The circulation of election conspiracy theories in Australia has increased with the country set to have its federal election later this year, Australia’s electoral commissioner said on Tuesday night.
Appearing before Senate estimates, AEC commissioner Tom Rogers said the uptick in election conspiracy theories mirrored what has been occurring in overseas jurisdictions.
Among the conspiracies posted online has been that postal voting is not secure, Rogers said. The AEC commissioner also warned of other election conspiracies, specifically debunking misinformation that unvaccinated people will not be allowed to vote in person.
“One [conspiracy] doesn’t seem to go away is that somehow we’re mandating that voters be vaccinated, and that this will deny people the vote,” he said, confirming that people will be allowed to vote in person regardless of their vaccination status.
To address the rise in conspiracy theories, Rogers said his agency has been working more closely with social media platforms to quickly remove election misinformation and disinformation.
For one instance of the postal voting conspiracy content arising online, the commissioner said his agency pointed out to Twitter that the content breached the platform’s terms of service, which culminated in that information being removed within three hours.
“Twitter and others get rightly criticised, but it’s a shout out to them for being very responsive to remove something that’s dangerous,” Rogers said.
He noted, however, that addressing election misinformation is a complex issue as the nature of some conspiracies means their removal can fuel the creation of further conspiracies.
“[This] can become very circular, so you need to exercise some judgment about how we deal with those issues,” he said.
Rogers added that while the AEC was able to reach out to Twitter, negotiations are still ongoing with Digital Industry Group Inc (DiGi), the industry group advocating for big tech, to create a formal protocol for working with social media platforms to remove election disinformation and misinformation.
In the meantime, all major social media platforms have given “assurances” that they would allocate more resources for monitoring election disinformation and misinformation for the upcoming Australian federal election, said deputy electoral commissioner Jeff Pope, who appeared alongside Rogers at Senate estimates.
“For this election, we’re getting assurances from all of them that they will be expanding their hours of service, including having not just expanded hours of service here in Australia but then actually having staff in other parts of the world so that they can try and get as close to 24/7 coverage — so they’re not confined by the business hours of the staff here in Australia,” Pope explained.
“For instance, some of them have staff here in Australia, they have a regional office in Singapore, then they have another office in Europe. They will be effectively following the sun as we go through the election to try and get as much maximum coverage as possible.”
For the upcoming federal election, where voting is mandatory, the commission expects to go through 4.5 million pencils — up from 100,000 in 2019 — along with 34,000 bottles of surface cleaner, and 63,000 litres of hand sanitiser as part of its pandemic safety measures.