The Federal Government should commission and fund public health experts to make recommendations for regulating the digital platforms to address the tide of disinformation and misinformation that is threatening global health.
The submission, which will also be sent to Health Minister Greg Hunt and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, is critical of the draft code released for consultation and the discussion paper that informs it.
“We do not believe this discussion paper takes a sufficiently rigorous approach to reviewing the public health impacts of the current tide of misinformation and disinformation, and investigating a full range of options for tackling this massive problem,” the submission says.
Many important public health concerns related to disinformation and misinformation are not addressed in the discussion paper; for example, the spread of racism, hate-speech, and white supremacy. Climate denialism and related misinformation receive only cursory mention.
Croakey’s submission recommends:
- The Federal Government appoint an independent committee of appropriately qualified public health experts to report on the public health impacts of disinformation and misinformation and to make evidence-based recommendations for policy reform, drawing upon the public health literature. This committee should include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and organisations. It should include specific consideration of policies and strategies for addressing the spread of racism, hate speech and white supremacy as part of the tide of disinformation. The Federal Government should fund its work, to ensure independence and also to recompense organisations and individuals for their time, noting that the sector is under great pressure.
- The capacity of the public interest journalism sector to investigate disinformation and misinformation should be strengthened through policy reform. This should be done independently of the digital platforms to avoid conflicts of interest. The potential of regulation of the digital platforms to generate funding for public interest journalism should be explored [beyond the Mandatory Code now being developed to govern commercial relationships between media publishers and the digital platforms].
In the submission, Croakey Health Media argues that the most effective way to approach the global tide of disinformation and misinformation is through using public health frameworks and methodologies, which have been successful in tackling other public health concerns, such as tobacco, road safety and air pollution.
“We note, however, the almost complete absence from the discussion paper of the public health literature that would be useful to help inform development of this code, especially during a time of global public health crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change,” the submission says.
It says that global efforts to control COVID-19 have been undermined by the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media, and notes that the World Health Assembly has called on Member States (including Australia) to take measures to counter misinformation and disinformation.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and other agencies issued a joint statement in September stating that “the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardizes measures to control the pandemic”.
The history of public health shows, says the submission, that industries under regulatory pressure often promote self-regulation as a mechanism for delaying or avoiding regulation that is in the public interest.
The disinformation code’s development has been driven by the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), a non-profit industry association that advocates for the interests of the digital industry in Australia, with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Verizon Media as its founding members.
“It is therefore not surprising that the discussion paper is essentially putting forward an argument by the industry for self-regulation whilst also promoting the actions now being taken by various companies,” the submission says.
Croakey recommends that the code be designed to centre the public interest: “This would require representatives of the public interest to have the dominant voice in its development and on all related governance structures. The public interest in relation to the code is not defined or made explicit. It should be.”
The submission says the proposed code lacks teeth: “It is opt-in and members can withdraw at any time. There are no sanctions. There is a lack of clarity around the reporting and complaints arrangements.”
The Croakey Health Media submission notes the findings of a recent inquiry by a United States House of Representatives committee, “Investigation of competition in digital markets. Majority staff report and recommendations”, which investigated the market power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. It outlined potential benefits of systemic reform and regulation of the digital platforms that are important for both public interest journalism and public health.
The inquiry found companies were using their dominant market power in ways that weaken democracy; erode diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation; degrade privacy online; and undermine the a free and diverse press.
In such an environment, says the Croakey Health Media submission, it is unrealistic to expect that an opt-in, self-regulatory code will have any significant impact upon the tide of disinformation and misinformation.
DIGI’s consultations on the code closed on 24 November. The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) told Croakey it had not made a submission.
DIGI told Croakey they would publish all submissions at a date yet to be decided, but are waiting on submissions from several interested parties who asked for an extension of time.
“When submissions are published you will be able to ascertain the range of interests which have engaged with the issues,” a spokeswoman said. “The next step in the process is for us to review the submissions.”
In December 2019, the Australian Government asked the digital industry to develop a code of practice on how digital products and services would address disinformation.
Croakey Health Media thanks public health consultant Kristy Schirmer, of ZockMelon Health Promotion and Social Media Consulting, for her contributions to the submission.
See a related Twitter thread by Croakey’s Dr Melissa Sweet.
On Twitter, contribute to and follow the discussions at #RegulateDigitalPlatforms