PM to launch inquiry into social media and mental health

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is set to launch an inquiry into social media and its impacts on well-being, particularly mental health.

In a media release, the Federal Government referenced Facebook (now known as Meta) whistleblower Frances Haugen as amplifying ” existing concerns in the community”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the press conference announcing the social media “troll” bill (credit: Scott Morrison’s Facebook page)

The inquiry is separate to the bill announced a few days ago that looks to target anonymous users online publishing defamatory comments, and will be chaired by  MP Lucy Wicks.

Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher said: “This inquiry will give organisations and individuals an opportunity to air their concerns, and for big tech to account for its own conduct.”

Prime Minister Morrison commented: “Big tech created these platforms, they have a responsibility to ensure their users are safe.

“Big tech has big questions to answer. But we also want to hear from Australians; parents, teachers, athletes, small businesses and more, about their experience, and what needs to change.”

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention David Coleman added: “In Australia, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a consistent increase in signs of distress and mental ill-health among young people. While the reasons for this are varied and complex, we know that social media is part of the problem.

“Young people have told us this themselves. In a 2018 Headspace survey of over 4000 young people aged 12 to 25, social media was nominated as the main reason youth mental health is getting worse. And the recent leak of Facebook’s own internal research demonstrates the impact social media platforms can have on body image and the mental health of young people.

“We know that we can’t trust social media companies to act in the best interests of children, so we’re going to force them to.”

Not-for-profit industry association Digital Industry Group (DIGI), whose founding members include Meta, Twitter and Snap, provided a comment on the inquiry, welcoming it.

DIGI managing director Sunita Bose said: “DIGI shares the Government’s strong commitment to online safety, having partnered with them to develop industry codes of practice on misinformation and for the Online Safety Act.

“We welcome this committee as a way to have a deeper conversation about the immense amount of industry work in online safety – such as policies, teams, technology and partnerships – and the challenges.

“The inquiry also presents an opportunity to ensure consistency, effectiveness and a whole-of-Government approach to online safety, privacy and cyber security.

“With hearings in mid-December, the consultation processes for this inquiry and the many related pieces of legislation currently moving in parallel need to allow time for the broad scope of affected companies, civil society, academics, parents and educators to meaningfully participate.”

Reset Australia’s tech policy director Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran also welcomed the inquiry, and said: “We know Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter all profit from amplifying extreme, sensationalist, and highly-emotive content to keep us online and engaged.

“From turbocharging misinformation, gendered and racialised hate speech, or triggering eating disorders – we can see the real world harms of algorithms.”

“The recent government plans for ‘anti-troll’ social media legislation don’t tackle the real, much more significant problem: the business model of Big Tech. Hopefully this inquiry will begin to address that problem.”

Haugen went public as the whistleblower in The Wall Street Journal’s review of internal Facebook documents, that claimed, amongst other things, that Facebook prioritised profit other its users’ well-being.

The inquiry is the latest fallout from Haugen’s revelations about Facebook, which also triggered bath and cosmetics company Lush to cease posting on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.

This article has been updated with comment from DIGI.


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