Public hearings into foreign interference on social media will kick off this week, with a range of national and international experts to discuss how these platforms are being “weaponised” by overseas regimes.
The Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media is holding its first public hearings today and Friday.
Chaired by newly-minted Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Paterson, the committee will be investigating how western social media platforms are being “weaponised by foreign authoritarian regimes” to spread misinformation, and the prevalence of social media platforms headquartered in China, such as TikTok.
“For all the good social media has brought into the world, like other forms of technology it carries significant risks because bad actors, especially foreign authoritarian states, seek to do us harm by exploiting the speed and potency of social media to undermine our social cohesion,” Paterson said in his opening remarks on Thursday morning.
“In this dangerous and uncertain strategic environment, we cannot allow foreign authoritarian regimes to have unfettered access to the devices of millions of Australians and the powerful opportunity that offers them to influence our democracy.
“The work starts today to make us a harder target against the threat of cyber-enabled foreign interference.”
Witnesses today will include representatives from the US Federal Communications Commission, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, RAND, Internet 2.0 and the Australian National University.
On Friday the Committee will hear from human rights advocates including Human Rights Watch, the Australian Supporters of Democracy in Iran and investigative journalist Vicky Xu.
The inquiry comes just weeks after the federal government banned TikTok on all Commonwealth devices due to the “significant protective security risk” it poses.
Paterson said that the use of social media platforms which are headquartered in China, such as TikTok, represent a “unique and ever greater risk to our democracy” as they are “beholden to the Chinese Communist Party”.
The Select Committee will likely be putting forward a number of policy recommendations to the federal government.
“Given ASIO’s assessment that foreign interference and espionage are Australia’s biggest principal security concern, it is critical we strengthen our defences in all domains where this insidious activity is being orchestrated,” Paterson said.
“These hearings will assist the Committee’s considerations of the scale of the threat and, importantly, any necessary policy responses to make Australia a hard target for foreign interference through social media.”
The Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media was established by the Senate in November last year. Submissions to the inquiry closes in mid-February, and it is expected to table its final report by the start of August.
The federal government’s internal TikTok ban was announced in early April, and will apply to all government devices. State and territory governments are also expected to follow suit. TikTok is owned by China-based company ByteDance, and there are concerns that China’s National Intelligence Law could allow Chinese authorities to demand access to the data of TikTok users around the world, including in Australia.
The ban will come into effect “as soon as practicable” and exemptions will only be allowed on a case-by-case basis.
The ban will not apply to the personal devices of public service workers, and only applies to Commonwealth-issued devices.