Other jurisdictions are grappling with the same problems. New Zealand depends on its advertising standards body for regulation of truth in political advertising, while South Australia has long experience with truth in political advertising laws.
Advocates for the legislative approach say these types of laws build public trust in political discourse. It’s an approach that could be applied to sponsored social media in Victoria but it also raises complex problems. The ACT considered, and then rejected, truth in advertising laws after their 2016 election, concluding they’d be both impractical and open to political exploitation.
Bev McArthur, the Committee’s Deputy Chair, noted that governments need to be cautious in this area. “We have to be careful to avoid analogising laws against misleading advertising, which are enforced to protect the rights of consumers, with laws that regulate political discourse, often at the expense of freedom of speech,” she said.
Non-legislative approaches to the problem have been advocated by some people. These can include funding organisations to fact check social media during elections or, as has been done in California, running media literacy campaigns in schools. These are designed to help people discern between news and advertising, to access relevant information and to develop skills in 'digital citizenship'.
The European Union has stopped short of legislating against 'fake news'. Instead, it has developed a code of conduct under which Facebook, Twitter, Google and others committed to undertake a set of measures, including closing fake accounts and requiring more transparency in political advertising.
Some of those measures have already been extended to Australia. Facebook now requires ads about elections, political issues and social issues to be authorised by an Australian-based person whose identity has been verified. Ads will also include a public 'paid for by' disclaimer linked to an account, page or organisation and the public will have access to information about the reach of the post, how much it cost, and the demographic groups being targeted.
While the spread of misinformation is one issue the inquiry will be exploring, it is also seeking solutions to a range of other issues arising from the widespread use of social media. These include concerns that social media can 'lower the tone' of political discourse.
At least five candidates withdrew from the last federal election over inappropriate statements they had made on social media.
Poor behaviour such as name calling, harassment and bullying can be common on social media.