Facebook rolls out campaign to fight misinformation ahead of Australian election

Facebook and the Australian Associated Press newswire service will roll out “check the facts” videos over the next month as the social media giant prepares for a federal election campaign that could be filled with misinformation and disinformation.

The videos, to be pushed in Australia on the Facebook and Instagram platforms until 24 November, will encourage people to critically examine information they are presented with and improve their overall media literacy. AAP will also provide material on how to identify misinformation.

The new campaign is not part of Facebook’s recently signed deal with the national newswire regarding payment for content under the media bargaining code but an extension of the existing fact-checking service AAP provides Facebook.

The next federal election is due to be held by May 2022. Josh Machin, Facebook’s head of public policy in Australia, said the company planned to deploy a “range of measures” to combat misinformation.

“When we think about election integrity measures, combating misinformation is a really important part of that,” he told Guardian Australia.

“But we’re also thinking about other areas like combating disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behaviour, and helping ensure cyber security around the election, promoting civic participation, the importance of democracy.

“You’ll see a whole range of measures across all of those areas once we know when the date of the election is.”

It comes as Facebook has been hit with a series of revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen, who said the company is putting profit before safety. Haugen told Australian MPs last week Facebook should be forced to publish a daily list of trending links, to allow authorities to quickly quash misinformation on the platform.

Clive Palmer’s United Australia party is already pumping millions into advertising months out from the election, having spent $1.2m on YouTube ads alone in the two months since former Liberal MP Craig Kelly took over as party leader.

The party’s spend on Facebook is currently significantly lower, just over $100,000, but Labor MP Tim Watts has raised concerns with Facebook about UAP being able to advertise with Kelly on Facebook despite the fact Kelly himself has been banned from the platform for allegedly breaching Facebook’s policy on Covid misinformation.

While not commenting on Kelly’s position specifically, Machin said Facebook took a different approach to party pages as opposed to individual members of parties – even if a banned member was the parliamentary leader.

“Part of that becomes more complex when a page or account is representing different people, or a different organisation, rather than just the individual who has previously been banned from our services,” he said.

“Factors we need to take into account are: are there other candidates or other organisations who have a voice in the new page, rather than the person who has been banned for violating our misinformation policies?”

Machin said the same rules would apply to the UAP Facebook page and if the party violated misinformation policies, it could also be censured or banned.

Australia’s high court ruled in September that the owners of social media pages were responsible for the comments posted on those pages, in a decision rejecting an appeal by media companies. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, labelled social media forums “a coward’s palace” and flagged law changes to remove safe harbour protections for companies like Facebook if they refused to reveal who was behind anonymous comments.

“They should have to identify who they are, and you know, the companies, if they’re not going to say who they are, well, they’re not a platform anymore, they’re a publisher,” Morrison said last month.

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Machin said Facebook wanted stronger protections against defamation for internet intermediaries like his company and publishers. But he said there could be processes developed to connect allegedly defamed people with the person who made the comments.

“[But] you need to make sure to have really rigorous checks and balances, so that you’re only providing people’s personal information in circumstances that are appropriate and you’re not, for example, inadvertently handing private contact information of a domestic violence victim over to their abuser, or some of these other situations where … there could be privacy concerns,” he said.

Google has been taken to court dozens of times in Australia over the past few years by people seeking to know who was behind negative reviews left by anonymous users. Facebook has not ended up in court but the number of requests for user data in Australia grew from 1,822 in 2019 to 2,813 in 2020, with Facebook handing over data 80% of the time.

September’s high court decision led CNN to disable its Facebook page in Australia. Schwartz Media and the Tasmanian premier, Peter Gutwein, turned off comments on their pages in response to the decision.

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