House debates

Monday, 11 September 2023

Private Members' Business

Freedom of Speech

6:01 pm

Photo of Sally SitouSally Sitou (Reid, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Misinformation, disinformation—the facts may be false, but the consequences are real. We live in a world now where it is getting harder and harder to discern fact from fiction, and it's having a profound impact on our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge on two fronts. It was a once-in-a-generation challenge to our healthcare systems across the world, and some remarkable achievements were made here. With our brightest scientific minds working on it, we were able to create a vaccine for COVID-19 in record time, rolling it out at an unprecedented scale and pace. But the other challenge was societal. We relied on people trusting their governments because very extensive public health measures were required to control the spread of the virus.

These measures and the vaccine rollout were severely impacted by the dramatic increase in misinformation and disinformation online. In the words of the Director-General of the World Health Organization:

… we're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.

And the problem of misinformation in culturally diverse communities was even more acute for a number of reasons. A study by Monash University found that effective health communication is more complicated than simply translating English messages into other languages. For example, some migrant communities may be mistrustful of authorities because they cannot trust governments in their homelands. This means they may be more susceptible to messages of disinformation around the Australian government's motivations.

Where culturally diverse communities get their information from is also a reason for vulnerability. A study commissioned by the NSW Council of Social Service found that only one in 10 respondents from culturally diverse backgrounds relied on government health websites as a primary source of information during the pandemic. And what was their most cited source? Facebook. These factors lead to greater susceptibility to COVID misinformation and, ultimately, to higher rates of vaccine hesitancy in many of these communities.

Misinformation can pose a serious risk to public health. It can also have a corrosive effect on our democracy. The Australian Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media tabled its bipartisan final report on the risk posed to Australia's democracy by foreign interference through social media. It states:

Foreign interference is now Australia's principal national security threat which risks significantly undermining our values, freedoms and way of life … authoritarian regimes continue to pose an unacceptable risk to democratic societies through targeted online disinformation campaigns that leverage social media platforms to skew public debate, undermine trust in our democratic institutions, and establish narratives that favour the interests of authoritarian states.

This isn't a threat in the abstract. The corrosive impact of disinformation on democracies is very present and very real. An example is the May 2023 Meta transparency report, which provides a case study of actions to combat misinformation in the context of the Australian federal election.

Given the profound impact misinformation and disinformation can have, it is disappointing to see the opposition retreat into sound bites. Rather than engaging constructively with the government on an issue they cite as a top priority, they are instead playing politics. Rather than engaging in good faith with the government on an issue that a bipartisan Senate select committee says is one of Australia's most pressing security challenges, they've brought a motion full of factual inaccuracies and hyperbole. Rather than working constructively to build on industry regulation, they told the government to bin the bill when the exposure draft of the bill was out for submissions.

This is not a serious opposition party, because a serious opposition party wouldn't seek to undermine the Australian government by taking away one of the tools to take on foreign interference and combat harmful misinformation.


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