Committee hears Craig Kelly using loophole to spread COVID misinformation on Facebook, YouTube

Kelly is one of many familiar faces trying to grab a spot in NSW's upper house. Photo: AAP

Kelly is one of many familiar faces trying to grab a spot in NSW's upper house. Photo: AAP Photo: AAP

Federal MP Craig Kelly is using a loophole in industry rules to spread COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook and YouTube, a parliamentary hearing has heard.

In separate appearances before an inquiry into social media and online safety in Canberra on Thursday, Facebook and Google (YouTube) were grilled about their dealings with Mr Kelly and the United Australia Party.

Mr Kelly has been using the UAP’s social media profiles after his personal Facebook page was deleted last year for promoting alternative COVID-19 treatments and other misinformation.

The UAP Facebook page hosted one such video just last week, while YouTube continues to host a video presenting what regulators called “seriously misleading” misinformation, which has 1.3 million views.

A voluntary industry code designed to govern how tech giants handle misinformation allows this because it carves out an exception for registered political parties like the UAP, the media regulator confirmed.

The UAP has even paid YouTube to circulate its content through ads, though most of those videos have since been removed by YouTube.

In a day of tense hearings, Labor MP Tim Watts asked Google whether a “serious failing in their systems” allowed UAP to spend up to $100,000 on YouTube ads presenting Mr Kelly’s misleading vaccine data last year.

“Their YouTube page is riddled with videos spreading COVID-19 misinformation, undermining public health efforts during a pandemic,” Mr Watts said.

Google’s Lucinda Longcroft said YouTube was “doing everything in its power to prevent him [Mr Kelly] and every other person” from spreading misinformation about the pandemic on its platform.

Ms Longcroft said YouTube was investing in artificial intelligence to spot misinformation on its platform and alert moderators to take action.

But Mr Watts noted Mr Kelly has repeatedly spread misinformation.

“It doesn’t require artificial intelligence investments to understand that Craig Kelly and United Australia Party are sharing COVID-19 misinformation,” Mr Watts said.

Craig Kelly uses loophole in code

In later hearings, the Australian Communications and Media Authority confirmed a voluntary industry code governing how tech platforms deal with misinformation in Australia doesn’t cover UAP or by extension Mr Kelly because they’re a registered political party.

The misinformation code, created by a lobbyist for the tech sector, was published last year but has not been registered with the regulator.

“YouTube and Facebook have allowed [Mr Kelly] to phoenix from a personal account in the MP’s name to a political party’s account,” Mr Watts said.

“But there’s nothing in the code that could deal with those issues … all political content is excluded, is that correct?”

“You’re correct,” ACMA general manager Cathy Rainsford said.

“Content authorised by a registered political party is outside the scope of what’s captured in the voluntary code.”

Advocates from digital rights group Reset Australia slammed the code during their appearance before the hearings on Thursday, saying it fails to hold tech giants to account for hosting misinformation.

“The voluntary code is opt in with transparency reporting that doesn’t have clear metrics,” Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran, director of technical policy at Reset Australia, told the hearing.

“There’s no clear compliance mechanisms or penalties in place.”

The social media and online safety inquiry is considering whether more stringent regulations are needed to govern how social media platforms moderate content, including misinformation and disinformation.

The hearings will resume on Friday, with tech platform Twitter to appear.

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