(Image: Facebook)

Hours before the one-year anniversary of the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children, Facebook disabled the charity Facebook page Small Steps 4 Hannah.

The social media giant’s ban on Australian news content has also suspended pages for Indigenous, domestic violence, homelessness and health services, along with charities and emergency information pages including the Bureau of Meteorology.

Some of these have been reinstated after an outcry, but Facebook has been slammed for limiting access to emergency information both in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of severe weather in Queensland.

It’s faced rising international criticism — but its cold and detached response shows it hasn’t learnt anything about managing a PR crisis.

Anger and criticism grow

The hashtags “Delete Facebook”, “BoycottZuckerberg” and “FacebookWeNeedToTalk” started trending on Twitter.

A British MP, Julian Knight, said Facebook should be “ashamed” of its “crass” move, calling it a “schoolyard bully”. US chairman of the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law David Cicilline said Facebook is “not compatible with democracy”, and Human Rights Watch said it was an “unconscionable” and “an alarming and dangerous turn of events”.

Media experts have called the ban an “attack on democracy” and warn misinformation will thrive under the ban — a worrying trend that could significantly affect the Pacific.

A history of poor public relations

Facebook has faced scrutiny for data breaches and misinformation in recent years — crises it didn’t handle well.

During the Cambridge Analytica scandal where the data of 87 million users was used to influence the 2016 US elections and the “Brexit Vote Leave” campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg waited four days to react — and then gave incorrect figures on the number of users affected. By the time he responded, he had been asked to testify before Congress and the company had lost billions of dollars.

During the fake news crisis, Zuckerberg downplayed the seriousness of the issue and denied Facebook’s involvement in influencing the US elections.

In 2019 Facebook was slow to take down video streams of the Christchurch massacre and only responded two weeks later through a letter shared online.

It also faced criticism for banning US president Donald Trump’s accounts after the Capitol siege, but not acting on posts by political figures in India targeting Muslims or a massacre spurred on by online hate speech in Ethiopia.

How should it handle this crisis?

Digital media and marketing expert Dr Andrew Hughes tells Crikey that although Facebook probably expected a high level of domestic criticism, it probably wasn’t prepared for the international condemnation.

“I think that’s a warning sign to them [that] they need to tread very carefully on this one,” he said.

Key to Facebook’s reputation is being seen as facilitating discussions and engagement on a range of topics, Hughes says. Censoring a huge part of that would only damage its business model.

Facebook isn’t in the strongest position either: the number of young people on the platform is in freefall, most preferring TikTok and Instagram.

“Facebook is quite old in social media terms,” Hughes said. “They’re acting like a conservative brand when they need to be … more engaged with people on issues.”

Although Facebook doesn’t look like it will back down on the news ban, Hughes says it needs to communicate its logic better.

“They should have been a lot more engaging on the key reasons, and the areas they would have compromised on,” he said. “They needed to say this is what we stand for and if we went for this business model, we would collapse.”

Hughes says Australia’s news bargaining code was a wake-up call on who wields the power: elected officials or mega-corporations.

“We’re seeing who’s got power in the world, and power is now about information and knowledge,” he said. “This is what it’s really coming down to: who’s controlling access to information and knowledge.”