Following the spread of potential fake news on Facebook against the Australian Labor Party during Federal Election 2019 held on May, the company’s VP for APAC Simon Milner has now said that Facebook is not responsible for removing content which is considered to be false by one side of political debate, The Guardian reports.

Milner has told Labor’s outgoing national secretary, Noah Carroll, that while the party may want the company to remove any content it considers to be false, Facebook only removes content which violates its community standards.

The tussle between the Labor Party and Facebook has been ongoing since May 2019, over the “death tax” posts circulating on Facebook. The posts claims that the Labor Party will introduce the a “death tax” if its voted into power. As ABC News explains, the death tax – also known as death duties or an inheritance tax – was used by governments of the past to take a cut of someone’s estate when they died. For obvious reasons. It was very unpopular.

“We do not agree that is is our role to remove content that one side of a political debate considers to be false,” Milner wrote in the letter sent to Carroll a month after the day of election. However, in the letter, the Facebook executive also mentioned that death tax posts shared on Facebook were found to be false by the platform’s independent fact-checking procedures. Thus, the company had demoted the original posts and thousands of similar posts, but it did not take them down. Milner also explained that since the company policy bars fact-checking of any posts from politicians and political parties, thus no death tax posts which originated from the accounts of any political candidates were affected.

The “death tax”, politics in Australia, and federal elections

During the federal election held in May 2019, the Labor party claimed that misinformation about the party’s plans to reintroduce “death tax” which was dropped in the 1970s. The party wrote to Facebook demanding them to take down any content related to Labor’s plan to bring back the death tax, as it is a piece of false information and can influence the elections. Posts and messages shared through Facebook messenger claimed that Labor had signed a deal to bring in a 40% inheritance tax. Its worth noting that these posts included links to Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg’s website, who belongs the ruling Liberal Party, but the party said that it wasn’t behind these posts.

The Labor party wrote to Facebook stating its concerns and said that “multiple accounts” were spreading the false information and there were also orchestrated message forwarding campaign.

According to reports, three main events laid the foundations for the spread of this news: a Daily Telegraph article published in July 2018 which reported that the Australian Council of Trade Unions supported an inheritance tax, an uncritical follow-up discussion on the Sunrise program, and a media release by Josh Frydenberg on January 2019 of Labor’s supposed plans on “death tax”.

Labor Party wanted posts taken down, Facebook only demoted

The Labor party had first raised its concerns about the misinformation about “death tax” being spread on Facebook on April 18, 2019. It had also shared files and documents regarding the posts with Facebook in May. Three days before the election, Facebook’s Milner told Carroll during a teleconference call about the demotion of the posts. However, he had also said that he would provide a report with some urgency about the steps it was taking to limit the damage.

On May 17, one day before the elections, Milner explained demotion of posts and said that death tax was not one of the most-discussed topics during the election contest.

Carroll had once again written to Milner on June 4th reminding them about their statement for providing a report on Facebook’s steps to control the damage. “I am yet to receive any information beyond a reference to a broad and generic second last week activity report which failed to list death tax as an issue being searched amongst several at all,” Carroll wrote in the letter.

According to Axel Bruns, an expert with the digital media research centre at the Queensland University of Technology, Facebook’s steps to provide transparency on political advertising was flawed and it did not allow users to come across any political ads unless they searched for what they wanted. Bruns also said that Facebook made it difficult for government bodies such as the Australian Electoral Commission to get access to its data.