Impact of Social Media on Elections and Electoral Administration: Submission

by Bill Browne

The regulatory framework surrounding political advertising on social media is almost non-existent, in contrast to the strict rules for election advertising on other media. Partly because social media ads can be “micro-targeted” to small audiences, it can be hard to identify what political parties and candidates claim in ads or who they have made that claim to. Existing “Internet ad libraries” on some platforms do not fully address this problem.

Truth in political advertising laws can help reduce the disinformation that is common on, but not exclusive to, social media platforms. The long-standing existence of these laws in South Australia, and their recent adoption in the Australian Capital Territory with Labor, Liberal and Green support, shows that these laws are popular, effective and legally sound.

The SA and ACT model of having the electoral commission responsible for misleading political advertising complaints works well, but other agencies could be used–or a new Election Complaints Authority could be established specifically for political advertising.

Truth in political advertising laws are at their most effective when misleading advertising is addressed during the election campaign, although fines can still be an effective deterrent after the election. Suggestions for resolving complaints more quickly include allowing regulators to investigate complaints on their own initiative, allocating more resources for complaints management, finding a solution for retractions during the advertising blackout period –such as the commissioner issuing a public statement after each determination–and encouraging digital platforms to proactively address misleading advertising.

The Australia Institute’s polling research shows that nine in 10 Victorians (88%) support truth in political advertising laws at the national level, with most supporting three potential penalties for misleading and inaccurate advertising: fines, retractions and losing some or all public funding.

Recent developments are promising, including the ACT legislating for truth in political advertising in August 2020, and support for national truth in political advertising laws from prominent Labor, Liberal, Independent and Green politicians and party figures.

There has been some limited progress from social media platforms to flag and remove misleading and inaccurate content, although reports of disinformation continue – including for the Queensland state election in October. That election also saw one of the first uses of a “deepfake” (AI-generated manipulation) in political advertising in Australia, although in this case it was clearly identified as artificial.

We have also taken the opportunity to respond to some of the reservations raised by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) in their submission to this inquiry.

Full report