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The Department of Home Affairs has made more requests for misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic to be removed from Facebook than any other government department in Australia since March last year, Guardian Australia has learned.
Despite not having direct responsibility over social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, or being responsible for the government’s response to the pandemic, Peter Dutton’s mega agency has sent more than 500 takedown requests for misinformation and scams related to -19, a department spokesperson told Guardian Australia.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the department has … been engaging digital industry to undertake action – in line with their policies – on content that includes medical misinformation, scams, hate speech and/or calls for violence,” the spokesperson said, adding the response from social media companies has resulted in removal of content and account suspension.
“Since March 2020, the department has made more than 500 referrals to digital industry and law enforcement to minimise and counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation and to protect Australians from scams.”
This is on top of the 593 pieces of terrorist or violent extremism content the department requested to be removed in 2019-20.
Guardian Australia understands home affairs sent more requests for misinformation content removal to Facebook than any other government agency, including the health and communications departments.
“We’ve been working with many stakeholders, including government agencies to address concerns about misinformation and disinformation,” Josh Machin, Facebook’s Australian head of public policy, told Guardian Australia.
Requests were also sent from foreign affairs, but related more the removal of disinformation deliberately being spread by state actors, whereas misinformation covers all false information shared, regardless of intent.
Unlike the removal of unlawful content such as terrorism and extremist content, there is no law in Australia forcing tech companies to comply with the misinformation removal requests from the Australian government.
However, where sites like Facebook have not been able to catch misinformation through their moderation or automated processes, the companies increasingly rely on governments, as well as journalists, to report misinformation to them.
A voluntary industry code is expected to be released in the next two weeks setting out what policies digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter should have in place for dealing with disinformation, the tools people have to report disinformation, and transparency over what is removed.
The code has been developed by Digi, the lobby group representing companies including Facebook and Twitter, following a direction from the federal government. It would not be mandatory for the digital platforms to participate in the code, and only focuses on disinformation not misinformation.
The Public Interest Journalism Initiative noted in its submission to the draft code that by excluding misinformation more broadly, the code would miss a lot of content being shared online.
“Consumers are often not well equipped to identify and differentiate between different types [of misinformation or disinformation],” they said.
“The same false content can be shared by an inauthentic user with the intention to mislead (making it disinformation and actionable) or by an otherwise ordinary user without that intention (making it misinformation and not actionable).”
The platforms will probably push against any legislative response to dealing with misinformation. Facebook-backed research released last week by La Trobe University warned of the dangers legislating around how sites deal with misinformation, pointing to examples in Singapore and Indonesia where legislation has been controversial due to claims it has targeted content published by the government’s political opponents.
Report co-author Dr Andrea Carson told Guardian Australia it was no great surprise more authoritarian states would use such legislation to quell political dissent, and while it was less likely Australia would go down the same path, it was important to be aware of the issues of such legislation.
“What it does do is highlight the tension that exists between having freedom speech on one hand, which needs to be responsible and having government overreach,” she said. “And that’s where Australia is considering those questions at the moment.”
The report called for the platforms to provide greater transparency around their actions to combat misinformation and said sectors of society from media and government to the platforms all needed to cooperate to combat misinformation. Facebook backed this recommendation.
“We agree with the research’s findings that all parties – governments, digital platforms, news organisations, civil society, experts – need to work to effectively address mis- and disinformation, and we support sensible regulatory frameworks in this space,” Machin said.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Australia’s Department of Home Affairs made most requests for Covid misinformation takedowns | Health