Canberra to put social media fake news under microscope

It comes as Labor is fed up with Facebook's lack of action to filter out fake news.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor on

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said he wants to put social media companies under the microscope in a move he describes would break down "echo chambers" that are currently being dictated by algorithms.

In his address at the Chifley Research Centre Conference over the weekend, Albanese said as one of Labor's five priorities for "strengthening our democracy", he wants to see social media companies, such as Facebook, be held accountable for the content that is published on their platforms, particularly when the content is fake.

"If you have confidence in your ideals and policies, there is nothing to fear from debating them. Sadly, echo chambers aren't just reinforced by algorithms deciding what we see," he said.

"Sometimes, online platforms are unwilling to filter out content proven to be misinformation. They'll argue that it doesn't violate their so-called community guidelines. 

Must read: Facebook data privacy scandal: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

"They say that so long as they eventually note the information is fake, the community can judge for itself. Mark Zuckerberg says he thinks people should be able to see what politicians are saying. 

"But what happens when it turns out that what politicians are saying isn't real at all? Facebook usually won't do anything at all."

Albanese went on to warn about a possible future where "platforms become so complacent with misinformation that they become unable to filter it out".

"The artificial intelligence technologies capable of doctoring video so effectively we're unable to distinguish fake from real, are becoming more effective as time goes on … how many people will see these types of deep fakes -- and have their views shaped by them -- before we work out that they're fake at all?" he said.

"This increased volume of anger and misinformation is robbing our political debates of civility and making the public's poor opinion of our political system much, much worse."

See also: Why technology alone won't save us from fake news (TechRepublic)

Albanese's warning and the push for more stringent controls comes as Parliament established an inquiry last week to examine how social media platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, and WeChat -- undermines Australia's democracy and values.

The Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, which was proposed by Labor and backed by the government, will also examine how to reduce the risk of cyber-enabled foreign interference and the spread of misinformation.

"The rise of 'fake news' and misinformation campaigns present a very real and present danger to democracy not only in Australia, but across the globe," Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said.

"We must protect our democracy from malicious foreign actors."

The inquiry will be headed up by Labor Senator Jenny McAllister and will produce a final report by May 2022.

Speaking to ABC Radio National on Monday, McAllister echoed remarks made by Albanese saying that controls need to put in place to help distinguish between real and fake news.

"We're moving to a point where you will be able to generate a generate a video of a public figure saying something that that public figure never said and it will be very difficult to differentiate that video from the real thing. We need to have some tools and strategies to respond to the impact of artificial intelligence and its increasingly sophisticated fakery," she said.

She noted how as part of the inquiry, the committee will "look at the international experience; we'll talk to our national security agencies, we'll talk to political parties and we'll talk to experts in the field like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute".

"The way that social media impacts on the way we communicate and the quality of our communications seeps into lots of policy areas, but there is a very specific problem to do with foreign interference and that goes to the objectives of foreign adversaries ... When those dynamics are happening over a long period of time you can see the kind of challenges it presents for open democracies, and we do need to respond to it, and that's the focus of the inquiry," she said.  

Shadow Minister for Technology Clare O'Neil previously floated the idea of seeing harsher penalties dealt out to social media companies operating in Australia that fail to comply with local requirements.

Earlier this year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) handed down its Digital Platforms Inquiry: Final Report [PDF], where it made a total of 23 recommendations on how to approach the new paradigm where everything is digital and the lives of individuals are played out on social media.

Updated 9 December 2019, 1:25PM (AEST): Additional comments from Jenny McAllister were added.

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