Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning


Testing our democracy
Australia’s next election could be subject to cyber-manipulation

Source

On ABC’s 7.30 last night the former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned Australia to take steps to protect our electoral system from potential foreign interference, and from the kind of manipulation of social media that saw 3500 ads launched against her presidential campaign in 2016. As the government’s foreign interference laws wend their way through parliament, business, union and community groups are gearing up to run highly sophisticated campaigns. The Monthly Today understands that the federal parliament’s powerful Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is aware that the next federal election could be the first to be tested by the advent of data-mining, micro-targeting and dark advertising, and is poised to seek a referral for a public inquiry.

Clinton was referring last night to the potential for a foreign country like China to wreak the kind of havoc in an Australian election that Russia is believed to have had in the US presidential election in 2016. “I think Australians need to be for Australians,” she told Leigh Sales. “Americans need to be for Americans. And whether it is Russia in a secret way interfering with our election … or the Chinese looking to try to influence policy: we should say no. I don’t care what side of the political aisle you might be on in either Australia or the United States: we have an interest in making sure that decisions made by our governments are not the result of some kind of influence-peddling by a foreign power.”

Clinton said Facebook now was the major news outlet in the US and that low-information voters were heavily targeted. Where legacy media provides a system of news delivery that is “visible”, and political advertising is labelled as such, Clinton said much of the advertising against her in 2016 was “under the radar. We had never seen anything like it. You do not have to tell who is paying: Facebook was accepting advertising in roubles.”

The government’s espionage and foreign interference laws are primarily intended to protect against foreign spies, criminalise leaks of secret information, and broaden the law enforcement agencies’ telecommunications intercept powers. The proposed laws have caused an uproar among charities and media groups concerned that their legitimate work will be impeded. The proposed laws, which are yet to be negotiated through the Senate, will ban foreign donations, toughen the definition of offences including sabotage, treason, and treachery, and introduce a new theft of trade secrets offence.

But the foreign interference laws were not designed to prevent the potential mass-manipulation of democratic elections by firms like the now-bankrupt Cambridge Analytica, on behalf of domestic clients such as political parties, business or non-profit groups. Before it went broke, Cambridge Analytica was touting for clients in Australia, including in meetings with the Business Council of Australia, which is campaigning for large company tax cuts through an arm’s-length company Centre Ground. As I observed earlier this month, the new data-mining and dark advertising techniques have already been used in state elections in WA, by Labor, and in South Australia, where the Liberal Party used a Koch-funded program called i360.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is currently fully preoccupied by its inquiry into the citizenship provisions of the Constitution, and will release its final report on Thursday. However, The Monthly Today understands the committee is keenly aware of concerns about potential threats to the integrity of the next federal election, and has agreed to seek a referral regarding cyber-manipulation of information intending to influence Australian voters, when the Senate next sits in June. A spokesperson for the JSCEM chair, WA Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, declined to comment. 

A public inquiry by the JSCEM would be timely. After the shock Trump and Brexit votes, it is not good enough to say it can’t happen here. We should be on guard.


since this morning


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has blamed Hamas [$] after Israeli forces killed at least 58 people in Gaza following the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, and former PM Tony Abbott has tweeted that Australia should “consider following Trump’s move”. Meanwhile, diplomatic cables obtained [$] by Crikey under freedom of information laws reveal that Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv briefed Canberra last month about the killing of dozens of Palestinian protesters at the Israel-Gaza border since March 30, while anticipating further casualities.

Bill Shorten says [$] that Labor will not place any limit on the amount of time asylum seekers are able to stay on Nauru and Manus Island, despite a draft party platform released ahead of July’s national conference calling for a 90-day limit.

Labor’s Susan Lamb has been cleared to stand in the by-election for her old seat of Longman, with the party releasing paperwork showing that she has officially renounced her British citizenship. Meanwhile, the ABC is reporting that Kenyan-born Senator Lucy Gichuhi has been relegated to an unwinnable fourth spot on the Liberals’ South Australian Senate ticket.


in case you missed it


Fairfax Media reports that aspiring politicians could face greater scrutiny in a new system that the government is considering having in place ahead of the five federal by-elections that are due within weeks. The new system could potentially push back the date of the “super Saturday” ballots.

In an op-ed for this morning’s AFR, former ambassador to China Geoff Raby called [$] for foreign minister Julie Bishop to be sacked, accusing her of neglecting Australia’s relationship with China. The prime minister has dismissed [$] the call.

In The Guardian, Greg Jericho writes that it is no surprise Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions keep going up, because there is no price on carbon.


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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.

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