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Facebook asked to explain Craig Kelly ads after MP’s page banned

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<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Labor’s Tim Watts has asked Facebook to explain how advertisements fronted by Craig Kelly can still be in wide circulation on the platform when his page is banned for breaching the social media company’s misinformation policy.

Kelly, who quit the Liberal party in February in part because he wanted to keep posting about unproven treatments for Covid-19, is now the federal parliamentary leader of the United Australia party.

Before he was removed from the platform, the MP had amassed more than 86,000 followers and was frequently one of the highest performers among politicians on Facebook. His profile was suspended for a number of weeks earlier this year over posts promoting hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and questioning the effectiveness of masks. Facebook then made the ban permanent in April.

Related: Anti-vaccine flyers banned from being posted by some Australian mailing services

Watts, the shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity, has written to Facebook noting the UAP has launched a new campaign on both Facebook and Google, spending more than $500,000 on advertising over the past month.

“Despite being banned from Facebook itself, Craig Kelly fronts the latest UAP Facebook ad in which he uses the Victorian police response to the recent violent protests in Melbourne to call for viewers to join the UAP,” Watts said in his letter to Facebook’s director of policy in Australia and New Zealand, Mia Garlick.

“It is difficult to understand how Facebook’s rules could allow for an individual to be banned from Facebook for repeatedly sharing misinformation about Covid-19, while also allowing that individual to return to the platform as the leader of a group with plans for a massive social media advertising spend.”

Watts suggested the conduct amounted to “ban evasion”.

Kelly confirmed he was still banned from the platform, and told Guardian Australia none of the material referred to by Watts had been flagged by Facebook to the best of his knowledge.

He said he intended to pursue legal proceedings against Facebook for defamation and breach of contract. Kelly contends the platform defamed him when Facebook said he had been banned for spreading misinformation.

“I categorically deny that,” the MP said. “I am very determined to pursue Facebook in the courts for defamation. I was very careful with what I posted and everything was linked to an expert opinion.

“Facebook has refused to identify what is the alleged misinformation. They have refused to reply to my requests.”

Kelly also blasted Watts for objecting to the new advertisements. “This is laughable and quite sad that someone like Mr Watts, with the responsibilities of an elected member of parliament, should suggest that another member of parliament should be censored by Facebook for his political views.”

He said Watts, in essence, was calling for an elected member of parliament “to be an un-person”.

“Mr Watts wants to silence opinions? I think he needs to have a good think about himself.”

Guardian Australia understands Facebook has received the letter from Watts and is working on a response.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We don’t allow anyone, including elected officials or public figures, to share content that breaches our misinformation policies and will remove any violation of these policies.”

Watts said Facebook’s policies needed to be applied consistently. He told Garlick: “Given Mr Kelly’s past record of spreading misinformation on your platform and the potential resources that the UAP could utilise for advertising on your platform, the potential for harm in the middle of a pandemic and in the lead-up to a national election is obvious.

“Too often in the past, Facebook has only acted on integrity matters after the damage has already been done.”

Related: Labor appeals to Google over misinformation fears before Australian election

Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, has made a a separate appeal to Google over recent interventions by the UAP – activity he said undermined confidence in Australia’s public health response to Covid-19.

Erickson cited multiple videos on Kelly’s personal YouTube page “in which Mr Kelly promotes ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as effective treatments for Covid-19 or claims that Covid-19 vaccines are unsafe”.

Kelly responded to that complaint by declaring: “It is a disgrace and a new low that a political party would ask a foreign oligarch to censor freedom of speech in Australian politics.”

Kelly said “the idea that an alternate opinion of an expert is misinformation is a claim I categorically reject”.

He said Erickson’s appeal to Google amounted to “silencing of genuine debate, and that will leave the public misinformed”.

Guardian Australia understands Google has now flagged some of the videos identified by Erickson, and the contents are under review.

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