The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is reported to have asked Facebook to remove four items of unauthorised election content from the social media platform in the lead up to the 18 May federal election.
The false claims include that the Labor Party is proposing to introduce a “death tax” of 40% – when no death tax has been proposed at all – as well as introduce an additional tax on cars which will affect most Australians. These claims are blatantly untrue yet have been allowed to spread unchecked on the social media platform. Their clear objective is to scare the public against voting for Labor.
In the face of such widespread disinformation, the AEC, in partnership with ASIO and the Australian Signals Directorate, is said to be ramping up efforts to prevent the publication and circulation disinformation.
A special electoral integrity taskforce is receiving daily briefings over content that’s being circulated on social media, with the AEC saying a proactive approach will help ensure that the democratic process is not tainted as a result of false information.
The taskforce was trialled during last year’s Super Saturday by-elections and the recent NSW election, and operates 24 hours a day.
‘Fake news’ is a fairly recently coined synonym for disinformation, which is defined as false information intended to mislead.
Concerns about the impact of such information have increased since evidence came to light that Russian agents used it to influence the 2016 US elections and the Brexit vote in the UK.
Ironically, the benefactor of Russia’s alleged campaign, Donald Trump, has been one of the greatest user of the term ‘fake news’, consistently accusing the media of spreading disinformation while at the same time benefiting from its dissemination by sympathisers.
Moreover, research suggests the president himself is one of the most prolific users of disinformation, having been found to have made more than 4,000 false or misleading claims during his time in office.
The power and influence of ‘fake news’ was demonstrated by false claims made just a week before the US election that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was at the centre of a paedophilia ring.
The information went viral on social media, with a video containing the allegations being viewed more than 400,000 times. The story was spread in the mainstream media, including the CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post – which, again ironically, Mr Trump claimed were actively campaigning against him.
Many believe the seeds sown by such disinformation were enough to tip the balance against Ms Clinton.
Is publishing ‘fake news’ a crime?
In some countries, such as Canada, publishing ‘fake news’ is a crime. Germany is also considering enacting a similar law.
The UN Human Rights Committee is fundamentally opposed to censoring political discourse of any sort, on the basis that it would “unduly limit the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression.”
Australia has not passed laws which criminalise the conduct.
Don’t believe everything you read
The AEC claims to be monitoring pre-election content closely, and is urging voters to check the sources of all content they read.
However, the problem is that even the most highly regarded sources of information have, from time to time, been known to make errors or even report selectively to convey information that is sympathetic to their viewpoint.
Perhaps the best advice is to be sceptical, and to check the information and primary sources, before deciding what – if any – weight to place on media reports.
Australians go to the polls on 18 May 2019 and the law dictates that if you are eligible to vote, you are required to do so.
Failure to vote at a federal election without a valid and sufficient reason is an offence under section 245 of the Electoral Act 1918 (Cth).