Demand grows for new laws to fight misinformation

Government must “urgently” pass laws that require tech giants to provide a “live list” of the most popular COVID-19-related information shared on social media platforms in order to combat misinformation, a coalition of health and tech organisations has demanded.

Led by Reset Australia, the group sent a letter to Parliamentarians on Monday calling for new regulations to assist health officials, academics and journalists to track and combat misinformation in the lead-up to the vaccine rollout.

The call came on the same day as the Therapeutic Goods Administration granted provisional approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The list would include the impact and reach of links related to the ongoing pandemic that are deemed to be eligible. This information would only be accessible by health officials, academics and journalists.

Data lines: Health and tech groups are calling for Big Tech regulation to fight COVID misinformation

Other organisations which have backed the proposal include the Immunisation Coalition, the Immunisation Foundation of Australia, Coronavax and the Doherty Institute.

Reset Australia chief executive Chris Cooper said a live list would help combat dangerous misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine, and should be enshrined in law as a matter of urgency.

“The live list is intended to provide transparency and better oversight for the public health officials, researchers, academics and journalists reporting on the rollout of the vaccine, those who are responsible for building vaccine competence,” Mr Cooper told InnovationAus.

“The live list better equips them with more information around what is going viral and what is trending on social media platforms.”

The initiative would not assess whether the links being posted online are accurate or not, but feed information to relevant parties on what is being spread, Mr Cooper said.

“We currently have no oversight over what is trending on these platforms. We know that algorithms on the platforms are optimised for attention and engagement. They serve people the most sensationalist, outrageous, conspiratorial content because it’s the most engaging,” he said.

“People end up in echo chambers where all they’re served by the algorithms is misinformation or content of that nature.

“The live list doesn’t make an assessment on what’s true or false, it just says that during the rollout of a critical vaccine, our public health officials have more insight into what’s trending so they can report on it, correct the record and better understand where vaccine hesitancy is coming from.”

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is currently working with the Big Tech companies on a voluntary code covering misinformation on the platforms.

In response to the letter sent pushing for more regulation, a spokesperson for Communications minister Paul Fletcher pointed to the work on the voluntary code, and said government would not move further until at least the middle of the year.

“During COVID-19, we’ve seen first-hand the harm misinformation can cause as it spreads rapidly online. It can create public confusion and is particularly harmful to those most vulnerable in our community,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.

“ACMA will report to government on the adequacy of the platforms’ measures and the broader impacts of misinformation, with the first such report due no later than June 2020. Should the actions and responses of the platforms be found to not sufficiently respond to the concerns identified by the ACCC, the government will consider the need for further measures.”

But Mr Cooper said the government needs to take action now to tackle online misinformation ahead of the imminent rollout of the vaccine.

“The urgency is very clear. We need more action now. We submitted a response to the voluntary disinformation code and called out how pathetically weak that code was,” he said.

“It was designed by the platforms themselves, so it doesn’t have the public interest at heart, it’s got their profits at heart. It further delayed and distracted and put off further regulation and oversight.”

And this action needs to be enshrined in law, rather than relying on voluntary codes as is the current approach, he said.

“It’s critical that it’s legislated by Parliament. The social media platforms have told us from the very beginning they’re on top of misinformation, but here we are a year later with misinformation still proliferating,” Mr Cooper said.

“The platforms clearly don’t have a grip on it, and further to that we’ve seen voluntary codes rolled out in other parties of the world, and we’re looking at a similar code here, but we know they don’t work. If they’re not held accountable there’s no incentives for them to report on these issues accurately.”

The coalition behind the letter also released a policy document detailing how such a “live list” would work.

Once a link is deemed to be eligible using criteria such as it being related to coronavirus, relevant to Australia and with over 1000 impressions, the tech companies will then have just 24 hours to release information on its prevalence on their platforms.

This information would include the number of times it was shared on accounts, including private ones, link clicks, engagements, views, the number of reports about it, whether it was fact checked or not, and which public accounts have shared it. They will also be required to provide demographic information on those engaging with the content.

The scheme would be overseen by ACMA, along with an independent oversight board filled with relevant stakeholders. To access the live list, users will have to apply to ACMA and be approved by the board.

The big tech firms will also be given just one week to respond to any clarification requests regarding the content.

Misinformation on social media could be a significant roadblock to Australia’s vaccine rollout, Immunisation Coalition’s Kim Sampson said.

“Campaigns that educate and inform the public are a key part of this mission but the level of misinformation out there creates a huge barrier. Understanding who is being targeted and what kind of lies they’re being fed would help us relieve community concerns and fears,” Mr Sampson said.

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