The Morrison government has been warned a coordinated interference campaign unleashed by foreign states or malicious actors through social media platforms is a serious risk to manage in the looming federal election campaign.
With the federal contest now imminent, a Senate select committee established in late 2019 to investigate the risks posed to Australia’s democracy by foreign interference through social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WeChat has used its first report to urge the Coalition to adopt better protocols before the poll.
The new report concludes Australia currently lacks some of the institutional architecture needed to respond effectively and proactively to the threat of foreign interference.
The Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media notes federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has concluded that there was limited evidence of social media manipulation within Australia, including minimal use of bots, during the 2019 federal election.
But analysts from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told the inquiry financially motivated actors from Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia used nationalistic and Islamophobic content to target and manipulate Australian Facebook users during the 2019 election.
Australia’s home affairs department also warned in a separate submission that foreign interference activity against Australian interests was now occurring at an “unprecedented scale”.
The new report also references a Queensland University of Technology study that concluded there were a substantial number of bots tweeting election related content in 2019, with a majority originating from New York.
The Senate select committee, chaired by the Labor senator Jenny McAllister, warns the Morrison government it would be a “mistake” to wait for a serious attempt to subvert a legitimate democratic contest before taking corrective action.
The committee says it would be “naive” to believe Australia is immune from the sort of coordinated incursions seen in the United States during the 2016 presidential election, and the general election in the United Kingdom in 2019.
“The policy challenges facing Australia over the coming years are of interest to more than just Australians,” the committee warns. “There are a range of foreign governments, organisations and individuals who stand to win or lose from Australia’s political and policy decisions.
“Experiences from overseas show us there are some foreign actors who also seek to introduce discord and social conflict as an aim unto itself,” the report says. “Technological developments mean that these actors have more options available than ever before to influence Australia’s processes.”
The report says while there does not appear to have been a large-scale coordinated interference campaign to date, that did not make a case for government inaction. “It is possible, if not likely, that Australia will face such an attempt in the future,” the report says.
The committee has recommended the Morrison government establish clear requirements and pathways for social media platforms to report suspected foreign interference, including disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behaviour, and other offensive and harmful content.
The report notes that representatives from TikTok “did not know if they were required to report any coordinated foreign interference attempts that they detected on their platform – let alone who they could even report this to”.
It recommends the government “clearly delegate lead accountability for cyber-enabled foreign interference to a single entity in government”. The report notes it is “not clear who is responsible for responding to a disinformation campaign that targets the information environment in an election period”.
The select committee says the government should establish “non-political institutional mechanisms for publicly communicating cyber-enabled foreign interference in our elections” – including developing protocols for classified briefings to be given to the opposition during caretaker periods.
The report notes the decision “to reveal or conceal evidence of a foreign-backed disinformation attempt is one that could have enormous implications during an election campaign”. It says evidence given during the inquiry by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Home Affairs suggests there is no current obligation in the caretaker convention for the government of the day to brief the opposition if there is evidence of coordinated malicious action.
It also recommends a pre-election audit be undertaken through the Election Integrity Assurance Taskforce “to assess capability relevant to detecting disinformation”.
The committee recommends the government should “take a proactive approach to protecting groups that are common targets of foreign interference but are not classified as government institutions”. The report notes there are currently no clear protections for groups that “influence Australia’s democracy but sit outside of government, such as diaspora groups, research institutions and political parties”.
The deputy chair of the inquiry was the Liberal senator Jim Molan. In additional comments, Molan said he agreed “with parts of the majority report” but he intended to provide “more fulsome additional comments” after the Christmas break.