional areas than in cities," the study found.

"The higher use of Facebook is partly a reflection of the ageing population.

"While all generations tend to use Facebook, of all of the social media platforms, Facebook is the one older Australians are the most likely to use for finding or sharing news."

Agricultural businesses blocked

Major agribusinesses such as Fonterra and Nutrien have also had their Facebook feeds blocked, as have industry groups including Beef Australia and Grain Growers Ltd.

Even local councils have been caught up in Facebook's actions, though it appears to be inconsistently applied.

The main Facebook page for the City of Greater Bendigo was briefly shut down, to the surprise of the council, before being reinstated.

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