Domestic violence support services have labelled Facebook’s Australian news ban a “knee-jerk” reaction that has had “unintended consequences” for their organisations and the vulnerable Australians they support.
Publishers and users in Australia are being prevented from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content, Facebook announced on Thursday, in response to the federal government’s proposed legislation to force internet platforms to pay for news content.
But other non-media organisations on the network were also hit by the ban for at least part of Thursday, including critical health, weather and domestic violence services.
These included the national sexual assault, domestic family violence and counselling service 1800Respect, Victoria’s 24/7 family violence response centre Safe Steps and Queensland’s DV Connect.
Queensland Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Shannon Fentiman, posted on her social accounts a list of at least 14 organisations which had their pages wiped.
“I was outraged when I saw this,” Ms Fentiman told SBS News, saying social media pages have played a particularly vital role protecting women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The social media pages of support services are critical in better protecting victims of domestic and family violence. They provide much needed information and support to Queensland families, and ensure victims know where and how to get help,” she said.
“It’s also a safe space for victims as they can access these services and get the essential information they need anywhere and at any time, which we can do with social media.”
Among the affected groups was RizeUp Australia, a Queensland-based nonprofit organisation that helps to provide practical assistance to families affected by family and domestic violence.
RizeUp chief executive Nicolle Edwards said their Facebook page was blocked later on Thursday morning.
“We woke up to this devastating news that some of the major sites – frontline services, DV Connect – were blocked. We certainly didn’t expect to be included in that,” she told SBS News.
“Now I guess we’re seeing how far and wide this has reached. Lots of organisations, like us, were stopped in our tracks.”
RizeUp works as a “conduit” between the community and frontline services, and uses social media to drive awareness to the issue and the needs of vulnerable families.
Ms Edwards said the group has between 50 and 80 people reaching out on Facebook each week.
“Not only are we a vehicle for practical responses, we are also a soft landing for victims and families – people who are reaching out because they don’t know where else to go,” she said.
“There are a lot of people watching what we do, and that forms part of their decision to leave a violence situation, because they can know there is life after violence.
“For them to not be able access that, it will start to bring doubt back into their minds as to what they can do, and how to leave.”
Ms Edwards said the ban has also affected the group’s 700-odd volunteers who connect through a closed Facebook page.
“A lot of them have come to us with some connection to the work we do, so there is a level of trauma there,” she said, adding the day brought “worry” and “panic”.
“It shakes the foundations for a lot of people who rely on the presence of their go-to pages,” she said.
‘Incredibly important’ for pages to be restored
Ms Fentiman said a list of affected Queensland-based domestic violence support services was sent to Facebook, which said the pages would be re-enabled.
She said this was “so incredibly important” ahead of the first anniversary of Queensland mother Hannah Clarke’s murder by her husband on Wednesday. The ‘Small Steps 4 Hannah’ charity, set up by Ms Clarke’s family, is among those yet to be restored at time of publication.
“I was with Sue and Lloyd Clarke this morning who expressed how upset and very disappointed they were in Facebook for taking this page down,” Ms Fentiman said. “They were just this morning about to announce a new Small Steps 4 Hannah ambassador on Facebook but couldn’t because their page was shut down.
“These pages are needed to share information, news, resources for victims of domestic and family violence and their families, but also to educate and empower the wider community so they can keep loved ones safe.”
In an earlier statement to SBS News, Facebook said it would reverse the ban on pages “inadvertently impacted” but that it was forced to take a “broad definition” of what constituted news as part of the draft media bargaining laws.
“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” A company spokesperson said.
“As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted. However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted.”
The Facebook page for 1800Respect has since been restored, but RizeUp, Queensland’s DV Connect and Victoria’s Safe Steps remained down at time of publication.
RizeUp’s Ms Edwards said she will continue to strongly advocate for her organisation’s page to be restored.
“We just need to sit strong,” she said.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
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