Facebook has rejected claims by Tony Abbott that it and other social media companies are trying to control how Australians think and vote because they declined to run ads for the ‘no’ side of the Indigenous Voice referendum.
Advance Australia, a mysterious political lobby group with some prominent ties to key Liberal figures, says its ads on the referendum have not been run by the social media giant.
The advertisements warned that creating an Indigenous advisory body for Parliament would be racially divisive and were labelled as “misinformation”, the political group claims.
‘Tainted by bias’
The former prime minister condemned Facebook and alluded to claims that there had been similar censorship of figures on the right of politics in America.
“This attempt by big tech to censor advertisements against the Voice [was] on the grounds that they were supposedly inaccurate. No, that’s not true. They weren’t inaccurate,” he told Sky News Australia on Thursday.
“It’s almost like big tech doesn’t just want to control what we say. But it wants to control how we think and how we vote and I just think that’s deeply disturbing.”
But a spokesman for Meta, Facebook’s rebranded parent company, flatly denied those claims and said that decisions on truth in advertising were made independently and by experts including from RMIT and Agence France-Presse.
“Meta partners with independent fact checkers in Australia to help reduce the spread of misinformation online, and the fact checkers themselves decide which posts to review,” a spokesman told The New Daily.
“We also reject ads that have been rated as false by fact checkers.”
Facebook’s archives reveal that Mr Abbott was one of many prominent conservatives to feature in the campaign; one quotes him as expressing discomfort at the thought of creating a ‘race-based government body’.
And the experts released a detailed description of their ruling on the anti-Voice advertisements, nearly 100 of which have been placed online since December.
But an RMIT expert fact checker consulted with constitutional scholars such as UNSW’s Anne Twomey and concluded another key claim made across the ads was false: That creating the advisory council would give “special rights” to one group of people.
The ads mostly target people aged over 65 in Queensland, the review found.
With Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirming a referendum for some time in 2023, the government is expected to support the ‘yes’ campaign in a looming launch.
Mr Abbott said the playing field already tilted away from opponents of the plan because donations to the ‘no’ campaign would not be tax deductible, as they will be for donations to supporters of the Voice.
“I think that there’s a real danger about this whole debate is going to be tainted by unfairness,” he said.
Advance Australia employed Coalition Senator and Voice opponent, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price on its staff until just before she won election last May.
It has denied any links with the Coalition parties.
But little is known about the group, which produces hard-edged campaign material. Its executive ranks keep a much lower profile than other lobby groups.
“Labor and their mates in the Greens are on the march,” copy from one of its current campaign sites reads.
“They want to cancel Australia Day. They want your kids to think this country is racist and ‘oppressive’.”
In the run up to the election, Advance Australia was warned by the Australian Electoral Commission after running advertising depicting Chinese leader Xi Jinping as voting for Labor.
The group targeted David Pocock, now the independent Senator for the ACT, and branded him a secret member of the Greens, as he fought a close battle to unseat Liberal Zed Seselja.
But the AEC backed away from plans to take action against Advance Australia after it said it was satisfied the group had not, in fact, been making robocalls to voters to broadcast those messages.
But when it was founded in 2018 as a foil to GetUp!, the group’s backers were reported to include businessman and former ABC chairman (and former Abbott adviser) Maurice Newman and storage impresario and hardline libertarian Sam Kennard.
This week’s developments come after claims about political censorship online were made by Elon Musk after his acquisition of Twitter and documented by journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss.