Twelve months after the launch of The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, signatories to the code have provided their second annual transparency reports to peak industry body DIGI.
Highlights from these reports and the ongoing concerns from health groups about the inadequacy of the Code and Australia’s media policy more generally are outlined below by Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
The voluntary Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation aims to provide the public, industry and government different avenues to strengthen tech efforts to combat misinformation.
The Code has so far been adopted by eight signatories – Apple, Adobe, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Redbubble, TikTok and Twitter – which are required to report annually to DIGI on their performance against the terms of the code.
The transparency reports provide insights into the activities being undertaken by these companies to combat misinformation and disinformation, promote accurate information and to improve Australians’ media literacy.
In releasing the reports, DIGI Managing Director, Sunita Bose, stated “The code drives greater transparency and public accountability around tech efforts to address harmful misinformation, and DIGI looks forward to working with the incoming Government and others in our efforts to maximise its effectiveness.”
“The 2021 transparency reports provide new data on misinformation in Australia, and the many interventions to remove and flag fake claims and accounts, elevate reputable content and partner with researchers.”
Limitations of the Code
Croakey has previously written extensively about the threat to health and democracy posed by Australia’s current media landscape, including the opportunity this provided to spread disinformation about health issues during the recent federal election.
Our reporting has focussed on the impact of the lack of media diversity on public health, particularly important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and ethnically and linguistically diverse communities.
We have also reported on the concerns from public health experts and groups about the limitations of the DIGI Code to address the health impacts of their role in the Australian media landscape, including the following:
- Currently the Code is voluntary – this allows organisations to opt out if they do not wish to adhere to its guidelines.
- The provisions of the code only apply to digital media – there are different rules for mainstream media and other forms of communication such as text messaging (such as the one below sent out by the United Australia Party prior to the federal election, and another misleading text purporting to be from Medicare)
- There are no fines or penalties for failing to comply with the terms of the Code so that platforms are not compelled to take action if they violate its terms.
- The Code does not address some of the major drivers of the problems being caused by digital media, such as an underlying business model that rewards extreme views and leads to polarisation among users.
The importance of public interest journalism
The importance of a comprehensive approach to media policy and standards, addressing both mainstream and digital media, has also been raised by public sector experts, including former Secretary of the Department of Health, Andrew Podger.
Croakey has also argued repeatedly for increased support for public interest journalism, in particular in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic which has significantly reduced access to reliable and diverse sources of local, national and global news (see here for the archive of our stories on this issue).
One example of the failure of the mainstream media to cover an issue of public interest was the analysis of Australian media coverage on climate issues, undertaken for Croakey by journalist Lyndal Rowlands. This analysis identified many gaps and failures in how influential mainstream media publications and programs are covering this critical health, security and economic concern during the election campaign.
Reports from the platforms
Despite these significant limitations, the transparency reports provide some useful insights into activities being undertaken by the platforms to address the spread of false and misleading information and to promote accurate health advice during the pandemic. Some highlights from the reports are detailed below.
The report from Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta stated that in 2021 the company:
- Removed over 11 million pieces of content globally for violating Community Standards in relation to harmful health misinformation (over 180 000 of these were from Australia).
- Established a COVID-19 Information Centre to promote authoritative information to Facebook users which recorded 3.5 million visits from Australian users.
- Engaged third party fact-checking partners resulting in warnings on more than 190 million pieces of content on Facebook rated as false, partly false, altered or missing content.
- Removed over 3,000 accounts, pages, and groups for repeatedly violating rules against spreading COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.
Since September 2020, Twitter has added a new prompt so that when people retweet an article that they haven’t opened on Twitter, they are asked if they would like to open it first.
Twitter reported that their monitoring indicates that after being shown this alert people open articles 40 percent more often and are less likely to Retweet the article.
In response to COVID-19 mis- and disinformation, Twitter reported that it has focussed on removing “demonstrably false or potentially misleading content that has the highest risk of causing harm”, as well as “surfacing credible content from authoritative sources”.
