The rapid spread of false claims on social media during the Covid-19 pandemic and the summer bushfire crisis shows platforms need to take stronger action to curb harmful misinformation, Australia’s communication regulator says.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority is working with social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, along with search engines and digital aggregation services, in a bid to reach agreement on an industry-wide code to counter misinformation by the end of this year.
The government has threatened to consider imposing regulations next year if those negotiations don’t lead to an effective voluntary code of practice.
In a position paper released on Friday, Acma calls on digital platforms to be more transparent and consistent in the way they target misinformation – and says the companies should report to the Australian public at least once a year on how effectively they are handling the problem.
It also suggests platforms increase the visibility of quality indicators so users are “more easily able to make informed judgments about the quality of news and information they encounter”.
The paper highlights last summer’s bushfire disaster and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as “two extraordinary events” that “provided fertile circumstances for the spread of false and misleading information”.
For example, it cites false and misleading information about the cause of the bushfires, the recycling of old images that were claimed to be of current events, and “conspiracy theories such as the fires having been purposely lit to make way for a Sydney to Melbourne train line”.
“False and misleading information about the pandemic – such as how to prevent exposure, possible treatments, and the origins of the virus – have been shown to have real-world consequences, including personal illness and damage to property,” the paper says.
The Acma paper says misinformation appears to be influencing belief, pointing to a University of Canberra study that found 19% of Australians thought coronavirus was made in a lab.
It also references Essential polling indicating 12% of Australians believe the 5G wireless network is being used to spread of Covid-19 – a baseless conspiracy theory that has led to the vandalism of some telecommunications infrastructure in the United Kingdom. The paper adds that there is evidence of increased engagement with anti-vaccination posts during the pandemic.
The Acma chair, Nerida O’Loughlin, said the major platforms had stepped up their processes during the pandemic in response to potentially harmful information.
“It’s now time for digital platforms to codify and commit to permanent actions that are systematic, transparent, certain and accountable for their users in addressing such potentially harmful material,” she said.
While digital platforms “should not be the arbiters of truth”, O’Loughlin said, they had a responsibility “to tackle misinformation disseminated on their platforms and to assist people to make sound decisions about the credibility of news and information”.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said finding the right balance was important. He indicated the focus was not “everyday conversations” but protecting Australians “from genuinely harmful misinformation”.
In the position paper, Acma says the new code of practice should cover online search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation services with at least 1 million monthly active users in Australia, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Search and Google News, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Apple News and Snapchat.
While regulators in other countries have largely focused on countering deliberate disinformation campaigns by malicious actors, Acma maintains it can be hard to prove intent.
Platforms should therefore focus on all kinds of harmful misinformation circulating on their services, it says.
The suggested code would have a “consumer-centric focus” and three aims: to reduce the impact of potentially harmful misinformation; empower users to identify the quality of news and information; and strengthen transparency and accountability regarding measures to combat misinformation.
While platforms should proactively identify and address misinformation, they should also provide users with accessible tools to report it.
Acma suggests the highest priority should be on limiting exposure to misinformation that was likely to cause significant personal injury or death; large-scale public panic or damage to property; immediate and significant financial or economic harm; or a significantly undermining of the integrity of Australian elections.
It also urges the platforms to ensure the source of political and issue-based advertising and sponsored content is transparent to users.
DIGI – a digital industry association with members including Google, Facebook and Twitter – welcomed the discussion paper.
The DIGI managing director, Sunita Bose, said digital platforms had already “introduced a broad suite of policies and technical measures to counter disinformation and enable the public to make informed decisions”.
Bose said the code would be “an opportunity to develop a common set of principles and commitments”.
The push comes amid increasing public concern about misinformation, with about two-thirds of Australians surveyed in recent polling saying they are concerned about what was real and what was fake on the internet.
Digital giants have also been in the spotlight over the issue of how they aggregate original content, such as news stories.
Facebook and Google are to be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies after the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, instructed the competition watchdog in April to develop a mandatory code of conduct dealing with that issue.