Fix foreign interference approach or risk 2022 federal election integrity, govt told

Labor senator Jenny McAllister. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Labor senator Jenny McAllister. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The federal government will need to clean up its "complicated, onerous" approach to social media disinformation campaigns ahead of the next federal election or risk facing disunity and distrust from the public.

In its interim report, released Friday, Labor senator and committee chair Jenny McAllister said while witnesses and experts had said Australia had yet to be the target of any large-scale, coordinated attempts, it was not a reason for inaction.

"Experiences from overseas show us there are some foreign actors who also seek to introduce discord and social conflict as an aim unto itself," the report said.

"Technological developments mean that these actors have more options available than ever before to influence Australia's processes."

During a committee hearing in July this year, officials from the Home Affairs, Finance and Attorney-General's departments, along with the Australian Electoral Commission, told senators about the processes in place to tackle disinformation campaigns should they occur.

But there was confusion over areas where responsibilities overlap between the departments and dedicated taskforces.

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The committee's report said the cross-agency responsibilities and arrangements for taking on foreign interference were "complicated, onerous and lacked transparency".

While the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce has existed since 2018, its terms of reference have never been publicly published.

The report outlined the taskforce appeared to have a clear remit to combat foreign interference through social media but there was external confusion surrounding its scope and its apparent inactivity to "clearly communicate its approach to the upcoming federal election".

The Labor-dominated committee recommended the federal government give one agency lead responsibility and accountability for cyber-enabled foreign interference in the lead up to the election.

It also narrowed in on the electoral integrity taskforce's work, proposing it publicly release its terms of reference, undertake an audit of its capability in detecting disinformation.

A report into the functioning of the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation undertaken by communications watchdog the Australian Communications and Media Authority should be publicly released as a matter of priority, the report recommended.

Liberal senator Jim Molan. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Liberal senator Jim Molan. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Liberal senator Jim Molan said he agreed with parts of the majority report but would issue his concerns with the report's conclusions early next year.

The Home Affairs Department told the committee it had seen some campaigns unfold in Australia, including tweets in 2017 relating to related to terrorist attack in Victoria's Brighton and an Etihad airlines bomb plot from Sydney International Airport, both associated with an entity from the same foreign government.

Researchers from government-funded defence think tank ASPI said financially-motivated actors from Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia used "nationalistic and Islamophobic content to target and manipulate Australian Facebook users" during the 2019 federal election.

During an October estimates hearing, Home Affairs Department secretary Mike Pezzullo attempted to clarify the government's response following the confusion that arose during the committee hearing months prior.

He said combatting disinformation was a bit like the government taking on a proverbial elephant.

"Someone's got the trunk, someone's got the tail, someone's got the ears," he told senators.

"[Home Affairs] plays a partner role - we don't administer the Electoral Act, we support the Department of Finance and the AEC."

Senator McAllister told a National Security College podcast she was concerned the lack of responsibility could lead to decisions being made on the fly.

"This is something the government could fix," she said.

"Quite simply, I think all of the agencies are aware of the risks, they are thinking about them.

"But what's required is some leadership from the top to really bring this to a close and to identify which agency is going to take the lead and to define the scope of their responsibilities."

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This story Govt 'naive' to dismiss foreign interference threat in 2022 election first appeared on The Canberra Times.