ASPI wants statutory authority to prevent foreign interference through social media

It said the authority would be granted explicit insight into how content is filtered, blocked, amplified, or suppressed, both from a moderation and algorithmic amplification point of view.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has asked for the establishment of an independent statutory authority to oversee operations of all social media platforms that operate down under.

"We suggest an independent Statutory authority that is empowered to observe and report on how the incentives, policies, algorithms, and enforcement actions of social media platforms are operating, with the ultimate goal being to maximise benefits and reduce harm for society and its citizens," ASPI wrote in a submission [PDF] to the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media.

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ASPI hopes for such an authority to be granted explicit insight into how content is filtered, blocked, amplified, or suppressed, both from a moderation and algorithmic amplification point of view.

"Crucially, these obligations should be placed on all social media operating in Australia, including those companies that originate from authoritarian regimes and those fringe platforms servicing niche communities -- not just the dominant Western platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat," it said.

"These transparency and oversight measures would go some way towards countering the default incentive towards sensational, provocative, and potentially polarising content."

ASPI said social media companies and governments have diverging interests and that government and civil society need to "proactively engage to remove the space for malign actors to thrive in the social media ecosystem".

Social media companies, ASPI said, should be required to make their content moderation policies and enforcement actions transparent.

It also wants to boost public awareness of how manipulation can occur.

"Beyond the incentives and policies of social media platforms, government and civil society need to focus on the groups that seek to damage and harm liberal democracies and their citizens," ASPI said.

"Focusing narrowly on altering the incentives and behaviour of individual social media companies, therefore, misses the bigger picture of how malicious actors operate."

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To that end, ASPI is also suggesting the funding of "independent civil society that can provide the in-depth publicly accessible research and tools to discover, track, and make transparent -- and therefore deter -- malign influence operations".

ASPI is funded by the Australian Department of Defence, as well as receiving monies from the US government and weapons manufacturers. 

According to ASPI, these influence operations aim to alter public opinion and inform the public of how they are being manipulated, which it believes is a key element of resilience "that only civil-society bodies can credibly deliver".

The federal government in December established the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media to inquire into, and report on, the risk posed to Australia's democracy by foreign interference through social media.

The inquiry, which closed for submissions earlier this month, particularly references: How the use of social media can undermine Australia's democracy and values, including the spread of misinformation; responses to mitigate the risk posed to Australia's democracy and values, including by the Australian government and social media platforms; international policy responses to cyber-enabled foreign interference and misinformation; the extent of compliance with Australian laws; and any related matters.

The committee was stood up following a report by ASPI that reviewed 97 national elections and 37 referendums and identified foreign interference in 20 countries including Australia.

In its submission [PDF] to the committee, the Department of Home Affairs said foreign interference is a genuine threat to Australia's sovereignty, values, and national interests.

"Foreign actors can undermine Australia's sovereignty and advance their interests at our expense by interfering in Australia's decision-making and seeking to unduly influence public perceptions of issues," the department said.

"While social media is only one vector through which foreign interference can occur, social media platforms are unique in their ability to reach billions of people and the reliance on social media as a source of information continues to grow."

Home Affairs said on that basis, Australia should anticipate some foreign state actors would continue to undertake disinformation and foreign interference activities through social media channels.

"The open nature of online platforms means that people are increasingly exposed to a multitude of information sources," the submission continued.

"Even with improved regulation of the social media sector, assisting individuals to identify 'fake news', better understand the provenance of information, and the expertise of the person communicating it, [are] likely to be important in increasing resilience more generally – both to foreign interference and other types of disinformation."  

The department pointed to the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce and said it did not identify foreign interference nor any other interference that compromised the delivery of the 2019 federal election, or anything that would have undermined the confidence of the Australian people in the electoral process.

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