Transcript: ABC Radio National Breakfast 9/12/2019

1.30pm | December 20, 2019


SUBJECTS:  Foreign interference through social media, Rosslyn Dillon


HAMISH MACDONALD, ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFASTFederal Parliament is said to investigate that very modern phenomenon of fake news being spread on social media. It’s voted to set up an inquiry to look at the way malicious foreign actors peddle misinformation to try and undermine Australian democracy and values. It comes as the Opposition muscles up to the social media giants, leader Anthony Albanese asking why Facebook’s laws of the jungle trump Australia’s laws of the land. Labor Senator Jenny McAllister will Chair the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through social media she is with me in the studio, good morning to you. 




MACDONALD: Is there any evidence that Australia is being targeted by foreign governments with this sort of misinformation.


MCALLISTER: We don’t have a lot of information about what happened at the last election, we do know that a sophisticated foreign actor targeted the Australian Parliament and targeted Australian political parties we also know…


MACDONALD: Through hacking?


MCALLISTER: Correct, and we also know that across the world when ASPI went, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute went and had a look, they found that of the one hundred odd elections, in democratic nations conducted over the last three years, a fifth of them had clear evidence of foreign interference.  It is a global problem and it would be naive to think that it isn’t a problem in Australia


MACDONALD: But if we haven’t seen any evidence necessarily of it so far, where is that evidence going to come from in this inquiry?


MCALLISTER: We are going to look at the international experience; we’ll talk to our national security agencies, we’ll talk to political parties and we’ll talk to experts in the field like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 


MACDONALD: So is this an isolated problem of foreign powers using social media platforms to spread this stuff because domestic political parties could do that as. Well we also know of false and misleading advertising that Facebook is accepting money from to post sponsored content all the time, I mean, isn’t this a broader problem?


MCALLISTER: The way that social media impacts on the way we communicate and the quality of our communications seeps into lots of policy areas, but there is a very specific problem to do with foreign interference and that goes to the  objectives of foreign adversaries. One of the things that they found in the United States, is that the objectives there weren’t to exclusively promote one candidate over another candidate, it was actually to undermine democracy itself, to exploit divisions, to undermine confidence in the press and the undermine the trust that citizens have in one another. When those dynamics are happening over a long period of time you can see the kind of challenges it presents for open democracies, and we do need to respond to it, and that’s the focus of the inquiry.


MACDONALD: Just wondering though why we focus on that component of it, when it is pretty clear that all of these things are undermining our faith in democracy, I mean if we see political parties posting lies essentially on and other social media platforms doesn’t that equally have a deleterious effect on our faith in democracy.


MCALLISTER: It’s a bit like the joke, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The Senate has asked me to go and have a look at the question of foreign interference. We know it’s a significant problem internationally; it’s been a very significant problem in the United States but also in elections right across the globe and we should sort of take steps here to ensure that we are protecting our own institutions.


MACDONALD: So what steps would they be?


MCALLISTER: Well, we can have a look at this, but when other countries have examined these questions, they have looked at a role of the platforms in regulating and moderating their own content. They’ve obviously looked at the criminal offences framework on whether they’re adequate to capture foreign interference and Australia passed significant new legislation last year that creates whole range of new offences to capture foreign interference. But there’s also questions around citizen knowledge and engagement – are citizens ready and able to respond to this information when they see it in their feed?


MACDONALD: So what would you do with platforms though? I mean, are you saying that you would outlaw the platforms from allowing this stuff to appear?


MCALLISTER: I think it’s a little premature to come to the terms, to the recommendations of the inquiry. We are going to run this for quite a number of years. We won’t report until 2022.


MACDONALD: This is a question about whether you’re open minded about that prospect, I mean if we are saying that this might be a legislative scenario, is that something you could consider doing?


MCALLISTER: The Committee should consider all the options, including legislative options. I don’t think we’ve got this right, I don’t think the social media companies have got this right and if you ask Australians what they think; they think social media companies should be doing more.


MACDONALD: But do you think that the reality is that in the very near term, companies like Facebook and Twitter are going to face much tougher regulatory frameworks in Australia, if they want to continue operating here?


MCALLISTER: The global conversation…Facebook and Twitter are not the only platforms we are concerned about. We are also concerned about platforms like WeChat which originate in the People’s Republic of China. But yes, I think we are looking at a period when there’s a very large question to be settled about the regulatory arrangement for these platforms. Traditional news media is uncomfortable with the roles some of these platforms play; the community is uncomfortable about the impact of some of the content on some of these platforms. This inquiry is going to have a really good look at that in the context of foreign interference.


MACDONALD: Your party’s leader Anthony Albanese had an experience with some false I suppose images recently. There were some doctored images on Facebook purporting to show that he supported a men’s rights campaign against the family court. How hard was it for him to get Facebook to cooperate in pulling that sort of material?


