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Campaigning conundrums Access, influence and truth in modern day elections

Inboxes in the South Coast of New South Wales were pinging with some wild accusations in the lead up to the recent Eden-Monaro by-election.

Spam emails falsely claimed the Labor candidate for the seat had quit the by-election race after being infected with COVID-19, that she was running a child trafficking ring from her basement and that she had brought bushfires to the region as a punishment from God.

Just days before the vote the Australian Federal Police charged a 32-year-old man over the emails following a report from the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce and the Australian Electoral Commission.

It’s not known if the emails shifted any votes but in the knife-edge election, decided by less than 800 votes, the false allegations had the potential to swing the result.

Unchecked accusations have a way of not only entering the public domain, but also of being amplified.

In the age of social media such unchecked accusations have a way of not only entering the public domain, but also of being amplified among the large portion of the electorate who rely on social networks for their news.

A new parliamentary inquiry is set to explore the impact of social media technologies on the Victorian electoral process.

“Our goal is to look at whether there should be any intervention, and if so then what those interventions might look like and who would be empowered to undertake them,” said Electoral Matters Committee Chair Lee Tarlamis.

Electoral Matters Committee Chair Lee Tarlamis and Deputy Chair Bev McArthur.

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.

Social media makes it easier for electoral candidates and the public to interact directly.

On the other hand, social media makes it easier for electoral candidates and the public to interact directly and provides a space for the public to debate political issues. The inquiry is interested to understand the benefits that social media can bring to elections as well as the problems.

Social media can also be a useful way to inform and educate people. In addition to looking at the way that electoral candidates and campaigners use social media, the inquiry will consider whether there are better ways for the Victorian Electoral Commission and the Parliament to use social media to engage Victorians and improve their knowledge of electoral processes.

“We’re interested in hearing from experts and the public on how we can promote robust free expression while fostering transparency, reducing the impact of misinformation and meeting the public’s expectations of civility from serving and aspiring politicians,” said Committee Chair Lee Tarlamis.

For more details on the elections and social media inquiry go to parliament.vic.gov.au/esm.