Labor calls for Facebook investigation after ‘death tax’ election campaign | Australia news
Labor has urged the joint standing committee on electoral matters to investigate whether the digital behemoths are having a negative impact on Australian democracy after Facebook refused to take down fake news about the “death tax” circulating during the May election.
The ALP has used its post-election submission to the committee – which investigates the conduct of the contest after every federal election – to call for an examination of whether Australian elections are vulnerable to influence by “malinformation” – a term invoked by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in its landmark digital platforms review.
“The ALP encourages JSCEM to conduct a thorough examination of the impact that digital platforms are having on our democracy, and to pay particular regard to the proposition that Australian elections are vulnerable to influence by malinformation – defined by the ACCC as information deliberately spread by bad faith actors to inflict harm on a person, social group, organisation or country, particularly where this interferes with democratic processes,” the submission seen by Guardian Australia says.
Labor notes that the committee observed in its final report to the last federal parliament that the spread of disinformation online was increasingly influencing democratic processes throughout the world. That report highlighted examples like the 2016 US presidential election and the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum.
“The committee also noted that two connected threats to Australian democracy have been amplified by the economic and social transformation that digital platforms have enabled – first, hostile strategic actors have a greater ability to sow division in society by weaponising controversial or misleading information; and, second, the self-selection of news has contributed to the rise of echo chambers and filter bubbles in which misinformation spreads online, unchallenged,” Labor’s submission says.
Guardian Australia revealed as part of an investigation into the death tax misinformation that the Labor campaign pressed Facebook repeatedly to deal with the false claims shared on the platform during the federal election, and escalated their complaints in the final week.
But the social media giant declined to play censor. Simon Milner, the Singapore-based vice-president of the social media giant in the Asia–Pacific, told Labor after the election in correspondence seen by Guardian Australia: “We do not agree that it is our role to remove content that one side of a political debate considers to be false.”
Milner confirmed in the same correspondence that Facebook’s independent fact-checking procedures had determined the death tax material was actually false, not just considered by Labor to be false. The Facebook executive said once the claims were found to be false on 30 April, “we demoted the original posts and thousands of similar posts”. Posts were demoted in Facebook’s News Feed but not removed from the platform.
In an interview with Guardian Australia in August, the ACCC chairman, Rod Sims, blasted Facebook’s practices, and said the social media giant should have removed the bogus death tax claims given its own independent fact-checking processes had found the material to be false.
The industry body representing Google, Facebook and Twitter has already rejected the ACCC’s proposal for an industry code of conduct to fight fake news, warning that the recommendation would turn Australia’s media regulator into the truth police.
Labor does not claim the death tax misinformation cost it the federal election, but it believes the false claims did influence some voters.
The opposition is also using the JSCEM inquiry to renew calls for Australia’s donation disclosure threshold to be reduced from its current levelof $14,000 to $1,000, and for the introduction of real time disclosure.
Labor has also flagged support for caps on expenditure that would apply to political parties and third-party campaigners. An analysis seen by Guardian Australia in mid-August indicates Clive Palmer outspent McDonald’s, Toyota and Coles spruiking his United Australia party in the year leading up to the federal election, and spent more than $8m on saturation advertising in the final week of the contest – an unprecedented cash splash in an Australian election.
In addition to the points on expenditure and disinformation, Labor’s submission also raises concerns about below average enrolment rates in four of the five commonwealth electoral divisions where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up more than 10% of the population according to the 2016 census – Lingiari, Durack, Kennedy and Leichhardt. “Enrolment rates below 80% in Lingiari and Durack are a particular concern,” it says.
Labor also references legal challenges alleging that the Liberals engaged in illegal conduct in breach of section 329 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Section 329 prohibits the publication or distribution of any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote. The challenges relate to the use of Chinese-language signs in the contests in Chisholm and Kooyong instructing voters to “put 1 next to the Liberal party candidate”.
Labor says electoral laws should be examined to ensure they are adequate to prevent instances where voters are misled, and the committee should also examine the response of the Australian Electoral Commission to complaints over the issue.