It’s election season, which means dirty tricks and disinformation are out in full force.
It’s petty, it’s laughable, it’s legal. Politicians are allowed to lie in political advertising, and they’re allowed to sling mud if they want to. Type in albanese.com.au into your search bar, and it’ll take you right to the Liberal Party website — or at least, it did before it was shut down. These are the types of games politicians are playing.
I can’t think of a single other industry where this kind of behaviour is tolerated. And yet, it’s so normalised in politics that we often forget that it doesn’t have to be this way.
What Are the Dirty Tricks in Play?
The Advance Australia Party has authorised this anti-Labor billboard that’s roaming around Victoria at the moment. Yes, that is referencing China’s Communist Party. It is so problematic, on so many levels, that I have no idea where to begin.
Seen in Melbourne. Gonna be a fun campaign. pic.twitter.com/FnE1RDCKNn
— Norman Swan (@normanswan) April 5, 2022
Speaking of manipulating voters, particularly the immigrant community, here’s Gladys Liu (a Victorian Liberal Party senator) in action, using a very, very, very similar purple as the Australian Electoral Commission on her Chinese language signs at the last Federal Election.
The signs, placed next to official AEC signage, reads, ‘The right way to vote: On the green ballot paper fill in 1 next to the candidate of Liberal Party and fill in the numbers from smallest to largest in the rest of the boxes’.
Would the AEC ever tell you to vote for a particular party? Absolutely not.
One of the big movements in Australian politics at the moment is the rise of the Independent Woman (Destiny’s Child, 2000). Independents, backed by community groups, and endorsed by climate organisation Climate 200, are running in seats held by conservative Liberals, and most of them are donning a teal colour.
The polls are turning up pretty good for a lot of these independents, which has led the Liberal Party to launch a Fake Independents website. It’s ominous and attempts to tie Independent candidates to the Labor Party and movements like Extinction Rebellion. It is also, of course, a vehicle for donations for the Liberals.
Independents like Allegra Spender in Wentworth, who is running against Dave Sharma are seeing more targeted attempts to undermine their campaigning efforts. See any similarities between Spender and Sharma’s branding here? That’s not the Liberal Party blue we’re used to, Dave. (Note: he doesn’t even mention the Liberal Party. No logo either. Ummmm?!).
Look what arrived in my letterbox today – Allegra Spender’s newsletter, and desperate Dave Sharma’s teal knock-off – with not one mention of the party he represents pic.twitter.com/e42F14PCNF
— maria kedar (@mkrosebay) March 10, 2022
John Frydenberg, Liberal MP for Kooyong is doing the same by leveraging the Independent teal blue in his own collateral. The independent candidate he’s running against, Dr. Monique Ryan, is gaining momentum in their community, and he’s understandably afraid.
This stuff is dirty and it’s harmful when it comes to the outcome of the election, but what about issues-based deception? Deception that has real-world, immediate implications?
Craig Kelly, leader of the United Australia Party was crowned “winner of the 2021 award for ‘proponent of the most preposterous piece of pseudoscientific or paranormal piffle’” according to The Guardian.
Yes, the guy behind the FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM ads, and the Federal MP for the seat of Hughes, in Sydney’s South.
Kelly was banned from Facebook in February 2021 for his misinformation around the COVID vaccines, and yet there were no penalties for doing so as an elected MP. The ‘freedom’ rallies (which Kelly frequents) are responsible for breeding a lot of conspiracy theories (Kelly’s fave is sonic weapons). I’m all for mandates, so why can’t we put mandates in place when pollies spout dangerous, unsubstantiated tirades?
Then there were the Black Summer fires. Disinformation expert and author of Facts and Other Lies Ed Coper spoke with The Latch about the politicians at the helm of the arson rumours.
“Political leaders who didn’t want to admit [the fires] were related to climate change started rumours about the fires being caused by arson,” Coper said.
“Then, hundreds of fake Twitter accounts appeared from nowhere and started tweeting, over and over and over again “#ArsonEmergency” and sharing junk articles that reinforced the lie.”
No guesses who fed these rumours. *Cough, Craig Kelly, cough*. Oh, and Tassie Liberal senator Eric Abetz and Nationals MP Christensen too. And West Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest.
Anyone noticing a thread here?
“This sort of disinformation campaign is so successful because our brains are geared to mistake popularity for truth”, Coper tells us.
“The more people we see saying something, the truer we think it is. If we see thousands of people (albeit fake people) all saying the fires were caused by arson or greenies backburning, then it becomes quite persuasive. Our guts tell us to go along with the crowd.”
So, What Do We Do About It?
Well, we can start by electing politicians who want to reform political advertising laws. Make sure you do your research on each of the candidates running. You can even walk into their offices and ask them directly, too. You have every right.
When you see misinformation online, Coper says we need to take these conversations “out of the public domain (like in a Facebook comment thread), and into the private (like a one on one conversation).
“Peer-to-peer conversations based on shared values is the way to pull someone out of their disinformation bubble.”
Also, from an algorithm perspective, the more we comment publicly, the more that piece of news is going to appear in one’s feed. We want to minimise public engagement where possible.
Coper also says “instead of unintentionally amplifying misinformation in an attempt to debunk it, we need to tell better stories about the truth. The best story wins, and unfortunately, disinformation has the upper hand there.”
Keep an eye out in the lead-up to the election. If you see something dodge, look into it, and debunk it.
Ruby Claire is the Director of Incredible Communications and Campaign Manager for independent candidate Georgia Steele. She writes regularly for We Are Explorers and has stories in Crikey and SBS The Feed.