Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 April 2019


Social Media

9:44 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last year, I informed the Senate about two disturbing developments in political campaigning by the Left. The first concerned an anonymous Twitter campaign called Sleeping Giants Oz, primarily directed at Sky News by the Australian offshoot of an American online activist group. Followers are encouraged to identify so-called hate speech and send a screen shot of that content to advertisers next to their ad to discourage them from advertising with that media outlet, often with the threat of consumer boycott. I noted that such campaigns crave anonymity because they don't want to be exposed as being politically inspired.

But, more importantly, they rely on deceiving people—in this case, advertisers—about their real level of support. In this connection, a recent Brandwatch report confirmed that Sleeping Giants Oz's campaign is being driven by a small group of people. It is confected outrage originating from less than 32 accounts throughout the duration of 2019. Activity mostly involves retweets, giving the false impression to advertisers who are targeted that there is a major boycott campaign in action when, in fact, the opposite is the case. Brandwatch found that Aushiker, a Twitter account operated as a pseudonym by Western Australian lecturer Andrew Priest, was the most engaged in Sleeping Giants Oz campaign. It was responsible for about 43 per cent of activity across the top 10 most engaged accounts between 1 January and 21 February.

Aushiker's Twitter account now bears the description 'My Tweets scare the Government #NotABot'. Talking of bots, many accounts, including Aushiker, use and engage with third-party applications revealed by the tweet source label on their tweets. These third-party applications are designed to manage Twitter accounts, including scheduling automated tweets. For example, Aushiker's tweets are posted via Buffer, an application designed for businesses to improve social media management but now utilised by left-wing trolls. Lastly, I note that United Voice, the Australian Education Union and Greenpeace are now running high-rotation pro-Labor anti-coalition ads on Sky. We will see if Sleeping Giants Oz goes soft on these advertisers, like it did by omitting the Australia Institute from an earlier Sky advertisers list.

The second disturbing development I outlined last year involves another influence campaign being conducted via Twitter to the benefit of the Australian Labor Party. This campaign spreads misinformation and political spam via a large web of mainly anonymous and also automated Twitter accounts which churn out similar, if not identical, pro-Labor, pro-union, anti-coalition content, creating an echo chamber of reinforcing noise. I identified nine such accounts. One narrowly missed the cut because it just didn't tweet as much as the others—and get cracking, Alan—and was called JohnWren1950. Last week, Twitter permanently suspended this account for impersonation, after John Wren posted a fake memo purportedly from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, using its letterhead. Wren's devious post—putting this obviously fake memo into the public domain under the ruse of wanting to confirm its authenticity—was a crude attempt to foment fake news. Wren is now wallowing in his petty notoriety, penning a paranoid self-justification for Independent Australia. He exhibits the remarkable facility of the Left and those trolls I mentioned in my last speech of simultaneously complaining about being called out and, in doing so, verging on paranoia while basking in their 15 milliseconds of fame.

Witness Sir Clyde Of Nob, now dubbing himself 'Lord Clyde Of HANSARD', while Big Al now styles himself as 'BigAl of hansard fame but not a bot'. The trolls I did mention and their apologists think they ought to be able to flood the twittersphere with bile and bosh but escape scrutiny and then cry that they are being suppressed. They are truly legends on their own laptops. Even more revealing is their common misrepresentation—possibly due to illiteracy, but I suspect deliberate—of my speeches on these subjects as suggesting these Labor trolls were actual Russian bots when I was clearly just noting the similar methods used in their influence campaigns and the danger of both in the lead-up to the upcoming election.

But proving that truth is stranger than fiction, a recently released dataset of Twitter accounts identified as being from the Internet Research Agency, the infamous Russian troll factory, disclosed one account that, in late July to early August 2017, twice tweeted directly to the Labor troll, virgotweet. So here we have a Russian internet research troll talking directly to a Labor troll. This IRA account that purports to be located in the United States predominantly retweeted Australian politicians and political commentators but notably twice tweeted virgotweet directly, suggesting this account was identified as a potential vector for pushing a specific agenda or debate. It shows the risks, even for domestic trolls, of disseminating fake news and propaganda.

The Australian public should be conscious of the distortion of political sentiment via social media channels, especially as the public and media frequently use Twitter as a barometer of public sentiment. Again, I call on Twitter to review accounts like those I have identified, which degrade its own platform. Australians should be able to engage with the upcoming election campaign free from domestic as well as foreign social media interference campaigns.