Electoral system facing potential misinformation threat

The upcoming federal election could be subject to heavy online misinformation campaigns, according to the Department of Defence.

Australians are being warned they should expect to be targeted by online influence and misinformation campaigns in the lead-up to the federal election, which must be held on or before 21 May.

In a report commissioned by the Department of Defence, researchers from Perth’s Edith Cowan University found that Australia remains susceptible to the kind of attacks made famous by political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica and the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency, also known as the ‘troll factory’.

Those groups use similar data-harvesting and online targeting techniques to those used by advertisers. But instead of pushing an ad for a product or service, users are being fed misinformation about their political opponents.

The intent is to influence voting patterns and, by extension, the entire electoral process.

Read: COVID misinformation shows the need for electoral reform

It’s suspected that these malicious online actors played a big role in the outcome of the last two US elections and the UK’s Brexit referendum. Now, authorities in Australia are worried the same tactics could be deployed here.

“Most people today have access to some form of social media. which means they are susceptible to manipulation and persuasion,” says Edith Cowan University online marketing expert Dr Stephanie Meek.

“Often the manipulative tactics used are not noticed by the target. The subversiveness of the persuasion is what is really concerning, especially for people who are already considered vulnerable.

“There are many entities who have the capacity to manipulate individuals to such a degree that it causes societal change – sometimes to the point where elections are won or lost.”

Read: The groups most likely to believe vaccine misinformation

Foreign governments or large-scale non-state organisations are now capable of collecting huge amounts of valuable information, which they then use to create a profile of a user. The profile is then used to target content to specific readers in a bid to influence their opinions in specific ways.

“They can not only get publicly available data, but also people’s private information, which can be used to build comprehensive profiles of millions of individuals,” Dr Meek says.

“Psychological profiling is then used to inform the design and creation of targeted content, which is dispersed through social media and can shift public opinion and change consumer behaviour on a massive scale.”

So what can you do to avoid misinformation online?

Read: Top election issues for older Australians

The Edith Cowan University researchers say there are a number of legislative steps that can be taken to combat misinformation.

First, a national code of practice to ensure the “ethical use of persuasive technologies that guarantees protection of liberal democratic principles”.

Essentially, this would be a set of enforceable regulations governing this type of communication, in a similar manner to the way media and advertising are regulated.

The research team also recommends developing a strategy to gain access to the data used by these groups, then creating targeted counter-information in an effort to correct the misinformation.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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