General News

Social media threat to Australian election underlined in new parliamentary report

Australia’s democracy is not immune to election meddling, says Reset Australia, as a new parliamentary report underlines the significant risk social media poses and establishes the need for greater transparency. 

The local think tank of the global initiative tackling digital threats to society said the report from the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media is right to raise the alarm and to call for greater government oversight over social media’s role in elections. 

“We know malign foreign actors are able to reach into millions of Australian smartphones to sow division, disunity, and disharmony,” said Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia. “Right now, our governing bodies are ill equipped to reign in these harms, largely because we can’t see them until it’s too late.  

“This is a very 21st century threat to society – a single meme or video won’t derail an election but the cumulative effect of divisive information being targeted at certain groups can be hugely disruptive, and largely invisible until after the fact.  

“This lack of visibility and accountability is unique to the digital and social media space – this report is the first step toward establishing transparency and ultimately writing rules that social media will need to follow.”

He said the report’s calls for greater transparency, including the release of the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s report into the functioning of the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, were particularly welcome. Reset Australia has long been critical of Australia’s industry-written misinformation code. 

The code, developed and launched by DIGI earlier this year, is voluntary and opt-in, with no enforcement and no penalties. Facebook, for example, has opted into every commitment, and yet their 50 page transparency report reveals little about features that have substantive impacts on our digital public square and our democracy. 

“The era of self-regulation for social media companies is over. If we are serious about protecting our democracy from misinformation, disinformation, extremism and polarisation we can’t let Big Tech write their own rules.

“We need evidence-based policy solutions that focus on systems and processes, not reactive responses which focus on specific content and individual actors or industry-written codes. As this report outlines, Australian policymakers should demand greater transparency about what users are seeing and sharing, this includes audits of how social media’s algorithms are curating people’s online experience. 

“We need the transparency of algorithmic audits so we can begin to understand what content is being amplified and if certain groups are being targeted.”

Platforms such as Facebook have a history of being used to undermine political processes, from the Philippines election to the Brexit referendum, the election of Trump, and the incitement of violence in Myanmar and now Ethiopia, as outlined in Reset Australia’s recent policy memo.