Brave old world: Far right’s challenge on disinformation

Conspiracy theorist MPs on the far right of Australian politics have united against a government plan to make social media giants take down harmful falsehoods.

Senators like the UAP’s Ralph Babet have built large social media followings while warning of Australia’s gradual enslavement by a tyrannical world government.

In March, Senator Babet stood in Parliament to warn of the latest sign of totalitarianism: Town planning changes allowing schools and hospitals to be built closer to the suburbs of Melbourne.

“So convenient,” he said. “Sounds great.”

But, Senator Babet warned, convenience was about creeping controls pushed by the world’s largest multinational corporations and the Chinese Communist Party.

“So people willingly, even eagerly, will agree to be caged.”

New threat

Senator Babet returned to the theme last week to warn of a great danger facing Australians, a policy that could have been copied from North Korea.

Concerns about the rise of disinformation (deliberate) and misinformation (misguided) on social media and its effect on politics have multiplied since more fake than factual articles were shared by voters during the 2016 US election.

But the decline of traditional media has turned COVID conspiracist MPs on the Liberal backbenches and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson (who has claimed the government staged the Port Arthur massacre) into some of Australia’s most influential sources of political news.

The crossbench MPs and Liberal renegades such as Gerard Rennick are fronting a campaign against a government bill that would make social media giants lay down rules to stop falsehoods circulating online – and face fines if they don’t.

Twitter and Facebook already agree to uphold industry-designed guidelines on misinformation. But QUT communications professor Axel Bruns said it was an honour system that companies could ignore.

Clean up of the industry

“[The bill] is about making the industry clean up its own house,” he said.

But tech giants have lined up against a plan dubbed a “Ministry of Truth” by certain media companies.

(News Corporation recently revealed it makes millions from putting Sky News clips on YouTube, where they go viral in America).

Professor Bruns suggested those warnings could be more driven by the threat of hefty fines (up to $6.8 million) for not upholding Senator Babet’s visions of 1984.

“There isn’t some sort of government panel that decides what’s misinformation or what isn’t,” he said.

The bill would give the federal government’s communications regulator the power to check if companies are doing anything to enforce their policies for removing harmful content (like reporting tools).

“If not, they can wave a stick and say, ‘clean up your act’,” he said.

“It’s not a massive change.”

Challenge of media falsehoods

Regulators are moving to stop the spread of falsehoods worldwide: The EU has recently obliged platforms such as Facebook to impose measures for cracking down on falsehoods and have their compliance audited.

In Australia, decisions about truthful content are being made behind closed doors in Silicon Valley, a Senate inquiry heard this month.

One executive from LinkedIn told a Senate committee the company had removed 5000 pieces of what it deemed co-ordinated false information from its Australian site in keeping with our voluntary code.

And a Twitter executive defended a decision to bring messages from foreign authoritarian regimes back onto that platform, which critics say has promoted right-wing views since its takeover by eccentric Tesla billionaire Elon Musk.

An executive for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told Parliament he feared the new enforcement mechanism could be used in a way that “inadvertently chills free and legitimate political expression online”.

Under the bill, Professor Bruns said, grey areas, such as whether falsehoods are spread deliberately or unintentionally, would fall to companies when deciding whether to ban users.

“How would you decide in practice?” he said. “If [the regulator] is looking at the level of the industry … then it doesn’t need to get into the question.”

Research shows that people consuming partisan online news adopt more extreme political positions and become more likely to dismiss evidence if it contradicts them.

AI an ‘existential’ threat

Artificial intelligence technology and “deep fake videos” (one recent false broadcast showed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surrender to Russia) pose an existential threat to democracy, the Human Rights Commissioner has warned.

People radicalised by anti-government conspiracies online are posing a threat not only to democracy but to national security, ASIO boss Mike Burgess told Parliament last year.

NSW police confirmed on Tuesday that a member of the far-right “sovereign citizen” movement had killed himself after a siege in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney.

Sovereign citizens believe themselves immune to state and federal laws and that incantations of a correct sequence of words can repel police.

One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts – whose Facebook posts are frequently ranked the most popular of any MP – denied he was an adherent after a letter he had sent to former prime minister Julia Gillard shot through with similar phrases was discovered online.

An earlier voluntary media industry code brokered under the Coalition government had companies such as Facebook agree to pay a share of revenue to Australian publishers whose content they had shared for free.

But the terms of that deal were not public, and it’s unknown if outlets like SBS ever received any money, Professor Bruns said.

“Facebook was bluffing,” he said.

“[The US and EU] have a large enough market to be important. We don’t have a lot of policy power [so social media] platforms aren’t going to pay that much attention.”

‘Influence for hire’

In 2016, much of the fake news about US politics came from offshore and a then infant industry in countries as far away as Macedonia.

It has since spread across the global economy.

“Influence-for-hire differs from genuine political campaigns because it is covert, deceptive, and manipulates public discourse to undermine democratic participation,” the Law Council said in a recent submission to a Senate inquiry on foreign interference in social media.

“Not all influence-for-hire operations are foreign interference – some operations may be carried out entirely by domestic actors.”

On Tuesday, Senator Babet did not say if he supported cracking down on false content being pushed by foreign countries or adversaries (something partly covered by existing laws).

But he raised the stakes in his campaign against the government’s bill.

“Opposition Leader Peter Dutton must take a principled stand against government censorship and stand shoulder to shoulder with the United Australia Party rejecting Labor’s proposed ‘ministry of truth’,” he said in a statement.

“In Labor’s brave new world, online platforms which spread so-called misinformation will face millions of dollars in penalties.”

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