By ED COPER
It’s 11pm on May 21, 2022 at the Fullerton Hotel in Sydney. A group of concerned advisers are gathered backstage, speaking in hushed tones and gesticulating widely. Finally, Yaron Finkelstein furtively slips a piece of paper into the Prime Minister’s hand as he takes the stage to address an increasingly deflated crowd.
‘My friends, I know it has been a very disappointing night. But we are hearing very concerning reports about all sorts of irregularities at polling places around the country…’
This simple hypothetical phrase, a simple suggestion by one of our political elites, is all that stands between our healthy functioning democracy and a descent into American-style partisan hysteria and division, and ultimately violence. We should be thankful it didn’t happen in our most recent Federal Election, but we should be under no illusions as to how close we came.
The 2022 election saw the mass importation of foreign disinformation — not from rival geopolitical actors trying to subvert and disrupt, but from domestic copycats borrowing from a playbook they saw and wished to emulate.
This next example is not hypothetical: at a polling booth near Port Macquarie an unknown group of people collected their ballot papers off the AEC officials, then proceeded to walk straight out with them rather than casting them. They then produced a number of fake ballot papers they had photocopied, piled them with the legitimate ones on top, took a photo of them near a bin and then sent it to Sydney radio station 2GB. 2GB tweeted the image to their 40,000 followers with the caption ‘This is odd.’ (2GB promptly deleted the tweet when contacted by the AEC).
And so begin threads that when unpicked by partisan media and cynical politicians could unravel our democracy all the way to Canberra.
It is just one of many examples of election fraud disinformation from our recent electoral cycle. While we usually like to observe and mock these types of movements from afar, we seem wilfully blind to them when they are under our noses.
The road a harmful conspiracy theory travels from the fringes to the mainstream is littered with breadcrumbs left by opportunistic political elites, and signposts erected by partisan news outlets. It is offered an express lane via social media echo chambers designed to promote the extreme and the emotional.
Unless we fully understand how the new ecosystems of political disinformation function, we may sleepwalk into this crisis next time — we are not immune to the same outcomes seen elsewhere, like on January 6 in Washington DC. We were simply lucky this time.
The Canvass of Disinformation
Disinformation is increasingly widespread but still poorly understood. There is an undue focus on state actors and tech platforms, thanks largely to high profile examples of Russian interference in US elections, and the lazy casting of tech megalomaniacs as the uber villain in this story. This has obscured the forces we should be concerned about: networks of bad-faith actors who weaponise social media to spread harmful narratives, divide us, and profit from both.
Many also conflate any political disagreement with disinformation. Saying ‘my opponent will defund the ABC if elected’ if your opponent has made no such policy announcement is not on the same plane of indiscretion as you creating thousands of fake Twitter bots and programming them to share doctored policy documents every time someone tweets ‘we love our ABC’. Disinformation is about the deliberate campaigns that happen far from our public view, that are aimed at creating and coordinating entirely false realities.
Disinformation is a very disturbing symptom of a much deeper malaise: the breakdown of our traditional information ecosystem, and in its place the rise of a new information disorder that encourages falsehoods and disadvantages facts.
The extinction event for traditional news which followed the arrival of the internet in the 1990s exposed an inconvenient fact: factual information doesn’t sell. It didn’t remove our need to be informed, however, it just meant the places we got our information migrated onto platforms wholly unsuitable to host them: social media. Our new sources of information paid no heed to truth or balance, and we didn’t ask of them the same quid pro quo we asked of traditional news companies in exchange for the power they had over our society: tight regulation.
Rarely have we been so deeply embedded in echo chambers that are completely cut off from any unifying reference points of common information.
As a result, when society is challenged by a new circumstance (like we have had to do during this pandemic) we look to the things that have got us through previous crises: trust in our institutions of government and science to give us the plan we can compliantly follow to safety.
Instead we find the cupboard of trust bare, just when we need it. People embrace explanations that defy reason, and then lob casuistic pot shots at their peers before retreating into tribal fortresses.
It is an incredibly harmful and destructive force. And governments must be serious about addressing it with adequate policy responses and public education campaigns. But what if the government is the one doing the disinforming? This is the recipe for a complete breakdown in the norms and conventions that keep us wrapped safe in a stable democracy.
