Facebook fake news failure exposed by Australian company
It is a rare moment in history when you can say with absolute certainty that tomorrow will be a great day.
But this tomorrow most certainly will be. The nation's first and largest state - Australia's birthplace of public education - is reopening all schools to all students.
It is a great day for society, for the economy and most importantly it is a great day for our kids. Education is the best antidote to poverty and disadvantage and the greatest gift we can give our children.
And so how did the most vital role of society - that of raising and educating its next generation - get arbitrarily shut down or suspended on the basis of no hard evidence nor top-level medical advice.
How is panic and fake information spreading so far and wide? How do we have supposedly educated people demanding the shutdown of educational institutions with no evidence to support it? And how do we have genuine concerns about the impact of such shutdowns likewise overtaken by lunatics who believe coronavirus is a myth altogether? Or caused by the 5G network? Or a conspiracy engineered by Bill Gates?
A clue to this lies in a cunning little experiment undertaken by a canny little think tank called Responsible Technology Australia (RTA), which was recently established out of concern that perhaps internet and social media giants aren't quite as responsible and righteous as they pretend to be.
The test case was the online megalopolis Facebook, which despite its mission statement of "bringing the world closer together", has been infamously exposed for peddling fake news stories deliberately designed to sow division.
After this came to light, a supposedly chastened Facebook claimed that it would move heaven and earth to stop the spread of false and dangerous information, just like a good global citizen should.
Only this week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the BBC "we don't want misinformation to be the content that is going viral" and that Facebook had and would remove any content likely to result in "immediate and imminent harm" when it came to COVID-19 conspiracies.
And that's great to hear. The only problem is it hasn't and it didn't.
To prove this, the people at Responsible Technology Australia set up a Facebook page called "Ozzie News Network" and then set about posting the most dangerous misinformation they could think of.
• COVID-19 pandemic "advice" ads urging users to turn off their 5G, drink more water and get 30 minutes of daily sunshine
• Saying the Australia-Indonesia free trade agreement was just a front to allow mass migration from Jakarta
• Telling 18-year-olds not to bother to enrol to vote
• Saying that the new 5G network will allow the Australian police to spy on you through your phone
• Telling people the AEC has assessed they live in a safe electorate and therefore shouldn't bother voting
These posts perpetuated obvious lies and misinformation posing as official advice. At worst they encouraged people to risk their lives and break the law. And the kicker is that they were posted as ads that Facebook both reviewed and approved.
There is absolutely no way on earth they would ever have been allowed to run in a responsible mainstream media outlet. Not News Corp, not Nine; nor Ten nor Seven nor anywhere with a pair of human eyes.
But still, a global giant like Facebook with billions of users could hardly be expected to notice everything that was posted on its millions of pages. Surely once it was brought to their attention the ads would be removed, right?
Wrong. Even after the group reported their own ads to Facebook for fake and dangerous misinformation they were still not taken down.
"No traditional publisher or broadcaster would ever run ads like this," RTA's executive director Chris Cooper told news.com.au.
"But not only did Facebook review and approve them, even when we repeatedly reported them as misinformation they were never taken down."
Yes, even after RTA did Facebook's job for it and flagged the fake ads, still no action was taken - even though anyone following their advice could be putting themselves at risk. So much so that the group deliberately targeted the ads to an audience which had already been informed they were fake and consented to receiving them to ensure they did not inadvertently spread dangerous information themselves.
"Our fake ads deliberately play on people's fears in ways we know are typical," Cooper says.
"This experiment proves just how easy it is to spread fake news on Facebook, and it would be easier still for an experienced malicious foreign actor."
The posts were finally removed only after news.com.au approached Facebook for comment. The company confirmed they violated its policy.
"We're aggressively going after misinformation about COVID-19 and have teams across the company dedicated to this effort," a spokesperson said.
"We've applied warning labels to millions of pieces of misinformation and remove content that could lead to imminent harm."
But the fact they were able to be posted in the first place, were spread for so long and were not removed even after being reported should send a chill down the spine of anyone who still believes in facts or whatever the world has left of reality.
We have social media giants policing opinions while publishing obviously false information for the sake of a few bucks. And all the while using the journalism of real news organisations to cannibalise the advertising revenue that allows real journalism to survive.
This is the perfect petri dish for fake news. An Essential poll this week found one in eight Australians believed Bill Gates was somehow responsible for the coronavirus and it was being spread by the 5G network.
The corona crisis has already shown that even argument among politicians and experts can produce catastrophic results for both lives and livelihoods. Adding endless idiotic opinions to the mix makes things far worse, yet for anyone who believes in free speech it is a necessary evil.
But peddling false facts for cash is another level of devilry altogether, especially when you are pretending to be on the side of the angels.
Facebook and other social media titans have already helped forge a wild new world where facts are determined by sentiment instead of science and reality is a matter of opinion. The result has been a decade riven by extremes: Crazed conspiracy theories, right-wing populism and left-wing socialist fantasies.
The chaos they have fuelled on global issues ranging from coronavirus to climate change is often quite literally a matter of life and death. Surely they have profited from it enough without pocketing every last cent from dangerous and dodgy propaganda - not to mention the pontification they serve up for free.
Joe Hildebrand is editor-at-large for news.com.au and co-host of Studio 10 from 8am weekdays on Channel 10
Originally published as Photo reveals shocking deception