In coming weeks, public servants and others will be assessing submissions to a consultation on planned Federal Government legislation that seeks to tighten regulation of digital platforms and their management of misinformation and disinformation.
In Croakey Health Media’s submission, we stressed the importance of transparency, accountability and deliberative community engagement, and urged that a comprehensive public education campaign be undertaken, with a particular focus on educating communities about their rights to a safe online environment, and empowering communities to contribute to greater accountability of digital platforms.
Our submission also highlighted the importance of a whole-of-government response and whole-of-community strategy for envisioning a safe, reliable and relevant news and information system. We stressed the importance of policies to support development of a more diverse and sustainable news and information system.
Meanwhile, the latest news from the Public Interest Journalism Initiative underscores the importance of efforts to address “news deserts”, and to address inequities in access to trusted and trustworthy local sources of news and information.
PIJI reports that Australia has 148 fewer news outlets than in January 2019, with 169 new outlets opening and 317 closing since then.
PIJI’s mapping of print and digital publishers and radio broadcasters shows that regional and remote areas – particularly in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia – have lower news density than other parts of Australia.
When radio broadcasters are excluded from this analysis, PIJI reports that some areas, particularly in regional Queensland and the NT, appear to have no print or digital news producers present in them at all. Some suburban local government areas in Melbourne and Sydney also have a low density of local digital and print publications.
Five local government areas do not have any print or digital publishers or local radio news producers: Belyuen Shire, NT; Central Highlands Council, Tas; Flinders Council, Tas; Mornington Shire, QLD; and Shire of Upper Gascoyne, WA.
Thirty local government areas are without local print or digital news publishers – six more than in March this year, according to PIJI’s latest Australian News Data Report.
According to PIJI’s data, of 546 local government areas with at least one news producer, almost a quarter (131, 24 percent) have fewer outlets now than at the beginning of 2019. Only 85 (15 percent) have more producers over the same period.
Clearly, the report highlights significant issues for the rural and remote health sector’s consideration.
Executive summary from Croakey Health Media’s submission
Croakey Health Media strongly supports efforts to more effectively regulate digital platforms in order to stop the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation. It should be acknowledged that in Australia, digital platforms are operating upon the Country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and therefore have a particular responsibility to ensure their cultural safety and wellbeing.
In this submission, we make several recommendations aimed at ensuring such efforts integrate the expertise of First Nations peoples and organisations, public health people and organisations and wider civil society, and provide greater transparency and accountability to communities. Cultural safety should be integrated into the design and implementation of these structures and processes.
Croakey asserts the importance of acknowledging the community’s right to a safe online environment in the legislation. The right to freedom of speech must be balanced against this right, as well as respects for the wider rights of community members who use the internet. The rights of children and others who are most likely to suffer harm from an unsafe online environment must be prioritised.
We also stress the importance of transparency, accountability and deliberative community engagement as part of this legislation. These matters are too important for the health and wellbeing of communities and democracy to be left to governments and agencies working directly with powerful corporations and their representatives in ways that are not always transparent or accessible to the wider community.
In the interests of transparency, we urge that the Government and all MPs disclose the lobbying efforts that have been undertaken by the digital platforms and other relevant parties, such as corporate media, in relation to this legislation. This should include details of all donations to political parties and individual MPs, related meetings, gifts and any other lobbying activities.
Croakey also notes that “freedom of expression” is often used as a justification to enable the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation, including racism and hate speech directed at particular communities. It is critical that the voices and concerns of these communities be privileged in designing, implementing and evaluating this legislation and associated activities.
We also note that there are many other policy areas meriting attention in order to support greater freedom of speech within Australia, including reform to support a more diverse media and news and information ecosystem, with targeted support for public interest journalism. Concerted efforts are needed to end the market dominance of powerful corporations such as Google, Meta and News Corp, and to ensure that all communities – geographic and interest-based – have access to safe, reliable and relevant news and information.
