Australian politicians call for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to appear before inquiry

Christopher Knaus, Michael McGowan and Nick Evershed
Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg is facing calls to appear before Australia’s parliament and explain how Facebook failed to detect and stop a massive global disinformation network from spreading hate and influencing voters over a two-year period.

The Senate this week set up a new inquiry to examine why Facebook and other social media giants have failed to stop clandestine actors using their platforms to spread falsehoods and undermine democracy.

The inquiry was established a day before the Guardian revealed that an Israel-based group had penetrated 21 far right Facebook pages across the world, and were using them as vehicles to spread huge volumes of coordinated disinformation that promoted far right politicians and vilified Muslims.

Following the Guardian’s revelations on Friday, the chair of the inquiry, Labor MP Jenny McAllister, said “malign actors” must be stopped from using covert and deceptive means to spread disinformation on social media platforms.

Related: Inside the hate factory: how Facebook fuels far-right profit

“We all must continue to manage these threats and maintain confidence in our democracy and its institutions,” she told the Guardian.

McAllister earlier said it would be in the interests of social media giants to give evidence to the inquiry and that “I think Australians will expect to hear from them”.

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi was one of those targeted by the 21-page network last year, when it incited attacks on her from more than 500,000 followers.

Faruqi said Zuckerberg must be called to explain why his platform had failed so comprehensively.

“I’ll be asking the select committee on foreign interference through social media to invite Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook executives to give evidence,” Faruqi told the Guardian.

“The Guardian investigation’s findings are terrifying because of what they mean for my safety, but also their implications for our democracy. It really concerns me that we’re nowhere near the bottom of this yet.”

Zuckerberg is unlikely to appear before Australian parliament. He has not attended a range of parliamentary inquiries across the world, other than one appearance before US Congress.

The inquiry set up this week has been tasked with investigating the “use of social media for purposes that undermine Australia’s democracy and values, including the spread of misinformation”. It will examine what social media giants are doing to respond, international policy responses, and the extent of compliance with Australian laws. It is expected to report in May 2022.

McAllister, the chair, said Australia was one of the world’s most successful democracies, and relied on robust and open debate. That debate, she said, was being exploited by malign actors using “covert, deceptive means”.

“This issue is complex, and spans economics, communications, electoral, and national security policy,” she told the Guardian. “The Senate inquiry will provide a forum to better understand the problem, and work together to develop solutions.”

“We all must continue to manage these threats and maintain confidence in our democracy and its institutions.”

Faruqi said the inquiry should examine what Facebook knew about the network uncovered by the Guardian and what could be done to ensure there was not a repeat.

Related: Facebook is part of a toxic ecosystem of hate – it should be regulated or shut down | Jason Wilson

“Social media companies must be hauled over the coals for their role in spreading and profiting from Islamophobia and hate,” she said.

Facebook took action after being presented with the Guardian’s findings, removing pages and accounts it said were financially motivated.

“We don’t allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook and we’ve updated our inauthentic behaviour policy to further improve our ability to counter new tactics,” a spokesman said.

Facebook said hate speech was banned on its platform and anyone who advocated for violence was removed, as were those who praise or support it. “Nobody can advocate or advertise hate or violence on Facebook and we remove any violations as soon as we become aware,” the spokesman said.