The Federal Government has announced it will give Australia’s media regulator new powers to crack down on online misinformation and disinformation.
The powers will include an enforceable standard for social media companies and search engines to combat issues on their platforms.
Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland called misinformation and disinformation a “threat… to our democracy, society and economy”.
What ‘mis’ and ‘dis’ mean
The main difference between ‘mis’ and ‘dis’information is intent: misinformation can include unintentional spreading of harmful false information, whereas disinformation usually refers to deliberate campaigns to do so (such as bots or spam).
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) argues the distinction is not essential and that governments and platforms should combat “all kinds of false, misleading or deceptive online information with the potential to cause harm”.
How prevalent is it?
Research by ACMA in 2021 found most Australians had seen misinformation online and about 40% showed signs of being influenced by it. People were most likely to see misinformation on popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but ACMA noted a rise in misinformation spreading through private messages.
ACMA found misinformation typically starts with “highly emotive and engaging posts within small online conspiracy groups” but then spreads by influencers, public figures and media coverage.
Some types of information are already restricted by law – for example, there are legal penalties for false advertising of financial or health products.
However, misinformation outside these categories is currently monitored by the platforms themselves voluntarily.
At the Government’s request, a group of platforms including Apple, Meta, Google, TikTok and Twitter established an Australian code of conduct in 2021. However, this is optional to sign and non-binding even for those who sign it.
The code of conduct
Even though it is optional, ACMA has called the code of conduct “extremely positive”.
Several platforms have introduced flags for misinformation. Platforms who have signed up to the code now post annual updates on the number of posts and accounts they have banned and steps they have taken to promote reputable information.
However, ACMA has criticised the lack of penalties for platforms who fail to comply and notes transparency is still inadequate in many cases.
The new powers
ACMA recommended it be given the power to request information from social media companies and the power to develop legally-enforceable standards, including for platforms who have not signed the voluntary code of conduct (such as Snapchat, WeChat, Reddit and Tumblr).
The Government has now accepted these recommendations, and plans to pass laws later this year to put them into effect.
Freedom of speech
The Government, ACMA and the social media platforms have also emphasised that the changes should be focused on information with the potential to cause harm and that platforms and government bodies should not police the truthfulness of information beyond this.
The industry code of conduct notes the terms misinformation and disinformation are “politically charged” and should not be used “on value-laden political issues on which reasonable people may disagree”.