Traditional media outlets are bound by defamation laws and a journalism code of ethics. The closure of many media outlets in Victoria in 2020 meant that many communities and candidates lost an ‘independent umpire’ in the run up to elections. Although some community members chose to set up Facebook groups to provide comment on local news, many communities suffered from the loss of qualified and experienced journalists in the 2020 election period.
In 2020, we received 351 allegations relating to online content, with 75 per cent of these allegations relating to social media, 10 per cent about email, 11 per cent about websites and 4 per cent not specified.
We received 266 related to social media. Most of the complaints have involved potential breaches by candidates of rules around correct authorisation of social media posts or accounts.
Facebook was more important than ever in the 2020 council elections. Candidates were able to run a free campaign by setting up campaign pages and using existing community forums or they could pay for advertising.
However, social media creates audience silos where voters may only engage with things they endorse, and the social media algorithms confirm these biases. Consequently, the electorate had limited exposure to alternative messaging and candidates could avoid being challenged in a genuine debate.
Social media was difficult to regulate and moderate. It can allow misinformation and disinformation to spread. This can be in the form of an individual posting wrong information or a coordinated political campaign. In addition, the truth can be manipulated by people who are able to remain anonymous.
Another feature of the 2020 council elections was the use of ‘community pages’ or ‘community groups’, where members post information about local issues. Candidates, residents and supporters posted in those pages and groups about election issues and some posts – often that disparaged candidates or other group members on election-related topics – were the topic of complaints to our office.