Australia’s media regulator set for new powers to tackle internet misinformation

By on 23/03/2022 | Updated on 23/03/2022
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ACMA's new powers will likely be introduced to Australia's parliament in late 2022

Australia’s media regulator could force internet companies to share data about how they treat misinformation and disinformation under new laws that could come into effect later this year.

The plan to give the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to impose an industry code on Big Tech was set out by Paul Fletcher, Australia’s communications minister, who said that “digital platforms must take responsibility for what is on their sites and take action when harmful or misleading content appears”.

Fletcher said that legislation could be introduced later this year to five the watchdog powers to require tech companies to share information on how they treat misinformation.

Australia faces an federal election in May this year. Based on current polls, it is suggested Australia’s ruling conservative government could lose, meaning the implementation of the law may fall to the opposition Labor party. However, according to a report by Reuters, Michelle Rowland, spokesperson for Labor’s shadow communications minister, said the opposition supported expanding ACMA’s powers.

Read more: Social media platforms pledge to combat fake news ahead of Brazil election

Unravelling online conspiracy

An investigation by the ACMA found that around 80% of Australian adults had experienced online misinformation about COVID-19. Around 76% meanwhile said they thought online platforms should increase efforts to tackle false and misleading content.

Australians were most likely to see misinformation on larger services like Meta’s Facebook and Twitter, according to the ACMA, while between 2019 and 2020, Facebook removed four disinformation campaigns in Australia.

The authority also found that false information tended to originate from false narratives embedded in highly emotive posts that were shared among small online conspiracy groups. These posts were then “amplified by international influencers, local public figures, and by coverage in the media”, it said.

Online conspiracy groups also encouraged people to switch to less heavily moderated platforms, such as Telegram. The ACMA said such alternative platforms “present a higher risk to the Australian community”, as they could be less likely to conform to industry guidelines.

ACMA noted meanwhile that disinformation (whereby false information is spread deliberately to cause social discord) remained a threat to Australian citizens, in addition to misinformation.

Read more: India launches apps to track corona cases and tackle misinformation

Gov vs tech

The latest law proposal is one of several clashes documented between Australia’s media regulatory bodies and large tech firms over the last few years. In 2020, Global Government Forum reported that Facebook and Google had dug in against Australian media law after it was suggested Facebook be made to pay news providers when their content appeared on the site. Facebook responded by threatening to block Australians from sharing news via the social media platform and its Instagram service if the government persisted.

There is also action in other countries to combat the spread of online falsehoods. In Brazil, meanwhile, social media platforms pledged to combat fake news in February this year, ahead of a presidential election set for October.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, YouTube, Google and Kwai all signed deals to identify and weed out fake news alongside Brazil’s Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE).  

The authority had tried to contact Telegram – the primary channel for president Jair Bolsonaro and the second most-used instant messaging service in Brazil – to encourage it to join the agreement pact, but did not hear back from the company.

Telegram was started in Russia but is now based in Dubai. It has a much higher group size limit than WhatsApp (200,000), and does not prevent bulk messaging. TSE was understood to be weighing the decision to suspend Telegram in the run-up to the election if it refused to tackle the spread of misleading online information.

Read more: Trusted voice: how government communications can gain trust in an era of misinformation

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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