«I think in the past few years we’ve had this accelerate very quickly and we don’t understand well the impacts of this acceleration on analog systems or organic systems such as elections or democracies.»
While he was not watching the Australian election closely, he said many social media and online platforms are driven by artificial intelligence and algorithms that are interacting with «analog» or offline systems, like elections.
«Even as someone who formerly worked for Facebook I don’t fully understand the effects,» he said.
«Whatever happened during the election I would say overall we are entering this era where opinion forming is happening differently,» he said.
Until more research had taken place into the impacts of social media on the ways people form opinions, he said it would be decide if governments needed to take any action.
«We need to accelerate that research, it needs to be funded in a way supported by the tech industry and government and that cuts across different countries. There has to be a bigger effort there,» he said.
«It would allow us to understand what’s good and bad about how opinion-forming has changed and then come up with policies or points of view that can then be debated in public.»
A recently example of global governments and technology companies coming together has been the Christchurch Call to Action in response to the New Zealand terrorist attack in February and the sharing of hateful and violent content online.
Mr Scheeler said the outcome aligned with what he and others in the tech industry had been calling for, with a multi-national effort, industry participation with governments and a commitment to technology sharing.
«I commend Australia and New Zealand for being catalysts for making this happen very quickly,» he said.
Ariadne Vromen, a professor of political sociology at the University of Sydney who has researched digital campaigning during elections, said there had been a dramatic increase in the use of social media by the public and political campaigners between the 2016 and 2019 Federal Elections.
In 2016, only GetUp was using targeted Facebook advertising and campaigns while most other political groups had static pages on the platform, she said.
«Things have changed dramatically since, there’s a lot more targeted advertising … What we’ve seen is it’s hard to tell what is [political advertising], what isn’t and what is meme generated type of content,» she said.
She said there was a growing concern about people being duped on social media or swayed by what they had seen, but said there wasn’t «enough evidence» to say either way without additional research.
«When we’re in this context with a high level of distrust of politicians, who do you trust for content? Your family and friends on social media,» she said, pointing out that social media, and particularly Facebook, had been increasingly used by older people in the past few years.
«It can be used to shore up your base, delivering messages to them as you know other forms of traditional advertising are’t working. Whether it’s changing votes … that’s what we don’t know.»
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.