On Sunday, November 28, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announced he would introduce legislation to parliament this week, the last sitting week of the year, that would force social media companies to reveal the identities of anonymous trolling accounts to allow them to be sued for defamation1.
This would force social media companies to set up a complaints process, where people can ask for the content to be taken down if they feel it is defamatory towards them. If the post is not taken down, the user can ask for the personal details of the person who posted the content. If they do not agree to release those details, a court order can be made, forcing the company to release them – and opening up an avenue for the complainant to sue for defamation1. However, cyberhate expert and author of the book ‘Troll Hunting’, Ginger Gorman, said the legislation will not do enough to combat online abuse: “Overall I’d say this is far too little, too late”. In Germany, social media platforms can be fined up to €50m if they do not delete posts containing racist, defamatory or otherwise illegal speech within 24 hours. This demonstrates how governments could take action if they were serious1. However, Morrison is not serious. He certainly does not want to upset the trolls who attack those to whom he is opposed, lest those trolls feel affronted and not vote for him.
Like much of the legislation the government is now promoting, this has little to do with the actual problem (misogyny, racism, violence threats etc.), it is designed to appeal to a certain sector of the community that believes that it is only anonymity that is the major problem. After all, if someone trolls you on social media (as has happened to me), it is quite simple to mute them, whereby they shout into the ether, oblivious to the fact that you cannot see their rubbish; or you can block them, whereby they know that you don’t want to see what they post; or if the posts are harmful or threatening, you can report them and their account will either be temporarily or permanently suspended.
In reacting to this proposed legislation, the peerless Ronni Salt tweeted:
“I’m being very diplomatic here, but Scott Morrison should be very careful what he wishes for when he says he wants to drag out certain social media accounts into the daylight. He may find some things are much closer to home than he’d like. Uncomfortably so.”
I opined, rather naively, that:
I think it is largely another announcement, solely for the election campaign.
Ronni Salt replied
Yes, the usual piss and wind. But as I said – he should be careful what he wishes for. Not everyone close to him is under his eye2.
Trolling and fake social media accounts, along with paid bots are common techniques used by the Liberal Party to boost their profile or to denigrate others. There are numerous cases which have come to light in the last few years. Here are some.
In early 2019, a NSW Liberal Party candidate, Jaimie Abbott, had her personal Facebook account suspended, after it was linked to fake accounts that trolled her opponent, the sitting Labor MP for Port Stephens, Kate Washington. The Liberal Party initially denied any involvement, but later conceded Facebook had suspended Abbott’s account as well as the account of a parliamentary staffer, Tasman Brown, who worked for Liberal Member of the Legislative Council, Catherine Cusack. Brown had administration rights to Abbott’s personal accounts3.
The bizarre Liberal National (LNP) MP for the federal Queensland seat of Bowman, Andrew Laming, operated more than 30 Facebook pages and profiles. He used the sites to promote political material and attack his Labor opponents through pages classified with Facebook as ‘community’ and ‘news’ groups. None of the pages include political authorisation disclosures as they should have done. One Facebook page operating as the ‘Redland Bay Bulletin’ – which uses a similar name to the local news site the ‘Redland City Bulletin’ – was set up by Laming in October 2015 claiming to be a ‘community group’. The page claimed to “update the issues and keep a close eye on politicians and their promises” in the Redlands area, but it posts frequent links to Liberal National Party advertising and attacks on the Labor party. Another Facebook page used by Laming claims to be the ‘Redlands Institute’ which was fictitious and claimed to be a “forum for balanced discussion of major issues”. It was registered with Facebook as an ‘education’ group and posted climate change denialism, calling it “apocalyptic environmentalism” and spread anti-Labor and anti-Greens propaganda, while linking to LNP material4.
Laming had also trolled two women, one of whom was charity worker Alix Russo who Laming accused falsely of misappropriating money. The other, Sheena Hewlett, a teacher and wife of a local councillor, said Laming requested her teaching timetable from her school and in 2019 hid in bushes as well as took photos of her in a public park. She reported the incidents to the police. Queensland Labor MP Kim Richards, whose state seat overlaps the federal electorate of Bowman, said she felt the need to block Laming on Facebook six years ago because of derogatory posts about her, including what she termed misogynistic drivel5.
