Countering foreign interference and social media misinformation in Australia

DFAT, the Attorney-General's Department, and the AEC have all highlighted what measures are in place to curb trolls from spreading misinformation across social media.

The Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media was in December stood up 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 establishment of the committee followed a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) that reviewed 97 national elections and 37 referendums and identified foreign interference in 20 countries including Australia.

The Australian government has a handful of initiatives in place that it believes will deter trolls from interfering with the nation's democracy and collective "values".

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

In April 2018, the government appointed a National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator (NCFIC) within the Department of Home Affairs.

The NCFIC is charged with leading efforts across government to respond to foreign interference through Australia's Counter Foreign Interference (CFI) Strategy.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) leads the diplomatic component of the strategy  through the CFI Diplomatic Strategy pilot program, which focuses on cooperation with regional partners to "enhance their resilience, as well as efforts to build support for stronger international norms against foreign interference".

"New activities under DFAT's CFI Diplomatic Strategy pilot program will build counter foreign interference awareness and capability in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific with the aim of closing vulnerabilities and cultivating a less-permissive environment for foreign interference in Australia's near region," DFAT wrote in a submission [PDF] to the committee.

"This includes activities that seek to strengthen awareness of disinformation and misinformation, including through social media."

Australia also has, since late 2016, its first ambassador for cyber affairs in Dr Tobias Feakin. 

FOREIGN INFLUENCE TRANSPARENCY 

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 created the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme that came into effect on 10 December 2018. The scheme is intended to ensure the nature and extent of influence by foreign governments and political organisations on Australian federal political or governmental processes is transparent and appropriately disclosed to the public and decision makers.

The scheme requires those undertaking activity in Australia for the purpose of political or governmental influence on behalf of foreign principals register those activities.

A registrable activity can be general political lobbying, Parliamentary lobbying, communications activity, or disbursement activity. This includes the production or publication of graphics, audio, video, or written information posted to social media

Foreign principals may be foreign governments, foreign political organisations, foreign government-related entities, and foreign government-related individuals.

The idea is that people consuming the information, including through social media, are aware of the source of the information and can assess it for potential bias as a result.

The scheme is concerned with foreign influence rather than foreign interference.

"All governments, including in Australia, try to influence deliberations on issues of importance to them. These activities, when conducted in an open and transparent manner, are a normal aspect of international relations and diplomacy and can contribute positively to public debate," the Attorney-General's Department (AGD) explains in its submission [PDF] to the committee.

The AGD clarifies that foreign interference refers to activities that are covert, coercive, deceptive or corrupting, and are contrary to Australia's sovereignty, values, and national interests.

The department believes the scheme addresses one of the committee's terms of reference: The use of social media for purposes that undermine Australia's democracy and values, including the spread of misinformation.

The scheme imposes additional obligations during voting periods.

MISINFORMATION AND VOTING

On elections, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) in its submission [PDF] said the broad notion of "integrity" now encompasses cybersecurity and disinformation, in addition to longer term issues such as physical security and sound operating procedures.

"Disinformation has been identified as a major increasing threat to democratic processes, especially during election periods," it wrote. "Online channels are particularly powerful and enable information to be spread quickly and cheaply and are vulnerable to being misused."

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, with one limited exception, does not regulate truth in electoral communication. The AEC said the High Court has also found there is an implied freedom of political communication within the Commonwealth Constitution that limits the scope of the Parliament to make laws restricting political communications.

An Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce was stood up ahead of the 2019 Federal Election, and as highlighted by the Department of Home Affairs in its submission, the taskforce did not identify foreign interference nor any other interference that compromised its delivery, or anything that would have undermined the confidence of the Australian people in the electoral process.

The taskforce also spent AU$500,000 on a social media "Stop and Consider" campaign.

Measuring its half-a-million-dollar spend, the AEC said the campaign achieved over 56 million social media impressions and 100,000 clickthroughs to the AEC website from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google.

The AEC considers it has an "ongoing" relationship with social media and digital platform providers with a prominent presence in Australia.

It said it investigated "many" examples of electoral communication on social media during the 2019 election, finding 11 examples of illegal practice.

"There were only 11 items of social media communication that resulted in requests by the AEC to the relevant social media company to remove the illegal communication (and all our requests were promptly responded to)," the AEC wrote.

It said in the cast majority of cases, content was either rectified to comply with the Electoral Act or removed by the responsible party.

The commission investigated 528 complaints relating to electoral communications from April 11 through 18 May 2019 and of the 109 that were on social media, 28 breached the Electoral Act.

The AEC does not have a legislative role regarding the truth of electoral communications, however.

SOCIAL MEDIA PRIVACY REFORMS

The federal government in March 2019 announced plans to increase the penalties and enforcement measures within the Privacy Act 1988 and introduce a new privacy code targeted at social media and online platforms, aimed at better protecting Australians' privacy online.

Under the proposed changes, the current maximum penalty for serious or repeat offenders would be raised from AU$2.1 million to the greater of AU$10 million; or three times the value of any benefit obtained through the misuse of information; or 10% of a company's annual Australian turnover.

It was also proposed that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) would issue new infringement notices that carry penalties of up to AU$63,000 for corporate bodies, and AU$12,600 for individuals. It would also publish prominent notices about breaches and ensure breaches have third-party reviews.

Further, the proposed changes would allow Australians to request online platforms to stop the use or disclosure of their data, with stronger provisions if the person is a minor or deemed to be vulnerable.

It is expected the government will consult on these reforms later this year in order to give interested parties an opportunity to provide their input.

There is also the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) Digital Platforms work, which, among a total of 23 recommendations that covered competition, consumer protection, privacy, and media regulatory reform, sees the regulator establish a special unit that will monitor and report on the state of competition and consumer protection in digital platform markets, take enforcement action as necessary, and undertake inquiries as directed by the Treasurer, starting with the supply of online advertising and ad-tech services.

ASPI used its submission to the committee to ask 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.

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.

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