National news agency Australian Associated Press has been overwhelmed by an influx of dubious social media posts relating to the national bushfire crisis that it must fact-check on behalf of partner Facebook.
AAP chief executive Bruce Davidson said his fact-checking team had been working through “dozens and dozens” of suspect posts relating to the bushfires this week, with areas of concern ranging from misleading images to false political claims.
The surge in false and misleading posts on social media websites about the causes of the bushfires has led to concerns among politicians and academics, who have urged the public to be careful when reading online content.
“We are contracted by Facebook to look at a queue that is serviced by algorithms on Facebook that surfaces any potentially suspect posts,” Mr Davidson said. “Right now it is all bushfires. There are dozens and dozens of suspect posts… Some are political, some are photos, some are scams.”
Mr Davidson’s comments come as Communications Minister Paul Fletcher urged the Australian public to maintain a “healthy scepticism” about bushfire-related information they read online.
“Sadly we have seen this bushfire emergency lead to significant amounts of disinformation online – and this is a reminder that disinformation online is a significant problem,” Mr Fletcher said.
He urged people to rely on news from government bodies and trusted media outlets during emergencies.
Online posts featuring misleading images, reports about the scale of the fires and its cause have been spread on social media platforms. On Wednesday the hashtag #ArsonEmergency was trending nationally, with users using it to critique the link between bushfires and climate change, a topic which raised concerns with social media analysts.
Mr Fletcher said the government would be asking platforms like Facebook and Twitter to develop voluntary codes of conduct to address disinformation on their platforms, as outlined in its response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the market power of the platforms announced late last year. He added any crackdown on fake news needed to be balanced with freedom of speech.
Labor communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland called for “further action” by the government, saying the spread of misinformation about the bushfires needed to be taken into account.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale, whose party has been the subject of some of the questionable online material, suggested the posts might be part of a “coordinated, complex and sustained” campaign.
“These sustained attacks are intended to muddy the waters, confuse voters and divert attention from critical issues like climate change,” he said, calling on the social media platforms to do more.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said scams relating to donations for bushfire victims were an example of why a code of conduct needed to be implemented.
“The code of conduct we recommended was to have quite clear processes to take things down, and for those processes to be monitored by ACMA. This is an example of the sort of thing to be taken down,” Mr Sims said.
“It’s got to be clearly false as opposed to something someone believes is false and that is a tricky line. I don’t think you can take it to the bushfires at this stage, it is too contested.”
Twitter Australia said it cared “deeply” about the harmful effect spread of misinformation could cause, however, it does not have a policy which allows it to validate the accuracy of content. Twitter will only take action when disinformation specifically violates existing policies.
“Everyone has a role to play in ensuring misinformation doesn’t spread on the internet, and we encourage people who use Twitter not to share information unless they can verify that it’s true,” a Twitter spokesman said.
Facebook Australia spokeswoman Antonia Sanda similarly said the social media was focused on removing content and accounts which violated policies.
“We work with independent third-party fact-checkers who review and rate the accuracy of stories, photos and videos. We also encourage people to report when they see false news,” Ms Sanda said.
Mr Davidson said AAP was doing as much as it could with resources allocated, but argued a bigger team would be needed moving forward.
“In our territory, we would probably concentrate on trying to debunk people who are making claims about facts and a lot of those are around political statements or statements that ‘so and so’ has done something, which aren’t true. Those are more important than some imagery,” he said.
Australian Associated Press is jointly owned by Nine, publisher of this masthead, News Corp Australia and Seven West Media.
Monash University’s Carlo Kopp, who has been researching fake news and propaganda since the 1990s, said once misleading information is disseminated, it can spread as quickly as the plague.
“Viral or bacterial epidemics are controlled by quarantining the source of the contagion, controlling the pests spreading the contagion, and immunising its potential victims,” Dr Kopp said. “If we apply this approach to fake news, it suggests shutting down producers of fake news, preventing its spread via social and mass media, and immunising the public and media by teaching people to be sceptical and cautious, rather than gullible.”
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