Digital Threats to Democracy with Reset Australia
The stability, cohesion, and strength of our society and democratic institutions relies on our ability to connect and communicate with one another. But how we do this is changing faster than ever before.
Unregulated tech giants control and dictate the information ecosystems of the public – shaping what we see, who we connect with, and the information we are served. This has created digital echo chambers rife with misinformation, conspiracy and hate speech, and enabled coordinated disinformation and astroturfing campaigns that drive polarisation and undermine the integrity of democracies.
In 2019, we designed, launched and incubated a new policy think tank and research organisation, Reset Australia to drive action on addressing the social harms caused by Big Tech. Reset Australia is the Australian affiliate of Reset – a global network of policy experts and leading thinkers combating digital threats to democracies across the globe.
Tech giants surveil us constantly, harvesting our personal data in order to serve us a curated feed of targeted ads and sensationalist content calculated to keep us hooked to the screen. The more of our attention they capture, the more personal data they collect. The more data they have, the more ads they can serve, and therefore the more profit they make. But this business model has consequences: the amplification of disinformation, bigotry, conspiracy and extremism, all of which normalises extreme views and fragments the public sphere.
When we launched Reset Australia in 2019, the prevailing view amongst the public and Parliament was that malicious individuals using these platforms were to blame for the streams of harmful content; that it is a consequence of platform design had not broken through to the public consciousness.
The Government of the time – and those before it – have approached this problem by focusing on stronger content moderation laws which were proving insufficient. Our opportunity was to expand this policy focus to include the systems, processes and designs of digital platforms – and to mobilise support for new legislation.
Australia has a strong history of regulating powerful industries in the public interest – and as a nation we’re particularly proud of previous victories against big industry, like those against the tobacco industry. But that challenge pales in comparison to taking on Big Tech, who have greater resources and influence over public narratives and behaviours.
The government’s first shot across the bow was the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry, which led to the legislation of the News Media Bargaining Code. And big tech was paying attention – Google even weaponised their search platform to warn consumers against the government reigning in their power, while Facebook shut down all news on its platform – as well as civil society, emergency services and some political party pages – in order to win concessions in the legislation.
Through an ecosystem analysis of the Australian data rights and policy sectors, we identified a gap where a new organisation was needed to engage the public, parliament, and industry on these issues – independently of partisan politics. An organisation that brought new policy ideas and expertise, through creative and savvy communications that could shape the national discourse on big tech policy.
Through partnership, we established Reset Australia to fill this gap. An independent, non-partisan think tank and research organisation committed to tackling digital threats to Australian democracy.
The organisation’s strategy is to make the societal harms caused by the platforms visible, to mobilise audiences to demand change, while shaping the policy direction toward data rights, privacy and transparency of the way the business model operates.
With a commitment to independence and addressing the threats to democracy for all Australians, Reset Australia recruited passionate board members and spokespeople from tech, civil society and politics, establishing a strong media strategy focused on supporting engaged MPs from both sides of the aisle to drive conversation and action.
If we deploy advocacy and public mobilisation campaigns to amplify an evidence-based policy agenda that sets fair rules and standards for social media companies, we can build the political cover for decision makers to prioritise policy that tackles digital threats to democracy.
Since launching in 2019, Reset Australia has become recognised as a leading policy organisation in Australia on issues relating to social media and democracy, developing strong connections within government, the public service and the civil sector.
Reset Australia has driven thought leadership and shaped media narratives on the issue to engage the public and key decision makers. This work has been coupled with briefings and events with a wide range of partners and parliamentarians.
Reset Australia has delivered multiple initiatives including ‘The Misinformation Medic’, the ‘COVID-19 Live list’, Clean up Social Media among others. Most recently Reset’s Election Radar tracked disinformation and hate speech during the 2022 Federal Election, providing policy briefings to decision makers and journalists.
Reset has influenced the development of several policies that govern how Big Tech companies operate in Australia, built an engaged public audience who can be mobilised to provide political cover for future reforms, and has brought new evidence and insights to inform policymakers on all sides of politics.
Children’s data code
With the Privacy Act 1988 under review, Reset Australia launched a campaign calling for a Children’s Data Code to regulate the way companies collect, use and monetise the personal data of young Australians, and ensure they operate in children’s best interests.
Building on the learnings of laws passed in the UK and Ireland, Reset Australia developed a set of policy asks in consultation with experts in the UK, as well as civil society organisations and young people in Australia. A coalition of aligned childrens, youth and mental health organisations joined Reset Australia in calling for reform.
With many MPs indicating this was not an issue that their constituents felt strongly about, Reset Australia worked to amplify the voices of concerned citizens, and in partnership with SumofUs recruited hundreds of people to send personalised letters to over 140 MPs.
In parallel, we released several research pieces to raise the salience and bring new evidence to the issue, including a piece around Facebook’s use of children’s data for advertising which exposed how these companies profiled teenagers interested in vaping, alcohol, tobacco, extreme weight loss and even online dating.
This work gained news coverage nationally and across the world, with our civil society colleagues in Germany and the US replicating the work to move their policymakers toward action. Shortly after the release of this report, Facebook sought to toughen the rules on advertising targeting children in the hope of delaying regulation.
