Labor appeals to Google over misinformation fears before Australian election

Google must explain what steps it has taken to ensure the company’s platforms and advertising capabilities are not “exploited for misinformation” in the run-up to the next federal election, Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, has demanded.

In a letter to Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, seen by Guardian Australia, Erickson raises a number of objections to recent interventions by Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly – activity he says undermines confidence in Australia’s public health response to Covid-19.

Erickson cites multiple videos on Kelly’s personal YouTube page “in which Mr Kelly promotes ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as effective treatments for Covid-19 or claims that Covid-19 vaccines are unsafe”.

Guardian Australia understands Google has now flagged some of the videos identified by Erickson, and the contents are under review.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration also on Wednesday issued a cease and desist letter to Kelly as leader of the United Australian party (UAP), demanding that the party stop distributing incomplete extracts of adverse event reports relating to Covid-19 vaccines which the regulator believes “could be seriously misleading”.

Erickson notes in his appeal to Silva the UAP “is already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on political advertising, including on Google’s platforms”.

Labor’s national secretary says it is important that Google’s platforms not be “misused” in the middle of a pandemic, “including by those with a track record of spreading politically motivated misinformation in the lead-up to the next federal election”.

During the last federal election, Labor was locked in an ultimately fruitless battle with the digital behemoths about “death tax” misinformation proliferating on social media.

Erickson notes in his correspondence to Silva the digital platforms were not sufficiently responsive during the last federal election to legitimate complaints of political misinformation. “Regrettably, the response of digital platforms was wholly inadequate,” he says. “These mistakes should not be repeated.”

Erickson notes the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 and the US electoral process during the 2020 US presidential election contest in 2020 ultimately “cost lives”.

Kelly, who has left the Liberal party and is now the federal leader of the UAP, flatly rejected Erickson’s warning. “It is a disgrace and a new low that a political party would ask a foreign oligarch to censor freedom of speech in Australian politics,” the MP told Guardian Australia.

“The idea that an alternate opinion of an expert is misinformation is a claim I categorically reject,” Kelly said. He said Erickson’s appeal to Google amounted to “silencing of genuine debate, and that will leave the public misinformed”.

Guardian Australia also contacted Palmer through a spokesperson for comment. No response was received prior to publication.

Data tracking voting intention in the Guardian Essential poll – information that is now only published quarterly – indicates there has been an uptick of support for the UAP as Palmer and Kelly have, controversially, sent text messages to millions of Australians during recent weeks.

It is possible the recent increase in support could be noise within the poll’s margin of error, or it could suggest the communications strategy is bearing fruit.

In his letter to Silva, Erickson asks whether Google has put additional oversight mechanisms in place since the 2019 election to “ensure its platforms and advertising capabilities are not exploited for misinformation, including by the UAP?”

He asks how the platform intends to manage “the elevated risk of misinformation in the context of the upcoming federal election, including in relation to content uploaded by the UAP?”

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Erickson asks whether Google has considered additional resourcing to enable the swift resolution of complaints by political parties or users, and for clarity about timeframes for approving political advertisements in the lead-up to and during the federal election.

He has also asked how YouTube will ensure the approval timelines for political parties are applied consistently across political parties.

A spokesman for Google confirmed the platform had received Erickson’s letter and intended to respond in due course.

He also pointed to the platform’s existing policies on political advertising and on misinformation. The platform says it was one of the first signatories to commit to the Australian code of practice on disinformation and misinformation earlier this year.

YouTube says is doesn’t allow medical misinformation about Covid-19 that poses a serious risk of egregious harm or contradicts public health advice from local or global authorities.

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