Social media companies should commit to taking down unauthorised political material in agreed timeframes to combat misinformation in elections, according to the Australian electoral commissioner, Tom Rogers.
At a briefing on the 2022 election on Thursday, Rogers said the Australian Electoral Commission still relies on social media companies to “do the right thing” but would push for a “detailed agreement” in future.
Rogers also warned that any misinformation about the result of the election “would be not only be disappointing [but] outrageous”, suggesting the AEC will take a hard line in the event of any baseless Trump-style claims of a stolen election.
The AEC is preparing its biggest and most complex election yet, a $400m exercise that will employ more than 100,000 workers to help 17 million enrolled Australians to vote during a global pandemic.
Rogers told reporters in Canberra that voters would face “larger wait times” at polling places due to Covid health measures including check-in QR codes and social distancing.
The AEC is making vaccination a condition of employment for its temporary workers, but has no power to mandate vaccination for others, including party workers or volunteers who scrutinise the counting of ballots.
The experience of mid-pandemic byelections in Eden Monaro and Groom suggests a huge growth in postal voting at the 2022 election, while prepoll voting has been trimmed from three to two weeks by legislative changes made before the pandemic.
Depending on how close the election is, more postal votes could mean the AEC has to wait for the full 13-day period for ballots to be returned before declaring the result in more seats.
Asked what would happen if sections of the community questioned the result, as occurred in the 2020 US presidential election, Rogers replied that Australia has one of the most transparent and fair election processes in the world.
“If we see some of the stuff we’ve seen in overseas jurisdictions … that would be not only disappointing but frankly outrageous.
“If there is that sort of outrageous misinformation … We’ll certainly defend the process and [we have] very broad powers to advise the public, parliament and the government on everything to do with the ballot.”
Rogers said the AEC had no role “censoring anyone” and Australians have a “right to believe and say” things including “the Earth is flat”.
Although it has no role in assessing the truth of political material, misleading voters about the process of voting is an offence, and the commission also takes a “fairly assertive stance on social media” by countering misleading claims, he said.
AEC officials said that social media companies swiftly take down material that lacks a political authorisation declaring its source, but material that allegedly breaches social media companies’ policy can take longer to remove.
Rogers said that the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand is working on a protocol with Digi, an industry group representing major search and social media companies, to include standards on take-down times.
“In the long term we’ve got to get that in place … On the broader point about is there a detailed agreement, in the long term, my own view is there has to be, including very, very clear and timely standards for take-down,” he said.
Labor has criticised Facebook for refusing to take down fake news about the “death tax” claims made against it in the 2019 election campaign.
Despite a push from crossbench and independents for “truth in political advertising” laws, the government has not considered new laws to ban false claims.
In December the AEC launched legal action against Liberal MP Andrew Laming for allegedly failing to disclose his political links on a Facebook page which appeared to be operating under the guise of a grassroots community group.