We believe that legislative approaches like this are only one part of the overall response that is needed. We urge the development of a whole-of-government and whole-of-community strategy for envisioning a safe, reliable and relevant news and information system, acknowledging that online platforms are enmeshed with other elements of the news and information system.
This is particularly important in an era of escalating climate-related disasters, where emergency and reliable communications will become ever more important.
Our submission included the following comments:
Professor Kathryn Backholer
Co-Director, Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition
Institute for Health Transformation, School of Health and Social Development, Faculty of Health
National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow
Fellow of the Public Health Association of Australia (FPHAA)
Vice president (Development), Public Health Association of Australia
“The Bill is an important safeguard for our digital information ecosystems. Misinformation and disinformation can be dangerous – we saw this during COVID where foreign disinformation campaigns pushed anti-vaccination messages through social media platforms, leading to drop in mean vaccination coverage. And with the rise of generative AI, there is potential that the spread of mis and disinformation through the internet will only get worse. The Bill strikes the right balance between freedom of expression and preventing the spread of harmful content online. Online platforms already have measures in place to manage mis and disinformation through industry Codes – the Bill will just make sure that this process is systematic, regular and transparent. The Coalition supported this type of regulation when it was in government and had committed to hold social media giants to account before the last election.”
Dr Becky White
Digital health researcher
Adjunct Research Fellow, Curtin University
“Transparency is important, both on the part of the platforms and on how the Bill is being implemented and monitored – maybe this is still to come. I’d be interested in hearing how the public can participate, will there systems for them to highlight concerns, what actually triggers the platforms being requested to produce evidence on action, is this routine or triggered by an action, and what information will be made public? I also agree about the input into serious harm as it’s not clear how broad a view it would take or how the assessment is made. More broadly from a public health perspective, misinformation and disinformation is important but it’s one part of how people navigate the information environment. There are lots of other components to consider when considering how misinformation impacts communities and how it can be mitigated.”
Director of the Australian Health Promotion Association
Councillor-Elect, Australasian Epidemiology Association
Committee Member, Public Health Association of Australia (NSW)
A/Fellow, Australasian College of Health Service Managers
Fellow, Royal Society for Public Health
Fellow, Royal Society of Medicine
Fellow, Governance Institute of Australia
“The Exposure Draft Bill is an important step in addressing the current onslaught of misinformation and disinformation, which has serious negative impacts on the health of the Australian community through undermining trust in public health communications, activities, and engagement. However, given that it is only really addressing matters that are already in the public domain, there are serious concerns that its effectiveness may not be as impactful as hoped. Significant and immediate efforts have to be made in addressing the broader determinants in which misinformation and information are created and exist with a particular focusing on preventive actions such as building health literacy and supporting those most at risk. The exclusion of government entities from the content scope of the Exposure Draft Bill may also raise eyebrows and concerns. In particular this may serve to inadvertently undermine trust and solidarity in government public health activities in times of emergency, disaster, or as we have recently seen with COVID-19, pandemics.”
Croakey thanks and acknowledges all who contributed to our submission and related discussions and events.
Update on 25 August: See the submission from the Local and Independent News Association, which states
“LINA shares the Commonwealth’s concerns about the threat posed by the circulation of misinformation and disinformation across communities. We observe the impact that rising levels of misinformation and disinformation, coupled with polarised media, can have on democracy and social cohesion. It is prudent to take steps to mitigate risks to public safety, including health, caused by the distribution of misinformation and disinformation.
“Further, as generative artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more and more accessible to content-makers, the risk of ‘deep-fakes’ and other forms of misinformation heightens, making the introduction of the proposed Bill timely.
“News media has a role in addressing misinformation and disinformation through: directly contradicting commonly misunderstood or misinterpreted information; reporting fact-based information accurately; and providing a trusted source of information for audiences. Hyperlocal and independent news publishers attract high levels of trust due to their strong connections to the communities they serve.”
See other policy submissions by Croakey