Social media experts have questioned Facebook’s attempts to bolster the accountability and transparency of political content in the current federal election campaign.
Facebook said it continually removes fake accounts and has worked with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to identify unauthorised electoral advertising.
“We’re certainly employing in this Australian election all of the learnings that we’ve had from recent elections around the world,” Facebook’s director of policy, Mia Garlick, said.
“We’ve launched fact checking with the Agence France Press to ensure that the tool [to remove fake accounts] can be deployed for this election.
“We’ve increased ad transparency and we’re banning foreign ads that relate to political matters during this election.”
The company has removed some “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” on its platform in the lead-up to the election, including in Australia.
“The vast majority of this is financially motivated and not politically motivated,” Ms Garlick said.
“So we anticipate that there will be further inauthentic accounts and also coordinated inauthentic behaviour that we will continue to be taking down from our services and also blocking from getting set up in the first place.”
So what is this ‘inauthentic activity’?
The ABC is aware of several pages and profiles that have been taken down or disciplined for “inauthentic activity” during the current election campaign and during the NSW election.
Some of the more recent examples include extreme, right-wing, anti-Islamic pages called Australian Brotherhood and Aussie Angels Against Sharia, which were posting political material and had some fake profiles operating the accounts.
In the run-up to the federal election, Facebook has rolled out measures to make it harder to contaminate the feeds of Australian voters.
“Inauthentic activity” can also include astroturfing — a concept that has been around for decades and is now happening on social media.
“It’s a coordinated activity that’s trying to pass off an issue as having more supporters than it does by creating multiplicity of pages and groups and fake accounts that will push a particular message,” Axel Bruns from the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology said.
“And by making that message so visible they are attracting real users in support of that and trying to change people’s minds towards supporting that issue.
“That’s happened since people first gathered in public to demonstrate and support a cause.
“So rather than bus people to a demonstration, they are creating accounts to create a view on mass on social media.”
Professor Bruns said astroturfing was now part of the game in the election campaign, which could distort what voters might genuinely believe or choose and disrupt the electoral process.
Facebook isn’t the arbiter of truth in advertising
According to the AEC, it recorded 52 complaints relating to social media posts at the beginning of the month, resulting in seven warnings to users and six requests to social media organisations to remove content.
Facebook has not revealed whether there has been an increase or decrease in “inauthentic behaviour” in the election campaign, compared to previous campaigns here and overseas.
Australia is not ready for meme warfare
But it said removing fake accounts and checking the authorisation of electoral communication or advertising did help prevent it.
Facebook has installed other new accountability features for the election, such as the new ad library, so users can check the advertisements political parties and groups are pushing, but it is not as good as it is for other overseas markets in Europe and the United States.
“There are some slight additional pieces of information that will be added to the ad library come June,” Ms Garlick said.
“But in terms of working to ensure that our services are used responsibly for this election, we package together a range of different tools.”
But Professor Bruns does not believe the features go far enough.
He said while users could search for particular themes or topics, they were required to do so through a basic search interface.
“There is no way to access the totality of the data and then process that data in way we would for other data sets to search for patterns,” Professor Bruns said.
He also said that since privacy rules had been tightened on Facebook, academics like him were unable to determine what was really happening on the platform.
“What we would be interested in is what the broad patterns of activity are, what URLs are being shared, what links are being shared, the content being shared, and whether there are any suspicious patterns or fake news being shared,” Professor Bruns said.
“Facebook has also limited, very strongly, the access to data on anything that would enable us to investigate the visibility of fake news on the platform.”
While Facebook and the AEC are checking for authorisation behind political advertisements, they both say they cannot be the arbiters of truth in political advertising or content.
“Obviously we are very happy to work with government agencies … to ensure that we’re respecting Australian law,” Ms Garlic said.
“But it’s not really a matter for us. I think it’s a matter for the Parliament and the Government and the Australian public really to make decisions about what those particular laws contain.”