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Facebook Australia Bans Foreign Political Ads As Fake News 'Weaponised' Ahead Of Election

A new Australian fact-checking tool will be introduced on Facebook and election ads from overseas will be blocked, as the social media giant prepares for a fake news onslaught during the coming federal election.

Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times following scandals in the 2016 American presidential election and the Brexit vote, where the personal data of users was allowed to be harvested for political purposes and shadowy foreign meddling helped swing votes.

Mark Zuckerberg's social media company has been excoriated for not doing more to prevent fake accounts being set up, and for allowing the rampant rise of fake political news.

Australia's compulsory voting system is credited for our political discourse not becoming as hyper-partisan and polarised as in the United States, but issues around interference and fake news have raised the attention of various politicians and parliamentary committees -- and now Facebook has announced some Australia-specific changes.

Photo: Getty.

In a year where one-third of the world's population will go to the polls -- with elections in India, the European Union, South Africa, Canada and, next month, Australia -- Facebook's role in spreading news and influencing public opinion has sparked calls for urgent reform in how the company does business.

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On Friday, Facebook unveiled a raft of sweeping changes to "safeguard elections in Australia", including banning political ads purchased from overseas, greater transparency over permitted ads, and the expansion of a third-party fact-checking tool to scrutinise news being shared.

"Our approach is multi-faceted and includes finding and removing fake accounts, reducing misinformation, disrupting bad actors and increasing ads transparency," Facebook's director of policy for Australia Mia Garlick said.

New regulations will govern Facebook during the Australian election. Photo: Getty Images

She outlined a range of changes coming to the platform over the next few weeks, including a plan to reduce the distribution of articles deemed to be fake news, removing fake accounts, and working with international news agency Agence France-Presse to remove misinformation.

"Once a story is rated as false, we show it lower in the News Feed. In our past experience, once a story is rated as false, we've been able to reduce its future views by more than 80 percent on average," Garlick said.

"We now have more than 30,000 people working on safety and security across Facebook, three times as many as we had in 2017. We have also improved our machine learning capabilities around political content and inauthentic behaviour, which allows us to better find and removing violating behaviour."

A federal election is expected to be called as early as this weekend. Photo: AAP

It is the latest safeguard announced around the upcoming election, expected to be called as early as Friday and to be held by mid-May, as concerns about fake news, hacking and foreign interference grow.

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Journalism academic Professor Peter Fray, co-director of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney, believes fake news has the potential to have a significant effect on the federal campaign.

"Without blaming them, social media platforms have weaponised fake news," he told 10 daily.

He raised the fake news 'Pizzagate' story from the United States, where right-wing social media groups spread a conspiracy theory that Democratic Party politicians were engaged in a child sex ring run from a pizzeria.

Facebook has made changes to "safeguard" the Australian election. Photo: AAP

"On the face of it, it was absurd, but it’s naive to think that [kind of story] couldn't exist here or that it couldn't be exploited. It wouldn't be by mainstream parties, but by partisan actors to exploit some fears," Fray claimed.

"Exploiting fears is stock for an election, but how that campaign gets iterated on the web, then bubbles up into social media and is spread, it’s impossible to say now we won't be affected by it. There’s certainly less of it here, and no major cases like Pizzagate, but I can't say it wont happen right here."

The Australian parliament has been considering issues relating to social media and politics for some time, with two major pieces of news coming just this week.

On Wednesday, the parliament passed a bill allowing for social media executives to face jail if their platforms broadcast terrorist attacks or other violent material; while the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) released a report into oversight issues for the Australian Electoral Commission, including "disinformation and cyber manipulation".

Facebook's effect on elections worldwide has been criticised and analysed. Photo: AAP

"While greater engagement in political and policy discussions has the potential to enhance our democracy, it also poses threats," the report said of social media concerns.

"Hostile strategic actors are attempting to sow division in society by weaponising controversial or misleading information."

The JSCEM report called on social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, to do more to stamp out disinformation and target malicious foreign actors. Various social platforms have long insisted that they are not publishers in the same way media companies are, and thus should not be subject to the same rules that govern how newspapers or television stations operate.

Fray said such scrutiny was overdue.

"This election is a really big test of that obligation," he told 10 daily.

"It’s no longer good enough to say they're just a platform in a debate, they have a bigger obligation to having a civil discourse and I hope they understand that."

Contact the author: jbutler@networkten.com.au