Social media is awash with fake accounts.
Social media is awash with fake accounts.

LNP leader duped by fake Facebook account

WITH a federal election just around the corner, be careful what you believe on social media.

That lesson was highlighted this week when a Facebook post masquerading as an account connected to the Australian union movement garnered attention with a misogynistic post aimed at outgoing Cabinet Minister Kelly O'Dwyer.

The post, from an account called Union News Australia, featured the caption, "Our thoughts on the resignation of Jobs and Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer," with an image of Ms O'Dwyer and the words, "bye, bye, b**ch".

Leader of the Queensland Liberal National Party Deb Frecklington then took to Twitter to share a screenshot of the post.

"I don't care your politics, this treatment of a female politician is totally unacceptable. I am calling on (Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk) and (deputy Queensland premier Jackie Trad) to show some leadership and call out this disgusting behaviour today," she wrote.

Liberal candidate for Port Stephens Jamie Abbott also shared it on her Facebook page writing: "I try to be consistently positive with my online presence, but seeing this kind of content really frustrates me.

"This post from 'Union News Australia' was posted online and left up all day today," she lamented.

Both politicians' posts remain up (and unedited) despite a flood of comments alerting them to the fact it was a fake account. A relatively quick Google search would have aroused suspicion over its authenticity, but they weren't the only ones who took the post at face value.

The fake post also caught out a senior journalist until the fake news was pointed out.

"We don't know who is behind that page," a spokesperson for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) told news.com.au.

"But it has no authority to speak for our movement and that post was offensive, sexist, and wholly against union values."

The post was from a rogue account with no connection to the ACTU.
The post was from a rogue account with no connection to the ACTU.

Research shows that we're more likely to believe fake news if it confirms our biases or plays to our prejudices, and fraudulent posts like these often aim to trigger an emotional response.

"Anybody can set up a Twitter or Facebook account and put the word 'union' in the title," the ACTU spokesperson said.

"These accounts are not authorised to speak for our movement. They do not reflect the views or values of the Australians union movement."

Facebook declined to provide comment, instead touting its use of artificial intelligence to detect fake accounts. But it appears to have since shut down the fake union page.

With a federal election around the corner, experts say we should expect many more pages like this to pop up.

 

'IT'S JUST SO EASY'

Deceptive online actors are an inescapable reality in the age of social media.

"I've been following this for some time," said Professor Axel Bruns from Queensland University's Digital Media Research Centre. "In the Australian case I think it's probably underdeveloped but internationally we've seen a much more sophisticated approach to interfering with public opinion more broadly," he said.

"These sorts of fake pages, fake accounts, get set up to colour peoples' views of a particular group, politicians, unions or whatever the case may be."

He believes Australia is likely to see more of this type of subterfuge leading up to the federal election this year.

Whether its fake accounts are designed to tarnish a group's reputation or a concerted effort to overwhelm online debate with manufactured opinion, the goal is often to shift or confuse the debate.

"Or at least to muddy the waters in terms of what any of these organisations or groups actually think and do," Prof Bruns said.

"It's just so easy to set them up, and it's just so easy to look reasonably official."

Research also suggests that people trust "what they see on their social networks more than what they see from mainstream media organisation," he said, making it a particularly effective means to distort public opinion.

"It's becoming a common election strategy," Monash University's head of linguistics Kate Burridge wrote ahead of Australia's last federal election in 2016. She was referring to a strategy known as astroturfing in which vested interests co-ordinate and fund an online campaign to promote a certain message meant to appear like a genuine grassroots movement. It's a tactic increasingly embraced by companies and political groups.

HOW TO SPOT A FAKE

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram are starting to offer tools for users to detect when an account might not be what it claims.

A recent change on Facebook gives more information about group pages such as the date the page was created and recent name changes. Its subsidiary Instagram has also added several tools such as an "about this account" page to provide more details about who is behind the account.

Meanwhile on popular forum websites like Reddit, checking the history of users will reveal how long they've been posting and give you an idea of their authenticity and motives.

Social media companies have been intentionally slow to stamp out fake accounts.

"Certainly the platforms could be doing more, there's no question about that," Prof Bruns said.

"Historically they've been very reluctant to do anything because it would position them as censors … more like media organisations and they've been very careful to avoid this.

"But they really can't avoid this for much longer."

SOCIAL MEDIA AWASH WITH FORGERY

During a six-month period in 2018, Facebook detected and suspended some 1.5 billion fake accounts. That certainly sounds good but by the company's own estimates, about three to four per cent of its monthly active users are fake, representing around 80 million accounts.

The percentage on Twitter is considerably higher, with estimates putting about 9 to 15 per cent of accounts as fake.

After Russia's highly publicised efforts to manipulate American voters on social media ahead of the previous US federal election, Australian intelligence authorities have spent months working on how they can combat foreign actors who are spreading fake information ahead of our own polling day.

However the National Media Research Council has previously suggested the threat of social media manipulation is likely greater in our own backyard.

"(It is) currently be more of a domestic threat than one of foreign interference," it said in a submission to a government inquiry into the 2016 Australian election.



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