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The Inquiry Into Social Media and Online Safety- What it means for fake reviews and anonymous trolls.

Roisin Henden

What’s it about?

In late 2021, The House Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety commenced the ‘Inquiry into Social Media and Online Safety’ (‘The Inquiry’), addressing the posting of negative reviews that are not founded in real customer experiences. That is, fake reviews.  

In the words of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a significant motivating factor for the commencement of The Inquiry was “to unmask anonymous online trolls”. 

Who’s behind it?

The House Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety, chaired by Lucy Wicks, MP for the NSW seat of Robertson, was established by a resolution of appointment that passed the House of Representatives on 1 December 2021. It is this committee that are responsible for the commencement of The Inquiry. 

Why are they doing it?

The introduction of the Inquiry occurred in part as a result of a significant increase in false and negative online reviews as short-staffed small businesses around Australia continue to suffer the effects of Covid-19. 

Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, said in his recent submission to the Federal Government that more than 30 businesses had come to the Ombudsman trying to help gain support against fake reviews in recent years.

Following the latest comments by the ombudsman, a Google spokesperson told CMO 55 million reviews and nearly 3 million fake business profiles that violated policies were blocked on its platform in 2020. 

In addition to protecting small businesses, The Inquiry has a particular focus on children’s safety online and protection from the extreme content they are frequently exposed to. 

Why does it matter? 

While the more obvious flow-on effects of fake reviews such as damage to a business’ reputation and subsequent loss of revenue are being addressed, the primary focus of The Inquiry is the negative impact this content is having on the nation’s mental health. 

Mr. Billson said “as a small business owner’s identity is often intrinsically linked to their business, fake reviews contribute to mental health strains”. 

With the ever-growing statistics of Australians suffering from poor mental health, the Federal Government are adamant on big tech being held accountable for their conduct and contribution to the prevalence of mental illness. 

What is the current status of the Inquiry? 

The parliament committee held two hearings in December of last year, with submissions closing last week. Nearly 60 submissions were received in total, ranging from social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Google, to traditional media operators and regulators, state-based children’s safety and school groups, digital industry bodies and wellness groups. 

When will the Inquiry be finalised? 

The final report on the inquiry into Social Media and Online Safety will be presented on or before 15 February 2022. 

What does this mean for small businesses? 

The intended impact of the inquiry is the introduction of laws that will force social media and online platforms to remove this fake content and in some circumstances, reveal the anonymous poster’s identity. 

“This should include giving small businesses more transparency on the evidence they need to provide a digital platform to have a fake review reviewed and removed,” the ombudsman said.

Home affairs is in the process of developing regulations and will look at how other jurisdictions manage this issue. Such regulations would involve improving the transparency and oversight of how tech companies use algorithms and compelling them to disclose internal data.

That is, the result will hopefully mean giving some of the power back to small businesses who, for quite some time, have been stripped of this power by these “anonymous online trolls”. 

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