Stop the bots: Senate to probe fake news' role in 2016 election

Did "social media manipulation" of voters affect outcome?

A Senate inquiry is extending its probe into the 2016 Federal Election to consider whether bots targeted Australian voters online in the build-up, and if so where the “social media manipulation” may have come from.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will also consider ways to address “the spread of deliberately false news online during elections” and what can be done to improve the media literacy of voters.

“This examination is in response to the increasing threat of interference in Australian elections made possible by advances in technology and increased use of social media platforms,” committee chair Senator Linda Reynolds said in a statement.

She added that “threats today come in many forms, not just over our physical borders”.

The Joint Standing Committee’s fake news focus is part of a wider inquiry into the 2016 election, which was sparked by a double dissolution and returned the Liberal-National Coalition to power.

The inquiry has already released interim reports into the authorisation of voter communications; foreign donations; and the modernisation of the Australian Electoral Commission, which included the potential application of new technology to voting, scrutiny and counting.

Submissions are being accepted until August 8, and public hearings will be announced shortly.

Info weapons

The inquiry is part of a global response from governments into social media manipulation of voters with so-called ‘fake news’.

Researchers from the University of Oxford found French voters faced a deluge of “ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial” and deliberately false news stories ahead of the country’s presidential election in 2017, with up to a quarter of political links shared on Twitter in France graded as “computational propaganda”.

French president Emmanuel Macron in January said he plans to introduce legislation to impose stricter transparency requirements around online advertising during election periods, and caps on sponsored ads.

MPs in the UK have also raised concerns about the interference of Russian-backed bots in the build up to the Brexit referendum. Russian linked accounts are also suspected of running adverts related to immigration on Facebook ahead of the referendum.

The UK’s Electoral Commission is currently investigating the activity, and the country’s Prime Minister Theresa May in November directly accused Russia of trying to “weaponise information” online which was “threatening the international order”.

As well as Russian-backed propaganda-pumping bots and ads, attention is also being given to how Facebook and Twitter can be used by domestic political groups.

Earlier this year the suspended chief executive of Cambridge Analytica claimed in a secretly recorded video that his political consultancy's online campaign played a decisive role in U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 election victory.

Cambridge Analytica has also been linked to the Brexit Leave campaign in a Guardian investigation by Carole Cadwalladr.

In March, Facebook chief snubbed calls from the UK government to appear before them to answer questions about the company’s involvement in the scandal.

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