Google was reprimanded by the AEC during the 2019 federal election for its lack of cooperation. (Unsplash: Paweł Czerwiński)
Australia’s election watchdog was “disappointed” in Google’s level of assistance investigating a potential breach of Australian electoral law during the 2019 federal election.
- The AEC was asking for help regarding a potential electoral law breach over Google AdWords
- The fight against illegal political ads has been described as a “game of whack-a-mole”
- During the election period, the AEC detected 28 breaches of the Electoral Act on social media
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) also admonished the tech giant for not ensuring greater transparency around local political advertising, according to emails obtained by the ABC.
Following Russia’s campaign to disrupt the US presidential election in 2016, political content on social media platforms, as well as digital advertising services — like those provided by Google — were closely scrutinised.
In May, the AEC approached Google about a complaint alleging the company’s advertising network, Adwords, featured electoral ads which were potentially unauthorised.
According to the emails, obtained under freedom of information laws, the AEC could not identify any ads and asked the company to assist.
Instead of responding with prompt advice — as Facebook and Twitter had done with similar requests — Google directed the query to its office in the US.
“In making any data request to Google, please note the following: All requests should be addressed to Google LLC. These requests will go to a dedicated legal investigations team that handles these requests,” an email from Google stated.
AEC lawyer Andrew Johnson expressed his frustration at Google’s response.
“If Google provided a similar level of transparency for political advertising in Australia as for the Transparency Report for political advertising in the United States and India, my request for this information would not be necessary,” he wrote.
The AEC responded critically to Google during its investigation of a potential electoral law breach.
(ABC News: AEC)
In some countries, Google offers political advertising transparency reports that allow people to view the ads being run by candidates and other interest groups, as well as the total money spent on advertising.
Dr Michael Jensen, a political communications researcher at the University of Canberra, noted Google took five days to officially respond to the agency’s query.
He said this is an unnecessarily long time, compared with the lifespan of advertisements online.
“For example, the duration of ads that the Russian internet agency used in the US context in 2016 … typically ads would appear during especially the last phase of the election for just two days,” he said.
“When you’re waiting at least five days for a response from Google, you’re not able to interrupt an influence operation.”
Google later advised the AEC that it had conducted a “diligent search and reasonable inquiry”, and found no responsive accounts associated with the website.
Google would not comment on the email exchange, but a spokesperson said it worked with the AEC “to connect people with useful and relevant information and help Australians find the information they need to enrol and vote”.
A closer relationship with Facebook
Two posts that the AEC asked Facebook to investigate for mispresenting the agency’s position.
(ABC News: AEC)
During the election period, the AEC investigated 528 electoral communications — 109 were on social media and, of those, 28 breaches of the Electoral Act were detected.
Many Australians complained to the ABC’s election tracking project, the “hidden campaign”, about a deluge of political ads delivered via Google’s networks in mobile games as well as YouTube videos.
The emails also show the AEC regularly contacted Facebook during the election, asking it to investigate unauthorised election ads, as well as posts that allegedly misrepresented the agency’s position.
In one instance, the AEC emailed Facebook about posts originally made by the Australian Unions Facebook page, encouraging people to enrol to vote.
One Facebook user digitally edited the posts, in effect suggesting the AEC was encouraging users to vote against the Liberal party.
Facebook told the AEC it removed the posts three days after being contacted.
The company had previously been scrutinised for its approach to electoral ad issues. But during the 2019 campaign, the AEC applauded Facebook’s responsiveness.
However, Facebook was criticised by some election watchers for failing to integrate its full suite of political advertising tools in Australia.
Its Australian Ad Library showed the range of current ads, but did not include details such as the demographic targeted — a feature available in other regions.
The AEC was “pleased with the improved engagement with social media organisations” for the 2019 federal election period, according to an agency spokesperson.
“Our interactions with Facebook, Twitter and Google were positive and established good working relationships.”
The AEC praised Facebook’s responsiveness as the 2019 federal election concluded.
(ABC News: AEC)
Policing political ads
The emails also raise questions about the capacity of government agencies to police the explosion of online political advertising.
In general, the emails suggest the AEC did not “proactively seek out” communications that defied Australian electoral laws, instead relying on third-party complaints.
A spokesperson said the AEC is “not resourced to monitor, or to check and clear electoral communications”.
“Where the AEC could identify the person or entity responsible for the electoral communication, we sent a warning requiring the communication to be rectified or removed,” the spokesperson said.
“[If they were not] the AEC asked the relevant social media company to remove the electoral communication that breached the Electoral Act.”
Dr Jensen characterised the AEC’s fight against illegal political ads as a “game of whack-a-mole”.
“I think there are some fundamental limitations if you’re trying to stop someone from manipulating an election using illegal ads,” he said.
“Somebody could put up an illegal ad and two days later it gets taken down, and then somebody puts together a new account, and puts up another illegal ad a few days later, that gets taken down.”
University of Queensland electoral law expert Professor Graeme Orr suggested the resources required to “police” e-campaigns are beyond the capacity of most electoral commissions.
“It will be an endless cat and mouse game,” he said.