The Victorian Parliament’s electoral matters committee has launched an inquiry that will look at the impact of online media on election outcomes, and whether the Victorian Electoral Commission should be doing more to hold web users to account for what they say.
Committee chair and Liberal MP Bernie Finn told iTnews that in his eyes, “technology has outstripped the law”. He believes it is time to take a proper look at the influence of online communication in the lead up to polls.
Legislation governing state elections explicitly prohibits the distribution of information that “is likely to mislead an elector in relation to the casting of their vote” and demands that political candidates or representatives of campaigning groups put their names and addresses to any information they spread.
Finn believes allowing web users to operate outside of these regulations sets a dangerous precedent.
“It would be very easy to launch a smear campaign over social media without any accountability at all,” he said. “We have a situation in Victoria where the government holds a one member majority in parliament. An anonymous Twitter campaign could decide the election, so this is very serious stuff.”
Back in February, Finn and the committee heard from the Victorian Greens about their own brush with what some view as a deficiency in the law.
Greens candidates Ann Birrell and Serge Thomann became the targets of a Google AdWords campaign during the last state election in late 2010, which saw searches for their names hijacked by top-of-page ads rallying abuse like “don’t trust sleazy Serge” and “celebrity obsessed paparazzo? Or something far more sinister?”
As the candidates discovered when they reported the incident, the Victorian Electoral Commission is more or less powerless to compel foreign-owned Google to take down content.
When contacted directly by the Victorian Government Solicitor, Google advised it would not heed the request to take down the content unless it was in receipt of an order signed by judge or a magistrate, which the government was unable to supply.
Despite these concerns, managing director of digital democracy consultancy Delib Craig Thomler warned the committee and the VEC against wasting their time trying to control the uncontrollable.
“You can’t stop people commenting on social media and forums when they could be anywhere in the world, and any one of the 2.5 billion active internet users globally,” he said.
“It is impossible to enforce, especially within the timeframes required to be effective in the context of an election campaign.”
The state should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of its neighbours in South Australia, who were forced to repeal an extremely short-lived ban on anonymous political comments online following a barrage of public criticism in early 2010, he advised.
Instead, Thomler suggested the government follow the lead of police and emergency services who have enjoyed success combating misinformation online by establishing a single source of truth and directing people to it via social media.
“A more rational solution would be for the VEC to compile party policies online in a standardised format where readers can compare apples to apples, away from the prejudices of political advertising. Candidates and the commission could then refer voters to this site via social media to correct any misinformation.”
The committee is yet to set a date for inquiry hearings, but will be inviting submissions from the public and stakeholders imminently. It has warned that its recommendations might not be finalised in time for the upcoming Victorian election scheduled for the end of this year.