More than a year on from revelations about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Labor is preparing an inquiry into how social media might affect Australian democracy.
Called the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, the opposition’s initiative will bring together members from both sides of politics examine the reach of social networks.
Senator Jenny McAllister told Sky News she thought there was still a lot of room to improve social media.
“I don’t think we’ve got this right yet, and I don’t think the social media platforms have got this right yet,” she said.
“Part of the job of this committee is actually to get all of those stakeholders in the room and create a forum where we can have a really good discussion about the boundaries, about what is and isn’t acceptable on these type of matters.”
The committee’s scope includes inquiring into the “use of social media for purposes that undermine Australia’s democracy and values,” and will produce “responses to mitigate the risk posed to Australia’s democracy and values”.
The committee has a deadline of May 2022 (the same time as the next general election) to put forward its findings.
In a speech to the Chifley Research Centre Conference on the weekend, opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, brought an example of the dangers posed by social media.
“Mark Zuckerberg says he thinks people should be able to see what politicians are saying,” Albanese said.
“But what happens when it turns out that what politicians are allegedly saying isn’t real at all? Facebook usually won’t do anything at all.
“That happened to me just last week, when men’s rights activist Leith Erikson doctored a social media image from my Facebook page.
“What was originally a graphic supporting Australians’ right to protest became a graphic pushing Mr Erikson’s campaign against the Family Court.
“Now unless you’d seen the original, there is no way that you would know the image was a fake. My words were replaced with Mr Erikson’s.
“The image even included my legal authorisation at the bottom –a clear breach of Australia’s electoral laws.
“So we raised it directly with Facebook and they just shrugged.”
Making their own rules
An investigation from The Guardian last week revealed a network of fake news posts used to sew hatred and Islamophobic sentiment while influencing politics in Australia, the US, UK, and Canada.
Clearly the major social media companies are already making up their own minds about how they interact with democracy.
Facebook has decided it won’t fact-check political advertisements (much to the ire its of employees).
Zuckerberg claims he is standing for a key pillar of democracy – free speech – by opening the doors of disinformation to its newsfeeds.
“While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judged to be 100 percent true,” Zuckerberg said in a speech in October.
Twitter, on the other hand, put a blanket ban on all political advertisements with CEO, Jack Dorsey, warning that money could compromise democracy.
“This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”
Truly taking social media giants to task could be problematic for Australian governments.
Last week, Donald Trump threatened to put a 100 per cent tariff on certain French goods in response to a French law that will see a 3 per cent tax raised on the revenue of large digital companies earned in France.
Like the Digital Platforms Inquiry, parliamentary reviews could come too late to enact meaningful change, or be otherwise ignored by the government of the day.
The government still has not considered its final response to the enquiry, despite the ACCC handing down its findings in July.
Yet any attention paid to this issue is welcome in the light of findings from the ANU’s latest Australian Election Study show that Australians are increasingly dissatisfied with the way our democracy is working.
“I’ve been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions,” said lead researcher Professor Ian McAllister.
“There is widespread public concern about how our democracy is underperforming.”