A bipartisan Senate committee has sounded the alarm over the potential for foreign interference through social media in the upcoming federal election, saying there needs to be a response with “urgency and seriousness”.
The Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, chaired by Labor senator Jenny McAllister, tabled its first interim report late last week after nearly two years of inquiry.
The committee found that it is “possible, if not likely” that Australia will face a large-scale, coordinated attempt at foreign interference on social media, and significant action is needed now to mitigate this risk.
Australia currently lacks the institutional architecture to respond to these threats, and reporting mechanisms in place for social media firms are inadequate, the report said.
The government should clearly delegate lead accountability for cyber-enabled foreign interference to a single entity in government, establish “appropriate, transparent and non-political institutional mechanisms” for dealing with interference in elections and direct the Election Integrity Assurance Taskforce to undertake an audit to assess capability relevant to assessing disinformation before elections, the committee said.
There are widespread issues with the digital square being crowded with disinformation posted by inauthentic actors, the committee said in the report.
“There are a range of foreign governments, organisations and individuals who stand to win or lose from Australia’s political and policy decisions,” it said.
“Experiences from overseas shows us there are some foreign actors who also seek to introduce discord and social conflict as an aim unto itself. Technological developments meant that these actors have more options available than ever before to influence Australia’s processes.”
The committee found that it would be naive to assume that there won’t be attempts by foreign entities to influence Australia via social media.
“The consequences for Australia of a serious attempt could be severe in ways that are difficult to predict. Even a clumsy, unsophisticated effort runs the risk of undermining our ability as a nation to have the public discussions we need to deal with complex issues,” the committee’s report said.
“The committee believes that government should adopt an approach analogous to the precautionary principle in preparing to meet this challenge. Waiting for a serious attempt before acting would be a mistake.”
“This committee believes that government must approach the problem of foreign interference through social media with urgency and seriousness in order to create the institutional architecture needed. Unfortunately, the government’s actions so far have fallen short of this.”
The building of the institutional architecture that’s needed to respond to the threat of foreign interference should be prioritised, the committee said.
The existing arrangements for social media companies to report misinformation and disinformation to the government are “insufficient and unclear”, the committee was told.
“At present, should a social media platform identify foreign interference it is optional for them to report it to government,” the report said.
“Given the impending federal election, it is imperative that the government establish clear policies and procedures for social media platforms to refer potential foreign interference for consideration by the relevant government departments or entities.”
In additional comments to the report, the government member of the committee, Senator Jim Molan, flagged he would be providing “more fulsome” comments next year with some concerns around some of the recommendations and evidence in the interim report.
The Select Committee was launched in December 2019 after a Labor motion was backed by the government. It is set to table its final report in May next year.
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