Zali Steggall MP speaks on addressing misinformation and disinformation

11 September 2023

I rise to speak on this motion moved by the member for Banks. Whilst I agree that there are significant concerns with the proposed government legislation, I want to be very clear that I do support that the government needs to address misinformation and disinformation. We only have to look at what is happening daily on social media platforms around the debate on the referendum to see how important it is to address misinformation and disinformation.

I do find it incredible that both sides of this House can't come together on this issue. When we stop and look at the events of the US 6 January uprisings, they were very much fuelled by misinformation and disinformation. It should really be a testament to all of us as to how precious democracy can be but also how quickly you can erode trust in outcomes. That's why it is so important to address misinformation and disinformation.

In this bill, the member for Banks is calling on the government to admit that its plan is deeply flawed and to bin the bill, but that is just wiping your hands of any responsibility to fix this problem. So, yet again, I have an issue with the opposition in this respect. Some of the criticisms raised are the exemption of governments, academics and others from the application of the powers concerning misinformation and the inappropriate breadth of the definition of misinformation itself.

Whilst I agree, in general, with some of these criticisms, there are many others that we need to really consider. I have to object to the idea that the response is just to bin the bill. A productive, useful opposition comes to the table to actually work out better legislation that will keep all of our community safe from misinformation and disinformation. We need to acknowledge the problem of misinformation and disinformation and seek to grapple with the issue it purports to address, so it's just not enough to say bin it and leave it at that.

The public is greatly concerned with misinformation and disinformation, especially on online platforms where we know the vast majority of news and information is consumed, especially by younger generations. According to a Roy Morgan survey, over two-thirds of Australian adults felt they had been exposed to deceptive news items. Another study found that a quarter of a sample felt they had read stories that were completely made up. More recently, the Australia Institute's exit poll of the 2022 election found that 73 per cent of Australians came across misleading political advertising during the election campaign, and this last finding is particularly disturbing as it strikes at the very heart of our democratic system.

Social media companies and the power they have when it comes to the dissemination of news and information on digital platforms—the current major players of the digital platform area are keenly alive to the public's dissatisfaction with the ineffective regulation of online content. They are openly involved in developing codes for self-regulation, notably the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation 2021, commonly known as the DIGI code. Ironically it was the coalition government who were the keen supporters and developers of that code and often hid behind this voluntary code when asked to do more to regulate this sector. But the issue is clearly of major concern to the digital platform providers. The success of this code is yet to be evaluated, as it was only introduced 2021, but the issue is obviously not going to go away, and the public is open to attempts to curb the more sinister and pernicious effects of rampant disinformation and misinformation online.

I have two major concerns with the current approach, which I address to both major parties. Ultimately, neither side has been in a hurry to address misleading and deceptive political advertising, in particular in relation to the referendum. I've proposed solutions in a private member's bill. This reform is long overdue and is supported by voters of both persuasions. We know that it's a concrete and manageable target that can be achieved by existing and well-tried concepts that are familiar to the courts in relation to misleading and deceptive conduct, without introducing difficult and challengeable concepts, such as 'misinformation' and 'disinformation'. So we do need to look at these issues, but I am concerned by the proposal of the government that wide ranging powers of this kind over digital platform providers should be entrusted to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. ACMA's performance in regulating existing broadcast media is questionable, and I call on the government to publish a full and independent assessment of ACMA's current performance.