The Australian government is moving forward with its controversial “anti-trolling” legislation that seeks to expose the identities of anonymous users who defame, intimidate or attack others on social media.
But, in recent years, it has also been discovered that some politicians have exploited secret accounts that put them in hot water.
Some stories pushed political convictions, some sledged opposing parties, and others were used to hire their own work.
So, are these accounts allowed, what regulations govern their conduct, and where does the proposed new legislation leave them?
How politicians have used secret accounts
Earlier this year, the Australian Election Commission opened an investigation into Coalition MP Andrew Laming for claiming he was responsible for dozens of Facebook pages operating without disclosure of political permission.
The fake Facebook pages are said to have portrayed themselves as news pages, education providers and community groups that support the Coalition and denigrate political opponents.
In 2020, Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker admitted to using a Facebook account under the pseudonym “Mandy Jane.” From the count, she agreed with her supporters and defended herself against the attackers, with responses sometimes done in the third person.
Ms Stoker said “Mandy Jane’s” responses were made while she was on the move and from her phone – not from her computer which was logged into her official account.
âLook, that was A) a long, long time ago; 2) reflected a technical error in the way posts were displayed on my page rather than anything reflecting a grand conspiracy, âMs. Stoker said in a recent interview with the ABC.
In 2018, the ABC reported that a senior Liberal Party official was accused of sending a woman’s comments on abortion to her employer from a fake account. In the same report, the secret account was also accused of making derogatory comments under Labor social media pages.
Questions were also raised when Energy Minister Angus Taylor said, âFantastic. Great movement. Bravo Angus â, in 2019 in an article on his official Facebook page where he announced 1,000 additional car spaces at Campbelltown station in Sydney.
The comment, made from the same page, was then deleted.
âAs you know, many MPs have other directors who help them manage their official page,â said a spokesperson for Mr. Taylor’s office.
“As you know, admins can switch between their personal page and others they can manage, and a simple mistake has been made.”
“Anonymous accounts are not for politicians”
It’s hard to answer the question of how many secret political accounts are lurking in plain sight, according to Ed Coper, director of the New York-based Center for Impact Communications.
âThe only way to know is when they were caught red-handed in a funny way,â he said. Food.
Whether supporting your own work or attacking political opponents, Coper believes current trends show “it’s much more prevalent than what we can see above the surface.”
He said that while social norms assume that politicians will be identified when they talk about politics, the authority social media now has to shape political discourse has left politicians and their employees to follow suit.
âThe fact that all of these politicians have fake accounts or Astroturf community groups (fake groups aimed at giving the appearance of popular support) creating their own material tells me that more and more politicians understand that Social media is actually where stories are won and lost, âMr. Coper said.
âPolitical discourse is now determined by comments on social media. “
Veteran Labor political strategist Bruce Hawker said Food the use of anonymous accounts directly conflicts with what it means to be a politician.
âPoliticians by nature and by description are public figures. We expect them to be open in all their dealings with the public, âsaid Mr. Hawker.
âOtherwise, it raises very, very real questions about the quality of the politician. “
Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, any communication with the primary purpose of influencing how a person votes in a federal election must be authorized and have an identifiable source.
While this includes comments made on social media, the application of this law depends on several factors, including the distance that can occur for an election.
Mr Coper said that while Facebook requires all political advertising to be disclosed, the accounts of politicians or their employees posing as members of the public are generally unregulated and difficult to control.
âThere are some really easy ways to play around with this system,â Coper said.
Could the proposed new laws silence the critics?
The social media bill has also raised concerns that it will give politicians more power to “expose” and prosecute their critics, thereby suppressing public criticism.
At the end of last month Defense Minister Peter Dutton was awarded $ 35,000 for being vilified in a six-word tweet calling him a “rape apologist.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General’s Office Michaela Cash said: âThe bill has been developed with all Australians in mind. “
Deputy Attorney General Amanda Stoker said last week that a taxpayer-funded community legal service could be created to support private libel actions under the proposed law.
But some remain skeptical.
“It appears to be primarily intended to meet the needs of government ministers [to protect them] to be criticized online, âCoper said.
“As recent history has shown, it is the powerful politicians who use libel suits against their critics, not the other way around.”
“In all likelihood, this will only encourage more inauthentic digital behavior on the part of politicians who will be less burdened by the threat of any criticism for fear of legal repercussions,” said Coper.
“Focus on people who criticize [politicians] anonymously, on Twitter and other social media platforms, this is a pretty big distraction from the real damaging ways that platforms can pollute our political discourse.
“[It] is quite remarkable for public figures who should be thick-skinned and subjected to the slings and arrows of criticism as part of their daily routine, as politicians of all stripes have always done.