Facebook: Still fun or now just a gambling ad platform?

Social media seemed a wonderful thing when it first arrived a couple of decades ago. Platforms such as Facebook provided a way to reconnect with old and/or faraway friends and easily share news and stories.

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of Facebook. It was launched as ‘TheFacebook’ on 4 February 2004, rebranding as simply ‘Facebook’ the following year.

The platform still allows us to connect and share with old friends, and make new ones too. But like every other aspect of life, it is not immune to exploitation. And one current practice provides a perfect case in point – gambling advertising.

Gambling advertising is everywhere, of course, not just on social media platforms. If you manage to watch more than a few minutes of a sporting event on TV without seeing a betting reference, you’ve done very well.

But Facebook is the focus of an investigation that has uncovered gambling advertisements targeting Australians from a company that cannot legally operate or advertise here. In turn, this has led to a gambling advertising blanket ban that not everyone is happy about. And Meta, the owner of Facebook, is among those not happy.

The Facebook gambling ads we shouldn’t see

Research published by Professor Christine Parker, University of Melbourne, and Dr César Albarrán-Torres, Swinburne University, highlights the ads in question. It uncovered a company called BitStarz serving up gambling advertising to Australians.

“BitStarz is an online offshore casino registered in the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao,” the authors explained. It is a casino “that cannot legally operate or advertise in Australia”. And yet, “these gambling ads were served to Australians on the social media platform, Facebook (owned by Meta)”.

While BitStarz was highlighted in the research, it is just one of many companies that circumvent Australian restrictions through platforms such as Facebook. “Online casinos like BitStarz operate overseas with servers located in international jurisdictions that do not fall under Australian law.”

Part of a bigger problem

According to Prof. Parker and Dr Albarrán-Torres, these overseas circumventions form part of what they see as a bigger problem on platforms such as Facebook. “Online gambling is rife among Australian adults,” they wrote. Their research revealed that an estimated 44 per cent of gambling on sports and racing takes place via smartphone or computer.

Unsurprisingly, the growth of the online gambling accelerated during the COVID pandemic. Is that a problem? Very much so, argue Prof. Parker and Dr Albarrán-Torres. “Studies have associated online gambling with a range of harms,” they wrote. These range “from financial distress to relationship breakdown and mental health issues”. That’s not really what we want from Facebook.

The solution?

So what’s the answer? A committee led by late Labor MP Peta Murphy proposed a fairly radical solution: a “phased, comprehensive ban on all gambling advertising on all media – broadcast and online, that leaves no room for circumvention”.

But such a solution is not likely to be feasible. Prof. Parker and Dr Albarrán-Torres argue that a better approach might be to follow the lead of the 2022 European Union Digital Services Act. This would give the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) power to issue social media platforms with ‘notice and takedown’ orders.

This would require platforms such as Facebook to remove the unlawful advertising. For this to work, platforms not expeditiously removing illegal ads, once put on notice, would have to be held liable.

That sounds like a reasonable approach, but whether it could be applied effectively in the ever-evolving world of social media is another thing entirely.

Do you see a lot of gambling ads on Facebook and other platforms? Do you think the practice needs to be reined in? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Granfluencers: How older content creators are taking over social media

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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