This work heavily influenced the draft Enhancing Online Privacy Bill which included stronger protections for children in line with Reset Australia’s policy ask for the inclusion of the ‘best interest’ principle.
Election disinformation tracking and policy reform
In the lead up to the 2022 Australian Federal Election, Big Tech companies such as Facebook were laying claims to the safeguard measures they had in place to protect the integrity of the election. However, with no public oversight and little public information released on the actions they were taking it was unclear exactly what they planned to do and how they would demonstrate impact.
To hold the platforms to account and build an evidence base for policy reform, Reset Australia set up an Election Radar to investigate platform transparency, misinformation, disinformation and hate speech in the lead up to the Federal election.
The Election Radar was delivered via email as a weekly briefing to regulators, politicians, candidates, journalists and civil society groups which tracked how material was travelling across social media platforms to reach Australians preparing to vote. In-depth case studies were used to demonstrate how various actors weaponised the platform’s algorithms by capitalising on election moments. An example was how well-resourced anti-trans campaigners were able to massively amplify their hate speech and misinformation when the Liberal Party put forward a candidate who was part of their movement.
In parallel to the Election Radar, a series of tactics were launched to capture the media narrative and highlight the complicity of big tech in amplifying disinformation. One example was partnering with the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) on a research report which uncovered how YouTube’s algorithms recommend men anti-feminist and misogynistic content. With both parties campaigning on women’s safety, equality and wellbeing, this gained a significant amount of media attention, including on the ABC and SMH.
Through these efforts, Reset Australia was able to demonstrate the haphazard and inadequate response from the platforms, including in cases where there was a clear violation of their existing policies. The findings of the investigation have informed Reset Australia’s policy agenda and provide an evidence base of disinformation and lack of action to support future advocacy efforts.
Live list policy development and campaign
While social media companies profit from the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, public health officials are in the dark as to the types or levels of misinformation circulating online. With the vaccine on the horizon, responders needed access to this data to inform their communication and public health campaigns.
Through an extensive consultation process, Reset Australia developed a policy to respond to this need, which would provide a regulatory pathway for public health officials, researchers and journalists to access this data held by the digital platforms – all while ensuring the protection of individual privacy.
We built a broad coalition of support from heavyweight public health organisations and experts demanding greater data transparency from the social media platforms to aid in the COVID-19 response.
This was run in parallel with a broader public engagement campaign – Clean Up Social Media – to provide policy makers with the political cover of public support.
The Misinformation Medic
As the COVID-19 crisis emerged, there was widespread confusion around how the disease spread, where it had come from, and what the effective treatments were to manage it. This was fueled by social media platforms allowing misinformation to spread unchecked by public health officials.
We created an interactive educational quiz to educate the Australian public about COVID-19 misinformation and social media’s role in enabling and amplifying it.
More than 10,000 Australians signed on to demand that the Government do more to force transparency and action from Facebook, Twitter, and Google to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.
Facebook Fake News Experiment
While Facebook claims it is doing all it can to stop misinformation, the proliferation of fake news online suggests that wasn’t the case. To test how easy it is to spread fake news, we set up a fake Facebook page called ‘Ozzie News Network’ and created a number of false and dangerous ads to test the limits of what ads Facebook would approve for publication. These ads included COVID-19 pandemic misinformation urging users to turn off their 5G, drink more water and get 30 minutes of daily sunshine, as well as ads that pushed electoral disinformation, dog-whistle racism and 5G conspiracies.
The ads were all approved by Facebook and served to our custom audience list of over 100 Reset supporters who had consented to be part of the experiment. Even with our supporters reporting the ads to Facebook, no action from the platform was taken for months, until the story was reported on by the media, highlighting to the public the lack of action these platforms are taking to protect us.
With support from Purpose, the experiment was replicated by Global Witness to demonstrate Facebook’s failure to mitigate hate speech during other national elections.
Policy submissions and testimonies
In an effort to ensure robust policy and regulation, the Reset Australia team have made submissions to a number of public consultations to reinforce our policy foundations of transparency and oversight, data rights and ensuring the balance of power. These include The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, The Online Safety Act, News Media Bargaining code, Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation, Review of the Privacy Act and more.
Reset Australia has seen significant media coverage across their submissions, the team have been invited to speak at multiple inquiry hearings and their policy recommendations have been adopted by various MPs.
Recognised as an influential voice on the issue
Reset Australia has solidified themselves as an expert voice in this space, receiving requests from government and independent regulators, and have been invited to present at numerous parliamentary inquiries. They have built relationships and support across the aisle with government, opposition and crossbench MPs.
Increased the salience of the issue
The issue has been brought to the attention of the public and key decision makers through published opinion pieces in national papers such as The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald, commentary on morning TV programs like Sunrise and Today, appearances on podcasts and at events like Sydney Writers Festival and Osher Günsberg’s podcast, along with hundreds of points of coverage of our work through print, radio and online.
Increasing public engagement around the issue
Reset Australia have built a strong supporter base through public campaigning and events who we’ve called upon to participate in action against the platforms, support us with research initiatives and provide feedback on upcoming initiatives.
for Equity & Evidence