Unpacking the forces that led to the January 6th attempted coup in the United States, Kate Starbird from the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public coined the concept of ‘participatory disinformation’. It explained the symbiosis between the behaviour of political elites and their supporters.
In essence, it is a self-reinforcing loop between the two, an unbroken chain of disinformation that feeds upon itself until it explodes into real world violence:
‘During the lead-up to — and for several months after — the 2020 election, political elites [elected political leaders, political pundits and partisan media outlets] repeatedly spread the message of a rigged election. This set an expectation of voter fraud and became a ‘frame’ through which events were interpreted… With their perspective on the world shaped by this frame, the online ‘crowds’ generated false/misleading stories of voter fraud, echoing & reinforcing the frame… Political elites then echo the false/misleading stories back to their audiences, reinforcing the frame, and building a sense of collective grievance. Shared grievance is a powerful political force. It can activate people to vote — and to take other political action in the world. Audiences echo and reiterate this growing sense of grievance. Violent language and calls to action increase.’
You will recognise most of the elements as already present in Australian politics. The frame of electoral fraud was present on social media and messaging apps like Telegram throughout the election, as were the online crowds that spread it. We have the abetting partisan media. We even had the elected politicians embracing these narratives and crowds.
The example of the Port Macquarie ballots mentioned above was ably assisted by a complicit conservative media (no doubt why 2GB was chosen by the fraudsters as their intended target). Not only did they tweet the hoax without question, adding their own inciting caption, it reinforced an existing frame the station was pushing: that the AEC and voting procedures in Australia could not be trusted, and that there was widespread voter fraud.
Another disinformation frame pushed throughout the election — the false claim that the AEC was using Dominion voting machines to count the votes electronically (this was one of the main conspiracies in the 2020 US election) — was pushed by Rod Culleton, former One Nation Senator and failed 2022 senate candidate for the Great Australian Party. The same Party also claimed on their Facebook page the election of the Albanese government was invalid because the new Prime Minister had sworn allegiance to the Queen of Australia, not the Queen of the United Kingdom.
Former LNP member and failed 2022 One Nation senate candidate George Christensen launched a petition for an audit of the election and the introduction of live streaming at all booths. Clive Palmer accused the AEC staff of taking ballot papers home with them. Other UAP and One Nation candidates pushed a widespread disinformation campaign to bring a statutory declaration to the ballot box and take a video of your vote to prevent it being ‘erased’.
One stark difference between the American example and our recent experience stands out: none of these elected officials were at our political apex, they all inhabit the fringe.
It means, however, that we came worryingly close to that happening — especially with the recent Pentecostal behaviour of our now ex-Prime Minister emerging: ‘We trust in [God]. We don’t trust in governments. We don’t trust in the United Nations, thank goodness,’ said Mr Morrison in the concluding notes of a sermon he delivered at a church on July 17. Not to mention his subterfuge surrounding the Sri Lankan boat arrival on election day, that he may be significantly more in the embrace of conspiracy theorists than he let on while in office.
All the signs are there: it begins with dog whistles that our mainstream media will miss, but are breadcrumbs left for those who know what to look for.
It was one of the big ‘unknowns’ heading into this election: that rump of the electorate, that new eclectic tribe that bedfellowed new-aged hippie with far-right Nazi, who had divorced itself from mainstream consensus on lockdowns, vaccines and mandates — would they find a new political home, become a new political constituency?
The Victorian anti-lockdown protests and the convoys to Canberra jarred many Australians into a concern where these trends would lead if left unchecked.
On the surface, these protests were about certain specific grievances: from anti-vaxxers wanting an end to mandates, to so-called ‘sovereign citizens’ wanting a complete overhaul of modern legal systems — and everything in between. They united under the broad banner of ‘freedom’.
But they are the real-world manifestation of the coordinated online efforts to harvest outrage and discontent. In the US, it was these same forces that manifested into the ‘Stop the Steal’ election fraud narrative and the violent attempted overthrow of the incoming government.
The opportunistic political actor is an essential step on that pathway, as described in the ‘participatory disinformation’ framework.
In Australia, we have seen the way this operates: not overt statements in support of fringe conspiracies, but in ‘breadcrumbs’ left for keen internet sleuths to — wink wink, nudge nudge — divine what our leaders are actually saying in coded language meant for them alone.
