The Commission's Foreign Interference via Social Media submission was successful in influencing the Senate Select Committee's Final Report, which adopted eight of the Commission's nine recommendations either in part or in-full.
Social media is an integral aspect of everyday life, as it forms the foundation of many Australians’ communications online. For example, it was estimated in February 2022 that some 21.45 million Australians (or 82.7% of the population) had active social media accounts.
Given the indispensable nature of social media, foreign entities have correctly identified it as an effective and inexpensive environment to conduct interference operations to influence geopolitics, achieve strategic objectives and undermine democratic processes and human rights.
The risk posed by foreign interference through social media is a real and immediate concern.
In their most recent Annual Report, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) said that espionage and foreign interference have supplanted terrorism as Australia’s principal security concerns.
Cyberspace remains the ‘most pervasive vector for espionage’, and ‘[m]ultiple foreign governments are determined to interfere in Australia’s democracy and undermine our sovereignty’.
Social media as a tool for harm
The Commission is increasingly concerned about the negative impact that foreign interference through social media can have on democracy and human rights, highlighting three particular risks:
- misinformation and disinformation
- risks to privacy
- increasing censorship.
Misinformation and disinformation
Social media has become a breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation – being an easily accessible and relatively inexpensive tool that can spread content rapidly across a large population.
Both misinformation and disinformation can have devastating effects on human rights, social cohesion and democratic processes.
Disinformation is promoted by foreign actors (both state and non-state actors) to pursue their strategic interests and influence public opinion in Australia and abroad. Such content disseminates rapidly and inexpensively, making it useful in online interference operations.
Social media platforms collect vast amounts of personal data from their users, which third parties can access and use without the individual user’s knowledge or consent.
This can lead to invasions of privacy and the potential abuse of personal information. The right to privacy is a human right recognised in numerous international human rights instruments and treaties. Collecting private data by certain social media companies poses a particular risk to all people in Australia.
Social media platforms, which function as a digital ‘town square’ for free speech and self-expression, are increasingly affected by censorship.
In particular, social media is often subjected to extra-territorial censorship, where governments seek to suppress speech outside of their national borders.
The right to freedom of expression is often challenged in digital commons as users seek to express their views on various topics – from politics to religion to art online. However, there is often a competing tension on where to draw the line between freedom of expression and content moderation.
This is a line where reasonable minds may differ – however, moderation should not unduly impact free speech, nor should hateful content be allowed to prosper under the guise of freedom of expression.