Lies, bad ads, no rules – social media under scrutiny

Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson |

A body will investigate misinformation, consumer tricks, political messages and social media risks.
A body will investigate misinformation, consumer tricks, political messages and social media risks.

Researchers from six Australian universities will together investigate misinformation, consumer targeting, political messages and other risks on social media.

RMIT University announced the creation of the Australian Internet Observatory on Monday, a project funded by the federal government and run as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. 

The national body will operate for four years and develop analytical tools to help researchers examine dangerous trends across social networks, search engines and messaging platforms. 

The announcement comes amid fierce debate about social media influence in Australia, with the federal government committing $6.5 million to a technology pilot for “age-assurance technologies” and the opposition revealing plans to ban children under 16 from using social platforms.  

an upset young girl in front of a personal computer
There is widespread concern about how social media is affecting the wellbeing of children. (Dan Peled/AAP PHOTOS)

The program’s lead, RMIT Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas, said there was plenty of evidence more Australians were relying on digital platforms but not enough transparency about how those platforms operated or what companies were doing with consumers’ data. 

“Over the past decade there’s been a dramatic transformation in how Australians use digital platforms, how they interact with the automated systems and the digital economy and how they communicate with machines and each other,” he said. 

“But, as researchers, we’ve had very little visibility of how digital platforms work.”

Prof Thomas said the project would develop and give researchers new tools to independently investigate internet issues and trends. 

“We were interested in particular problems such as the kinds of ads Australians see when they use online platforms and the lack of regulatory oversight in areas such as gambling, alcohol or unhealthy foods,” Prof Thomas said.

“We knew the there were few reliable or accurate tools for gathering that kind of information and that better tools would be useful for many researchers.”

A woman seen using a smartphone
Researchers will be given new tools and resources to investigate internet issues and trends. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Program lead Amanda Lawrence told AAP that digital tools made available through the project would include analytical programs created using machine-learning technology, as well as generative AI models that could be used to create synthetic data for tests. 

The project is also expected to share ethical and legal frameworks with researchers looking to collect and study social media data, and to create a program allowing people to donate their own data for analysis. 

“The Australian Internet Observatory is national research infrastructure that will make digital platform data and systems more observable and analysable by researchers in Australia and around the world,” she said. 

AAP