And here, unfortunately, we do have examples at our apex, most notably from our most recent ex-Prime Minister and what appeared to the fringes to be a coded message celebrated by QAnon, whose wide-ranging conspiracy centres on a plot run by elite paedophiles who harvest the blood of abused children.
The wording of his apology to victims following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse contained the phrase ‘ritual abuse’ — a term adopted by QAnon in their Satanic conspiracy, but not described as such in the Royal Commission report, nor in the twenty-page briefing advising Morrison on which terms to use in his apology. His friend and leading QAnon proponent triumphantly texted another follower hours before the apology: ‘I think Scott is going to do it!’
Morrison’s Victorian colleague, the Liberal shadow Treasurer Louise Staley, likewise attempted to court the conspiracy fringes with some breadcrumbs of her own, after Premier Dan Andrews fell down a set of stairs. She issued a bizarre press release with a laundry list of questions that on their own made no sense, but to online disinformation groups were the legitimisation of their wacky conspiracy theories linking Andrews to QAnon plots.
This example should give us all supreme cause for concern. This was one of the first times it crossed over into the political mainstream, in a way it has within the Trump ecosystem in the US. In Staley, Australia found their political disinformation collaborator; our own Trump-like ‘elite cue’ to complete the participatory disinformation loop.
We know that there are forces at work in Australia to emulate the Trump ‘MAGAphone’ ecosystem at every level — the media, online networks and in our political campaign machinery. We know that Scott Morrison and senior members of his government were quick to embrace many elements of Trump’s MAGA movement, and slow to reject Trump’s efforts to cling to power after being electorally defeated.
We know that in our 2022 federal election, online networks and our conservative media imported specific election fraud disinformation to undermine our trust in the results.
Had Scott Morrison decided on election night to present the room at the Fullerton Hotel with the image of ballots in Port Macquarie, or some other crumb, he would have found fertile ground laid — if not for the complete violent overthrow of our incoming Labor government, then for the cleaving of an entire section of society who embraced it from our mainstream reality of legitimate government.
As many as half of every Republican voter in America currently lives in that fiction. It is making progress on any issue near impossible. It is part of the fabric of the same ecosystem that has delivered a conservative gerrymandering of the entire structure of power that, even with the Presidency, the House and the Senate, the Democrats cannot prevent the wholesale destruction of everything they stand for — including a woman’s bodily autonomy.
The Fabians have always been guardians against rapid and disruptive change, and the defenders of progressive reform within our existing institutional foundations. It should therefore be of supreme concern to all Fabians to arrest the forces of disinformation at work in Australia and the conditions which will allow them to erode trust in those foundations.
We should not be celebrating the fact we saw the peaceful transition of power in Australia this time, because it reinforces a narrative that we are somehow different from America and therefore immune to the forces that disrupt it. We are not.
Our brains track no different physiology to American brains. Our social media algorithms neither. Our need to form social connections with those who share our values is the evolutionary desire that disinformation hijacks. We are in no way above that impulse.
Instead, we cannot allow our luck to dim our vigilance.
To repair the cracks that disinformation exploits, our current Labor government needs solutions that are both short and long term: a new regulatory framework for the companies on whose turf these narratives propagate; a new safeguarding of the healthy media ecosystem (like the ABC) who can fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the last one; a new education curriculum that imbues young Australian minds with the digital literacy skills to inhabit a new information ecosystem.
And our most urgent task is to prevent the legitimisation of political discourse that cues conspiratorial thinking. We know from the research that if we call out disinformation, warn about its harm, and impair the credibility of those who spread it, we can inoculate our population against its effects.
Donald Trump gave us many things, but his lasting gift to our society was the political weaponisation of organised lying. We cannot let it escape our attention that underneath the surface, Australia is rife with his model of harmful coordinated disinformation. To focus on those who are caught in its sway is to ignore those who led them there — their journey began thousands of miles away in a campaign for US president, but their destination is depressingly clear: political violence. If we are to prevent that, we need to first appreciate how close we came this time.
Ed Coper is a political communications expert and the author of Facts and Other Lies: Welcome to the Disinformation Age (Allen & Unwin). He was a pioneer of digital campaign techniques, and has advised ALP campaigns through four federal elections. He founded the New York-based Center for Impact Communications and the Sydney-based communications agency Populares, which engineered the recent ‘teal wave’ of independent victories.
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