Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull believes a “pretty serious” offence may have been committed, after an Australian podcaster claimed he paid a Bangladeshi man to put 1000 fake signatures on Kevin Rudd’s petition for a Royal Commission into media bias.
Mr Turnbull, a supporter of fellow ex-PM Rudd’s record-breaking petition, said he “assume[s] somebody will” report the matter to the Australian Federal Police.
“I would have thought it’s something that should be taken very seriously,” he told The New Daily.
Mr Rudd’s petition received more than 501,000 signatures and was officially tabled in Parliament last week.
But a report in The Australian on Wednesday detailed claims from a Melbourne-based blogger and podcaster that he had paid for 1000 of those signatures to be added by a single person.
The podcaster claimed in a video posted to his Facebook page on October 28 that he paid $50 to a man in Bangladesh to generate 1000 signatures on the petition to “test” the system.
The podcaster wrote on Facebook “we put the system to the test … you won’t believe what we got away with” and asked “how credible are these government petitions?”
He said he set out “to see how easy it is to sign these petitions multiple times”, claiming the system could be exploited.
The podcaster has posted a string of anti-Labor, pro-Donald Trump content on his Facebook page – including at least one post, about alleged vote fraud in the US election, flagged as ‘false information’.
The alleged 1000 faked signatures would represent 0.199 per cent of the 501,876 total on Mr Rudd’s petition.
Murdoch is a cancer on democracy. Murdoch is a protection racket for the far right. And he runs mafia-type tactics to smear and intimidate his opponents. My reply to today's developments. pic.twitter.com/SD6ODXy458
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) November 18, 2020
The Australian published a list of names on the petition that appear to be false.
They used contact details that can be obtained easily and freely through websites providing instant temporary email addresses.
The process, alleged by the podcaster, included quickly cycling through the disposable email addresses to sign the petition under different names.
According to The Australian, names on the petition included “devin devin”, “xekel xekel”, and “Bette Midler known for Wind Beneath My Wings”.
The headline is calculated to suggest the bots were inspired by Rudd – for those who go on to read the story that is clearly not so. Will the Oz assist the AFP with their inquiries into whether this conduct – designed to mislead Parliament – involved any offences? https://t.co/vzS0MxE66T
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) November 17, 2020
Mr Turnbull, speaking to TND on Wednesday for our ‘Big Picture’ series, said the incident seemed worthy of investigation.
He had earlier tweeted about the AFP, but said while he hadn’t personally reported it to authorities, “I assume somebody will”.
“I don’t know if an offence has been committed, to be honest. But somebody has admitted in The Australian, gleefully, that they have basically engaged in a whole exercise to deceive the Australian Parliament,” Mr Turnbull said.
“I can think of a few areas where an offence may have been committed … if you think about it, it’s pretty serious, isn’t it?”
Mr Rudd called the incident “a foreign cyber attack on the Australian Parliament petitions website to discredit the petition”, and said he had nothing to do with it.
“Given that this is a cyber assault on the Australian Parliament website, will Murdoch guarantee they will co-operate now with the AFP on their knowledge of this far-right attack?” he tweeted.
TND has reached out to the podcaster several times through Facebook and email.
In a Facebook post directed at Mr Rudd on Wednesday, the man wrote: “My video report helped to identify huge flaws within the Australian Parliament petition website. You should be thanking me, not attacking me.”
“Kev, if someone commits an cyber attack you don’t publicly document the entire operation and post it to your social media page. That kind of defeats the purpose,” he wrote.
An AFP spokesperson told TND they could not confirm if a report had been made, or if police were investigating the incident.
TND understands the issue is being investigated by the House Standing Committee on Petitions.
‘Any petition can be exploited’
Dr Timothy Graham, a cybersecurity expert and lecturer in digital media at Queensland University of Technology, said all online petitions were vulnerable to such tampering and that it was “nothing new”.
“There is a possibility this petition, like any petition, can be exploited in some way. It’s possible this happened, but it’s mundane. Every online petition in the world fundamentally has to deal with this problem,” he told TND.
“There’s a fairly standard design infrastructure for petitions, and Australian Parliament’s website is pretty standard. It has email verification and some degree of moderation and vetting, but that’s pretty much it.”
Dr Graham said it would be unfair to cast aspersions on the petition over this incident.
“[The podcaster] hired online cheap labour. There’s no conspiracy here,” he said.
“It’s not a surprise that, if you try hard enough, you can ‘game’ the systems.”
He said online petitions had to strike a balance between being accessible enough to allow people to sign, and being secure enough to avoid spamming.
Dr Graham suggested future parliamentary petitions could be given extra layers of verification, like linking with government MyGov accounts, but said this would be “extreme”.
Senate inquiry continues
Despite his support for the petition, Mr Turnbull said he didn’t expect it would lead to a Royal Commission, claiming “the government doesn’t and the Opposition certainly doesn’t want to offend Murdoch”.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who led the charge for a Senate committee into media ownership last week on the back of the petition, said the controversy should not blunt the wider issue at the heart of the campaign.
“The Parliament needs to make sure their systems can’t be gamed,” Senator Hanson-Young told TND.
“But, nonetheless this is an issue many, many Australians feel strongly about … we need to ensure we have a strong and independent public interest news industry to support our democracy and the Senate Inquiry will help to do that.”