2 June 2024

eSafety steps up to protect election workers from online abuse

| Chris Johnson
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Cyber security IT engineer

Online abuse of Australia’s election workers can now be acted on with more urgency. Image: File.

With online abuse against election staff increasing in jurisdictions across the nation, all electoral commissions in Australia have ramped up efforts to protect their staff during and outside of campaigns.

All federal, state and territory electoral commissions have adopted a mechanism to refer incidents involving adult cyber abuse or sharing illegal or restricted content related to a staff member to eSafety for urgent review and investigation.

Australian members of the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand (ECANZ) have signed a joint referral protocol with the eSafety Commissioner to create a safer work environment for election staff.

This protocol opens a clear path for electoral commissions to request immediate help removing serious and harmful online material targeting election workers.

They have signed up to the referral protocol in what they say is recognition of an increasingly complex online environment that often targets election staff.

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In a joint statement, the signatories said the referral protocol represents a united front from electoral commissions in Australia and a commitment to work closely with eSafety to take action to protect election staff from online harm.

The eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, noted that her commission – eSafety – has unique, world-first powers to support Australians experiencing serious adult cyber abuse and its impacts.

“Vibrant, vigorous debate is the lifeblood of our modern democratic society and must be encouraged,” she said.

“But our right to express a political viewpoint or dissent does not trump a person’s right to live free from online harassment, hate and abuse, especially when that individual is performing a vital function in aid of free and fair elections.”

Ms Inman Grant said eSafety exists to provide a safety net for Australians who are the target of serious online abuse when platforms fail to act.

“Every day, we work hard to provide rapid, compassionate, citizen-centric service to Australians caught in the crosshairs of unbridled vitriol and abuse,” she said.

“I encourage any Australian who needs support to visit eSafety.gov.au for resources, advice and guidance on how to report serious online abuse.”

woman smiling

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant. Photo: eSafety.

ECANZ Chair Mick Sherry thanked eSafety for helping Australia’s state and electoral commissions embrace the referral protocol.

“While free speech and robust debate are part of the democratic process, online abuse aimed at harassing, threatening or endangering our staff will not be tolerated,” Mr Sherry said.

“The safety and well-being of our election workforces is of paramount importance. Without our staff, we would not be able to deliver elections.

“In an increasingly complex environment, ECANZ members are committed to implementing measures that increase staff safety and minimise harm.

“Strong relationships and support from Australia’s independent regulator for online safety will further this goal.

“Our partnership with eSafety is aimed at protecting our staff, who work tirelessly to deliver democracy across Australia.

“Election staff have a right to be safe from harm at work.”

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The Australian Electoral Commission operates a disinformation register for federal electoral events as part of its responsibility to ensure voters have access to fact-based information about electoral processes.

The register, which is a fairly recent development, will list prominent pieces of disinformation the AEC has discovered regarding the electoral process, and it will give details of actions it has taken in response.

While the AEC clearly states it is not the arbiter of truth regarding political communication and does not seek to censor debate in any way, it is fierce in defending its role in conducting elections with integrity.

“When it comes to the election process we conduct, we’re the experts and we’re active in defending Australia’s democracy,” it says.

However, this measure does not protect its own staff from being negatively targeted and abused online.

This new referral protocol takes a significant step towards ensuring the safety of AEC staff and election staff in state and territory electoral commissions.

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In a normal world, you fix what’s broken in society. In a broken one, you silence those who have noticed.

Relatedly, the cry of “danger to our democracy” is merely a political weapon of kakistocrats to bypass the critical faculties of the human mind which might otherwise see it for what it really is; i.e. “danger to our corrupt bureaucracy.”

It is amusing that we have people saying “To save our democracy we need to behave like North Korea and suppress the information you are allowed to access”.

What’s worse is that really, really stupid people believe it. And there appear to be a lot of them.

I don’t understand the positioning of this urgent protocol. Are AEC staff being targeted online, as private individuals, or, as individuals but in their role as AEC staff? I am not aware of any AEC staff having a public facing online profile so unsure why this protocol is needed? Any clarification from commentators here?

If AEC are operating the AEC social media accounts they will have procedures to remove harmful or abusive content and will also be able to restrict the account from bad actors. AEC should also be receiving training on how to deal work related hazards that have potential to negatively impact their health and safety. An AEC worker is at no greater risk of harm to their health and safety than nurses, call centre operators, cleaners etc. So this seems like an over reach, just odd.

I have to say any reporting I’ve seen related to the Safety work just seems at odds with what it says its trying to achieve. Very big brotherish, bad vibes.

Nah it is just that the eKaren is mad she can’t tell Elon what to do, so is making a show of power elsewhere.

Yeah the eSafety commissar needs to be abolished.

This requires the internet to be set of platforms. It’s not a big truck you can tax but a series of tubes.

This sounds like the sort of first amendment violations that would never fly in America. If someone sees election fraud are they going to remove the evidence posted online under the cover of safety.

Weird this is targeted at AEC officials specifically.

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