Federal election 2022: Electoral commission says they are not monitoring the social media platform as marginal seats with Chinese-Australian populations hang in the balance
Attack ads targeting Labor are being published without any authorisation or party attribution on the Chinese-language social networking platform, WeChat, raising concerns that misinformation could be circulating without oversight.
The advertisements, which include false suggestions Labor’s policies involve a raft of new taxes, appear on the WeChat site of Chinese-language media outlet Australian Financial News, alongside highly flattering articles about the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act requires paid electoral advertisements to be authorised, with a breach of the Act attracting a penalty of up to $26,650. But the Australian Electoral Commission said it is “not proactively monitoring WeChat in this election”.
Australians of Chinese heritage could play a pivotal role in the outcome of the election, as they have in previous years, especially as Australia’s fraught relationship with China becomes a central talking point of the campaign. As several marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne with large Chinese-Australian populations hang in the balance, courting the community has become essential.
A volunteer-run campaign against Labor conducted on WeChat during the 2016 election is thought to have been instrumental flipping the Labor-held seat of Chisholm to Liberal MP Julia Banks. During the 2019 campaign, Labor complained to WeChat about a high volume of misleading anti-Labor material, some of which could be traced back to Liberal Party members.
One doctored tweet, purporting to come from then ALP leader Bill Shorten’s account, said: “Immigration of people from the Middle East is the future Australia needs.”
The AEC is not monitoring WeChat
The attack ads that appeared in April are designed in the same style as the Liberal party’s election ads, but without the required authorisation tagline. The ads feature an unflattering picture of opposition leader Anthony Albanese and list in Chinese a range of taxes.
“Coal emission tax, traffic tax, retirement taxes, family business taxes and inheritance taxes,” the ads say in Chinese, with big crosses marked next to them. None of these taxes is current ALP policy.
There are about 3 million users of WeChat in Australia; Australian Financial News is a mid-tier site, with stories attracting between 10,000 to 20,000 readers.
The site also features a video ad supporting Frydenberg’s campaign featuring the treasurer’s dry cleaner, Eddie, who is of Chinese descent, saying how important jobkeeper was to his business during the Covid-19 crisis. This ad carries the required authorisation.
Accompanying the ads are highly flattering news stories about Frydenberg, which have appeared on multiple websites.
A spokesperson for Frydenberg’s campaign said they had paid for banner advertisements on Australian Financial News promoting the Morrison government’s economic record and plan for a stronger future. They said they had not paid for the soft editorial that accompanied them.
“Information on Anthony Albanese’s record of supporting higher taxes on Australians has also been featured through banner advertising,” the spokesperson said, but did not address the lack of authorisation.
Authorities and campaigns have been on the lookout for “fake news” circulating on social media emanating from political rivals and state-sponsored actors, but the damage can often be wrought before the parties become aware of it.
The ABC has uncovered highly misleading posts recently spreading on WeChat, depicting a shadowy image of a spy figure and claims that eight Chinese figures who support Labor are under investigation for election interference by the “Australian Intelligence Bureau”.
There is no such agency in Australia.
The post, written in Chinese, was reportedly circulated by a group of Liberal party supporters to more than a dozen closed WeChat groups, reaching thousands of Chinese-speaking voters in marginal seats in Australia’s east coast cities.
The AEC said it takes a graduated approach to enforcement, noting that most authorisation matters can be technical in nature.
“We monitor a range of social media channels but are not proactively monitoring WeChat this election,” the AEC spokesperson said.
“The vast majority of authorisations matters are brought to our attention swiftly by other social media users and political participants (we are not lacking in people who refer content to us to review).”
But the real risk is likely to come in the coming weeks, as it did in the 2019 campaign, through “fake news” being spread via private WeChat chat groups, which are difficult to monitor.
Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said the most effective strategy to spread election messaging would be for “supporters and their proxies to use their own personal accounts to feed material into WeChat groups, because that’s where the activity takes place. It’s similar to WhatsApp groups.”
How Chinese-language media is covering the election
Chinese-Australian media have reported a high level of interest in the 2022 campaign among readers after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, stepped up his rhetoric about the importance of protecting Australia’s national security, while his defence minister, Peter Dutton, warned Australia should prepare for war with China.
Whether this will translate into a rush towards Labor remains to be seen, but the community will likely play a critical role in a raft of vigorously contested seats: Chisholm, Deakin and Kooyong in Victoria, and Reid, Parramatta, Banks, North Sydney and Bennelong in NSW.
Martin Ma is the editor-in-chief of Sydney Today/Melbourne Today, which is among the most popular and influential Chinese-language online publications in Australia.
“The [Australia-China] relationship is one of the most important [issues] in the election among the community,” Ma said.
“The prevailing view is that we should protect Australian values but that doesn’t mean we have to fight straight against China. Most of our audience are first-generation migrants from mainland China. People love their hometown, they don’t want to see conflicts between Australia and China.”
While online polls can be manipulated through multiple voting by people with vested interests, and they do not adjust for demographics who are not regularly online, a recent Sydney Today poll showed that in early voting 77% of respondents were favouring Labor, and nearly half said they would change their vote this time. The poll has been running since 29 April.
Of the respondents, 14% said Australia’s relationship with China was important to their vote, ahead of economic management at 13%.
Over 58% wanted to see an Australia-China policy of “seeking common ground while respecting differences to improve bilateral relations”, as opposed to only 10% support for the current stance of “abiding by Australia’s interests”.
Sydney Today has been publishing regular stories about the election that it considers relevant to its audience. Many stories are translations of articles from English-language media or compilations of articles.
“We stand in the middle and let people hear the voices from different sides. We have been interviewing Chinese-Australians and asking them how they vote,” Ma said.
“We did a piece with nine people on the street by random: four supporting Labor, five Liberal. I think this election is going to be a close competition according to the representation of the community – there are different views.”