These efforts include creating a curated COVID-19 tab in Explore, dedicated COVID-19 pages in the Explore tab, and Search Prompts for COVID-19 and vaccinations, in partnership with agencies such as the Australian Federal Department of Health or World Health Organization (WHO).
These search prompts mean that when people in Australia search certain keywords related to COVID-19 or vaccination on Twitter, a prompt appears at the top of the search bar, alerting them to credible sources.
Twitter has also worked with the Federal Department of Health to develop a timeline prompt to connect people on Twitter in Australia with the COVID-19 vaccine landing page from the Federal Department of Health.
TikTok reported on the increased rate of removal of videos from its platform over the reporting period. It also commented on efforts it has made during the Russian invasion of Ukraine to remove videos which misrepresented old video footage and pictures depicting violence, explosions and military personnel in other parts of the world as new.
With the support of the Australian Electoral Commission, TikTok launched an Election Guide in March 2022 to provide trusted and independent information to the Australian community. The Guide:
Efforts reported by TikTok to promote accurate information about COVID-19 include:
- working with NSW Health to stream Dr Kerry Chant’s LIVE Q&A, and livestream daily COVID-19 press conferences; and
- partnering with UNICEF Australia to launch an in-app COVID-19 vaccine content hub specifically for Australians.
Google reported on the numbers of ads, sites and pages blocked over 2021 for violating its guidelines, including:
- 3.4 billion ‘bad ads’ blocked or removed for policy violations
- 652.1 million ads blocked or removed for ‘Abusing the Ad Network’
- 38.1 million ads blocked or removed for violating misrepresentation policies
- 1.7 billion pages blocked or restricted for violating company policies
- 500,000+ pages with blocked ads that violated policies against harmful health claims related to COVID-19 and demonstrably false claims that could undermine trust and participation in elections
- 657,000+ creatives blocked from Australia-based advertisers for violating company misrepresentation ads policies.
In light of misinformation risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Google reported that it “continues to re-evaluate and update policies to help users make informed choices about COVID-19 related issues”.
In 2021, efforts in this area included working with health experts to develop a centralised hub that includes authoritative information and insights about COVID-19, as well as resources and tips for preventing the spread of the virus.
Google also provided grants to the World Health Organization (WHO) and global government entities provide ads on the Google.com search result pages to direct users to authoritative information regarding COVID-19.
Initiatives supported by Google in Australia over the past twelve months include partnering with:
- The Australian Associated Press (AAP) to provide translated fact checks to approximately 40 culturally and linguistically diverse publishers in Australia; and
- First Draft to assist publishers, including The Guardian, SBS and National Indigenous Television, to identify false, misleading and confusing claims over the federal election period.
Croakey will continue to advocate for strengthened regulation of digital platforms and a robust and comprehensive media policy, informed by public health, which supports diverse, independent media and public interest journalism.
We invite other health groups and consumers concerned about these issues and the impact of Australia’s current media environment on public health to join us in our advocacy efforts and to take the following actions:
- Make a complaint about false, misleading or inappropriate digital media activity using the portal on the DIGI website
- Report examples of false and misleading information to digital platforms
- Contribute to inquiries and consultation processes into regulation of digital platform (the ACCC has an ongoing inquiry focussing on competition issues and the concentration of power in this sector)
- Advocate for the implementation of recommendations from previous inquiries in this area (such as this one or this one )
- Support calls from former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd for a Royal Commission into the role of the Murdoch Media.
- Support organisations promoting public interest journalism
- Support high quality independent and local media, such as Croakey, Michael West Media, The Conversation and others by reading, subscribing and sharing their content.
- Join the debate on Twitter by following #RegulateDigitalPlatforms.
This story was edited to clarify that the 2022 reports were the second annual reports provided to DIGI and to update the comments by DIGI’s Managing Director to reflect those made by her on the release of these reports.
See Croakey’s archive of extensive articles on public interest journalism.