MCALLISTER: Immensely difficult as I understand it. And the thing is these challenges are going to intensify. We’re moving to a point where you will be able to generate a generate a video of a public figure saying something that that public figure never said and it will be very difficult to differentiate that video from the real thing. We need to have some tools and strategies to respond to the impact of artificial intelligence and its increasingly sophisticated fakery.


MACDONALD: So is there anything currently in Australia that would prevent someone from doctoring a video of Anthony Albanese to make it look like he is saying something that he is not?


MCALLISTER: I'm not sure whether there would be a specific offence that captures that. There may be, but these new technologies challenge our existing laws. Our laws inevitably don't respond to new tech.


MACDONALD: But let's be clear here. If there's not, should there be?


MCALLISTER: That is the purpose of the committee. A specific purpose is to have a look at the existing arrangements.


MACDONALD: You're not sure?


MCALLISTER: This is a new problem. I'm not critical of government for not having solved it, in particular, no one has solved this around the world. And its why there has been bipartisan support to put a process together that can bring together technologists, economists, the political parties and experts, national security experts to really get into the weeds on this.


MACDONALD: Facebook says it has already taken steps to crack down on misinformation. It says that nobody can advocate or advertise hate or violence on Facebook and we remove any violations as soon as we become aware. The truth is though, you can lie on Facebook and you can pay to lie on Facebook. Is that a problem?




MACDONALD: And is that something that Australia you think, should actively seek to prevent?


MCALLISTER: We need to have a really good look at this because as I said, I don't think the system is working and you can see in those election results you talked about earlier. Trust is declining and sure, its trust in politics but actually trusting all the other institutions as well. My concern is that Australians increasingly don't trust each other and if you're an autocratic state seeking to undermine your democratic adversaries that is a very good outcome.


MACDONALD: But should you also prevent domestic political parties for example, from posting advertisements or social media content that contains lies?


MCALLISTER: I think that is a conversation that is likely to unfold in the next couple of years. Probably not in my committee.


MACDONALD: But I'm interested to know what your view is because political parties are doing this? Mark Zuckerberg the head of Facebook, doesn't seem to have any problem with political parties paying his company to carry advertisements that are just plain lies.


MCALLISTER: The challenge when we're thinking about responses to this is to balance freedom of expression with truth. And the key question when you start to think about practical responses to any of this is “who decides what is true?”. That's the objection that Facebook puts. That they're not in a position to arbitrate about those things.


MACDONALD: But we manage to arbitrate these things when it comes to television advertising currently and newspaper advertising during an election campaign. If the Labor Party tried to put an advertisement on the television during an election campaign it was found to contain lies, then it would be pulled. It would breach advertising standards, so the reality though is that it could put it on Facebook and that wouldn't be a problem?


MCALLISTER: That's a really interesting example because you've got news media organisations with a set of journalistic ethics who voluntarily engage in, I guess,, a set of arrangements about managing their own platforms and the integrity of the information that's provided on their platforms. Facebook and other similar platforms don't accept that responsibility and … that is …. whether or not it is government's role to step in and be the arbitrator of truth on those platforms, is a further question again. But the first point is I think making the case that these platforms do have some responsibilities to the public. They have responsibilities in relation to public debate and they need to articulate how it is that they're going to respond to those responsibilities.


MACDONALD: And do you think when we have these conversations then about the loss of faith in democracy as we are doing this morning, that social media is a big part of that?


MCALLISTER: I don't think you could point to that as the only driver, but I think it is one of the drivers. It puts people into information silos, where they only talk with other people who think the same way as them and when they are forced to confront people who think differently, it’s increasingly a shouty exchange. I do think those things are undermining trust in our institutions but also just in one another.


MACDONALD: I need to ask you about something that has been in the news relating to the Labor Party over the weekend. This tragic story involving Bob Hawke's daughter Roslyn. Clearly there's a lot of dimensions, complicated dimensions to this story but he is said to have told her not to report it. This alleged rape. Does that change the way you view Bob Hawke and his legacy?


MCALLISTER: This is really a sad story and I don't think anyone who heard it wouldn't be moved by it. If people have allegations of sexual assault, I would always say, take them to the police. It's very difficult to comment any further because it is a matter that's the subject of legal proceedings but, of course it's hard not to be moved by Ms Dillan's story.


MACDONALD: So it changes the way you view him?


MCALLISTER: It's a really moving story. It's hard to comment any further. It is the subject of legal proceedings.


MACDONALD: Senator Jenny McAllister thank you very much for coming in this morning.


MCALLISTER: Thanks Hamish.


MACDONALD: Jenny McAllister is the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media.