Social media giant Facebook ignored its standard practices and shut down around 17,000 Australian government, healthcare and other sites in what whistleblowers allege was an intentionally “overinclusive” tactical move against evolving news content legislation.

Facebook drew widespread condemnation last February after it blocked a wide array of news pages in the days before the passage of the news media bargaining code, leaving 16.5 million puzzled Australian Facebook users staring at news feeds that contained no actual news.

Many non-news organisations like the Bureau of Meteorology, City of Perth, Women’s Legal Service Tasmania, WWF Australia and Mission Australia were also blocked – preventing them from communicating with members about issues such as the commencement of the national coronavirus vaccine rollout.

While it freely admitted the news block was designed to pressure the government to change legislation that would force Facebook to pay publishers for news content, the company has blamed technical errors for blocking thousands of government, health, university, emergency services, and other sites for several days.

Documents newly released by whistleblowers, however, suggest that Facebook executives ordered the creators of the news-blocking algorithm to take an overbroad approach by automatically blocking any site on which more than 60 per cent of its posted links and videos are classified as news.

Facebook executives knew the filters would block non-news sites but pushed ahead with the block anyways, the Wall Street Journal has reported, with the company’s legal team instructing the algorithm’s engineers to “be overinclusive and refine as we get more information”.

The content-blocking sledgehammer raised eyebrows inside Facebook, with employees outside the project team flagging concerns that the blocks hadn’t been tested properly and would affect Facebook’s reputation.

Nonetheless, the company pushed ahead with the content block, expanding the news blackout from half of Australian Facebook users to all of them.

This, the whistleblowers said, was “contrary to standard practices for rolling out major changes that might have potential side effects”.

When implementing such “major changes”, they said, the new capabilities would normally be introduced to a small set of users, then go through testing and adjustment before being rolled out more broadly.

And while Facebook has a range of tools designed to ensure that certain users aren’t included in new content crackdowns – such as XCheck, which provides special treatment for high-profile users – in this case the whistleblowers said Facebook made “a choice” to not even consider using such tools.

Minimum restraint, maximum damage

The newly leaked documents confirm both that some employees were concerned about the algorithm’s overreach – and that Facebook’s leadership team wanted it that way.

“I think it would have been a smoother rollout if more checks were performed beforehand and the important Government health pages were not accidentally blocked,” one user posted on an internal bug-tracking log.

The response from the team’s management was questioned given that Facebook was ultimately able to unblock Australian government pages by changing just three lines of code.

Leaked emails confirm that Facebook’s most senior executives supported the way the campaign was run, signalling their approval of the decision to hold 75 per cent of Australia’s population hostage to its demands until the government made the changes that Facebook wanted.

“We landed exactly where we wanted to,” Facebook head of partnerships Campbell Brown wrote to the project team minutes after the Australian Senate passed the legislation, “and that was only possible because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time.”

“Thank you so much for the round-the-clock [effort] it took to make this happen.”

Referring to the block as the company’s “AU news decision”, Sandberg said it was “a decision we did not make lightly” and crowed that the “thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high standard”.

“The last couple of weeks have been very intense,” she said, flagging “a lot of work ahead of us globally on news” – a suggestion that Australia’s news ban is far from the company’s last, as countries like Canada follow Australia’s lead.

Even CEO Mark Zuckerberg chimed in, noting that “the last couple of weeks were really intense” and said the company had achieved “what might be the best possible outcome” from the process.