Senator Sarah Henderson – Estimates questions to the ABC regarding “TikTok journalist activities”, particularly in relation to coverage of Israel, Gaza or the Jewish community

May 30, 2024

Mr Anderson, I want to ask about your TikTok journalist activities. Have you scrutinised or had any reports in relation to your coverage of Israel, Gaza or the Jewish community?

Senator HENDERSON: Mr Anderson, I want to ask about your TikTok journalist activities. Have you scrutinised or had any reports in relation to your coverage of Israel, Gaza or the Jewish community?

Mr Anderson : I would have to take that on notice. I don’t have any information in front of me with regard to that. Mr Fang, do you have any information on that?

Mr Fang : What in particular?

Senator HENDERSON: The issue is, and I refer to a Herald Sun article by James Campbell—I’m sorry, I don’t have the date—called ‘Pandering to TikTok puts ABC in editorial minefield’, raising concerns about TikTok ABC journalists. One of the problems is that when there is a story which leans or has an anti-Israel flavour about it, by reason of the TikTok algorithm those videos are going viral. With one particular video, there’s been thousands of really concerning comments. I’m really worried about the integrity of your journalism. I’m raising concerns because perhaps, through no fault of the ABC, some stories are being magnified on TikTok. As we know, there are all sorts of issues with TikTok: it’s owned by a Chinese company, and perhaps it has particular intentions in relation to how the algorithm works. Could you provide us with any information in relation to what I believe are serious integrity issues with your TikTok journalism?

Mr Anderson : I will take that on notice. I know that the team of journalists that we’ve got publishing stories to TikTok are talented journos that have to abide by all the rules and requirements of the ABC. I haven’t had anything brought to my attention, but—

Senator HENDERSON: No, but hang on, Mr Anderson: we’ve already had the issue with one TikTok journalism story—

Mr Anderson : There was one story which was problematic, and—

Senator HENDERSON: Which was more than problematic, and had to be significantly re-edited.

Mr Anderson : No, it wasn’t up to our standard. It needed to be suspended, then updated and then republished. But I can think of one, and I haven’t had any other one that’s come to me since then. So I haven’t had that concern raised with me, particularly on that subject matter, but we will get back to you on notice.

Senator HENDERSON: I would appreciate it. And could you also look at one particular story which received 1.2 million views and was very much an anti-Israel story. I am concerned about the way in which these stories are being amplified on the TikTok platform. You don’t have any concerns about continuing to publish on TikTok?

Mr Anderson : The simple fact for us is that there are so many Australians that have taken to TikTok, that we believe we need a presence there. They know who we are. We need our independently produced journalism with whatever else is there on TikTok. We think it’s important to have that presence, but I am concerned by what you have raised and we will definitely try to find out what it is that is of concern at the moment.

Senator HENDERSON: You’ve got an Israel-Gaza reporting team. Do you have a reporting team dedicated to the war between Russia and Ukraine?

Mr Anderson : We do have editorial guidance that sits around what our major coverage is—Mr Fang?

Senator HENDERSON: I understand it’s a specialist subunit within the ABC news TikTok team, called the Israel-Gaza Domestic Reporting Team.

Mr Anderson : I know that we’ve got people dedicated to the Israel-Gaza coverage, for reasons I’ve mentioned earlier. Everything we do about that is important and it’s important we get it right. I know that exists in many areas of what we have for ABC News, and there are representatives that come together with regard to it. With regard to Ukraine and Russia, though, I know we did at the beginning. Whether we still have a unit that actually focuses on that, or whether we have that as part of what we would normally do with our normal editorial management, I can’t answer you right now.

Senator HENDERSON: How are you safeguarding your users from the harvesting of data and other major privacy and security concerns which have been raised, such that members of parliament, for instance, and officials of the Australian government, have been told not to use TikTok on their devices?

Mr Anderson : We have certain restrictions internally within the ABC as well. We have our own policy, which is that we should not, as ABC employees, have TikTok on our phones, for those same concerns. We invest heavily in cybersecurity. When it comes to those people publishing to TikTok we do have a separate dedicated device that they publish from.

Senator HENDERSON: So TikTok is prohibited on the devices of ABC employees—

Mr Anderson : Yes.

Senator HENDERSON: and yet you have a TikTok journalism department?

Mr Anderson : Yes.

Senator HENDERSON: Don’t you think that’s a bit of a contradiction—

Mr Anderson : No.

Senator HENDERSON: given the obvious and significant security and data privacy issues that even you’ve recognised, clearly?

Mr Anderson : We’ve heeded the warnings that have come from Australian government agencies with regard to TikTok. So we’ve adopted what has been effectively agency wide, certainly, with regard to saying to people not to have TikTok on an ABC device or their own personal device. We’ve taken measures with regard to when we do it, noting what I said earlier that there is a very large portion of the population consuming news, information and other material from TikTok. We think we need to be there, so we’ve worked out a way that we can do it—to still publish responsibly to it—but not compromise ourselves in the meantime.

Senator HENDERSON: One of the issues that I’ve long banged on about is the inadequate social media policy you have. On many of these posts the comments have been turned off, yet there are some stories where the comments have been left on. Do you take responsibility for the comments on your stories? Under current Australian law, you are deemed to be the publisher.

Mr Anderson : Senator, we have moderation requirements on the material that we publish. Sometimes we don’t have comments available. We do have comments available when it can be moderated, and when it can’t be moderated we don’t.

Senator HENDERSON: There’s one particular story with over 2,000 comments. I would ask you to come back with more information—

Mr Anderson : I’ll respond to you on that.

Senator HENDERSON: You’re not reviewing that your TikTok journalistic—so called journalism—operations are safe, so-called, because, based on the evidence you gave last time, you don’t need to be a qualified journalist to be working for the ABC on TikTok?

Mr Anderson : The training that we have for all of our journalists applies to the vertical video team, which does publish to TikTok. Those are experienced journalists that we have. That’s my understanding with regard to those journalists that are publishing to TikTok. Again, they have all the same editorial standards that they have to meet when they are publishing, because it’s an ABC publication on an ABC TikTok account, and it comes under the same scrutiny and the same editorial management that we would have anywhere at the ABC.

Senator HENDERSON: I’m looking at some of the comments now. I’m not going to read them all out, but there are really some disgraceful comments that the ABC is publishing on this one particular story. There are really grossly anti-Israel comments, even a comment I’m seeing now: ‘Where’s the leader of Hamas’s son?’ If you are going to operate on this platform, Mr Anderson, surely you’ve got to do so with requisite integrity, and that includes ensuring that you are not publishing these sorts of comments.

Mr Anderson : There’s obviously what we’re controlling, and then, when somebody re-posts other things that we have previously published, obviously that sits away from us and we don’t have control.

Senator HENDERSON: No, you’re deemed to be the publisher under Australian law. It’s your post. The comments are deemed to be the publication of the ABC.

Mr Anderson : Senator, I will take a look at that and I’ll respond to you on notice.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard