Australia’s eSafety commissioner has told Facebook and other social media giants they must act against co-ordinated harassment campaigns, as COVID-19 conspiracy groups use the tactic in attempts to overwhelm targets online.
So-called volumetric attacks, also known as brigading, mobbing or pile-ons, involve targeting specific people, pages or posts with a huge amount of online comments. Such attacks have been used by racist, misogynist and anti-semitic groups in the past, but in recent times have also become a tool for conspiracy theorists and groups rejecting climate action and COVID-19 public safety measures.
Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety commissioner, said the rising prevalence of volumetric cyber abuse had prompted her to ask social media platforms for “urgent discussions” about how they planned to contain them.
“Volumetric attacks are a disturbing and harmful form of cyber abuse. The strategy is to disorient and overwhelm the target, and possibly do so without breaching the specific terms of service of a platform,” she said. “It is a tactic increasingly being used online to harass, abuse and silence specific people.”
Last week, a Facebook group devoted to countering COVID-19 safety measures with more than 150,000 members launched a co-ordinated attack on the pages of mainstream news sites and politicians, including The Age.
Though organisers were careful to instruct participants on what to say in their comments and how to avoid breaching Facebook’s rules, posts included death threats, swearing and links to conspiracy theory material.
Ms Inman Grant said that even when individuals were harassing people illegally, it was impossible to police.
“Our small, dedicated team of investigators at eSafety cannot realistically sift through hundreds, or even thousands, of posts, to identify those that breach our guidelines. I liken this to swatting individual bees in the midst of a swarm,” she said.
“It is the platforms themselves who have the advanced technologies required to capture this form of online abuse at source.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said it had removed more than 7 million pieces of misleading coronavirus information between April and June, but the company would allow controversial perspectives while eliminating deliberate misinformation that might cause harm.
For example, false claims about the origin of the novel coronavirus do not breach Facebook standards, but their spread may be reduced so less people see them. Comparatively, claims that discourage treatment or encourage action that could make a person more likely to get sick are seen as breaches.
However, it is unclear how the guidelines apply to volumetric attacks, where claims that might not breach the guidelines if they were posted on dedicated pages are disseminated forcefully in a co-ordinated campaign. Campaign organisers are often careful to tip-toe around guidelines by spreading instructions across multiple platforms, setting up messaging relays on Telegram or similar apps, or marking targets with innocent-looking links or pictures.
The page behind last week’s attack was removed by Facebook on Monday for violating its community standards, though Instagram accounts of key agitators are still online.
Multiple “backup” Facebook groups with similar names were also removed between Monday and Thursday, after cropping up and filling with thousands of members. As of Thursday, one page claiming to be related to the original remained on Facebook and continued to link to conspiracy content, but it also indicated the bulk of the movement was leaving Facebook for privacy-focused social network MeWe.
Meanwhile many Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts continue to promote an upcoming globally synchronised public demonstration that would breach public safety guidance in Victoria. In one YouTube video which had been viewed more than 17,000 times and remained online on Thursday, a presenter stated clearly that he was not suggesting people leave their homes to participate in the protests, while nodding his head and eyeballing the camera to indicate that he was in fact suggesting that.
Victoria Police has indicated it has little tolerance for such breaches, this week arresting and fining a Ballarat woman for allegedly inciting a local protest on Facebook. In a statement the police said anyone attending the protests should expect to be fined.
“We will have no hesitation in issuing $1652 fines to anyone who is breaching the restrictions on the day, or making arrests if necessary,” the statement said.
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Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.