Craig Kelly’s staffer Frank Zumbo has also set up over 30 Facebook groups specific to Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. These groups cover a range of topics — from general groups like ‘Living in Sutherland’ to specific interests like ‘Sutherland Shire Pool Players’ — but all are linked by their geographic location. The groups have all been created by Zumbo while he has been employed by Kelly6.
Perhaps the funniest of these instances was in mid-2019 from the then Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, who on his official Facebook page announced an extra 1,000 parking spots at Campbelltown railway station, which sits in the electorate next to his of Hume. Four hours later, he replied to himself using his official account rather than his fake account, saying “Fantastic. Great move. Well done Angus”. This latter post was removed very soon thereafter7.
These are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Back in 2013, the Coalition realised that they had to do something on social media as many of their members and rusted on voters did not use them. Suddenly, people on Twitter and Facebook began to notice that the number of ‘likes’ and number of followers on then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s and the Coalition’s accounts began to increase. Some even estimated the Liberal Party and their accounts gained more than 100,000 Facebook ‘likes’ in a single week. Twitter users reported being spammed by users promoting Tony Abbott’s announcements and Coalition policies more generally. What was strange was that multiple accounts repeated the same message, often word for word. Analysis at the time demonstrated that the accounts sending these messages weren’t even from Australia. Many of them attempting to make the coalition look good were from the US and Britain, hardly centres for Abbott fans. This analysis also showed that the official account of the Liberal Party had 33,000 followers, of which only 55% were ‘active’ meaning that 45% were not real; i.e. were ‘bots’, which are Twitter accounts created by computer. Analysis of Tony Abbott’s 203,000 followers revealed that 95% of his followers were fake and inactive, with just 4% active, and only 1% from real people8.
Fake engagement through sharing of content, ‘likes’ and comments is designed to shape political discussion by tricking the Facebook algorithm into promoting inauthentic posts, while building astroturf* pages like Zumbo’s and Laming’s, corral local community groups inside the Liberal Party information network in an attempt to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal; fake accounts are central to this operation. Facebook calls this ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’. It is allowed to operate by a loophole in their system. Users can have only one personal (and authentic) account, but they can create and operate multiple ‘group’ pages and use them to promote their political agenda9.
This fakery also occurs on Twitter, and the case of Freda McGuiness Shaw is instructive in showing how it is done. ‘Her’ account was set up around the beginning of September, 2021 by someone paid to praise the Liberals on Twitter. ‘She’ followed two accounts: those of Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian. She didn’t try very hard to make ‘herself’ look real – ‘she’ was a cheap bot. In response to a Berejiklian tweet about keeping people safe during the pandemic, ‘she’ tweeted: “Wow. So many critics and none with the stones to stand up and do the job of leading the state through a once in a 100 years global crisis. You honour us. On behalf of the ignorant. Thank you!!”10
In response to a Scott Morrison tweet trying to claim some credit for Australia’s vaccination rate, ‘she’ tweeted: “Great job Australia. Good on you Scott. Amazing leadership in a once in a lifetime crisis. Count my vote for October. Let’s get on with the recovery”.
How was this account found to be fake? Because Freda’s profile photograph was also used by someone supposedly in Hallsham, UK looking for a ‘sex partner’, on the LinkedIn account of a woman supposedly working as a senior consultant in Abu Dhabi and on a post, probably of the real woman, who creates training programs and other content for businesses10.
Anyone who believes that Morrison will actually do anything about bots, fake profiles, or astroturf groups when it is very much part of the modus operandi of the Liberal Party’s social media strategy, is deluding themselves. If anything, what Morrison will eventually try to do is to clamp down on people like me who operate anonymously and who hammer the most corrupt government in living memory. I do this anonymously because I want to protect my employment and that of those around me. The government will only use this legislation as a way to increase the use of defamation law to silence critics. Meanwhile the purchased Liberal bots and fake astroturf organisations will continue.
*Astroturfing: This refers to the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Multiple online identities and fake pressure groups are used to mislead the public into believing that the position of the perpetrator is the commonly held view11.