30th December 2019
This article titled “Australia’s election watchdog lacks power to investigate who is paying for Facebook political ads” was written by Christopher Knaus, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th December 2019 02.45 GMT
Australia’s electoral authorities lack the resources and powers to investigate the opaque funding used to spread political ads on Facebook, an inquiry has heard.
The use of paid political advertising on the social network has posed challenges for democracies across the globe, including Australia, because it can allow unknown sources to use money to influence voters.
The Guardian revealed this year that one the world’s biggest coalminers, Glencore, was covertly funding an influence campaign on Facebook to undermine renewable energy, boost demand for coal and change government policy.
The operation, codenamed Project Caesar, set up fake interest groups online, including one named Energy in Australia, and used them to spread paid political messaging to unsuspecting voters.
The Greens senator Larissa Waters questioned the Australian Electoral Commission about what it can do to investigate such advertising at a hearing of the joint standing committee on electoral matters on Friday morning.
Australian law requires that paid political ads provide the name and location of an authorising officer but do not compel advertisers to say who is providing funding.
The AEC’s chief legal officer, Andrew Johnson, said his organisation lacked the resources to investigate who sat “behind the veil” of such ads, particularly during election campaigns. Johnson said that made public awareness campaigns and media reporting critical.
“The challenge is a resourcing issue, and during a five-week election campaign and the volume of communications that are happening so we really are looking at that authorisation detail and the ability to look beyond is very difficult,” he said.
“And I think that comes back to the electoral commissioner’s comments about the importance of our ‘stop and consider’ [campaign] and making that awareness among the public, but also the importance of the media in scrutinising, and the media having that extra ability to scrutinise and go beyond and put that out to the public about what those sources are, so that information is publicly available.
“It’s something from the electoral commission’s point of view that we don’t have that resources to do.”
Johnson said legislation only compelled an authorising party to give their name and location.
“Some of the authorisation requirements don’t provide a lot of detail of who is actually behind, and it does require that extra investigation,” he said.
He suggested it was better for such information to be investigated and disclosed through the media than via regulation and litigation.
Waters responded: “I don’t accept it’s better to leave it to the media than to regulate, I think both is ideally required.”
Internationally, Facebook has rolled out new transparency measures for paid political advertising on its platform. But it declined to do so in Australia before the federal election.
Johnson said the AEC had been in discussions before the poll.
“We had discussions with Facebook and Twitter, particularly – Twitter did roll that out and they did extend their ad transparency library to Australia for the federal election,” he said. “Facebook didn’t and they gave reasons sort of saying because of the volume of international elections on particularly during the first year with Indian and Indonesian elections on.”
The comments come as the Guardian this morning revealed the existence of a new disinformation network, operated from Israel, which used 21 far-right Facebook pages to spread coordinated disinformation for two years. That network did not use paid advertising and so would not have fallen into the AEC’s sights.
But the network has attempted to influence politics across the western world, including in Australia, promoting far-right candidates and criticising and undermining Muslim politicians and high-profile leftwing leaders.
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