The Voice reveals the urgent need for truth reforms

Sep 28, 2023
Fake news and politics word cloud with keywords on blue computer keyboard.

The knowledge that the official AEC Yes and No campaign pamphlet sent to every home in Australia was not obliged to be factual is shocking.

Protecting the democratic project ought to be one of our most important goals. The Albanese government has made several timid steps in this direction, but in other crucial areas is dawdling over integrity measures that need urgent attention. One of the most important aspects will be legislating towards promoting truth in political speech.

This ought to have been done before the announcement of the Voice to Parliament referendum: the disinformation deployed by the No campaign threaten this crucial project that ought to be debated based on truths not fear-mongering fantasy.

The Right has elected to make the Voice into a political weapon to try to damage Albanese and strengthen its own chances at the next election. Given that the Voice is such a mild proposed advisory body, the No campaign is manufacturing deceptive propaganda to alienate an inflation-stressed public. Politicians will not even be obliged to consult with the Voice when making policy regarding First Nations’ people, so the dire threats are ludicrous.

The knowledge that the official AEC Yes and No campaign pamphlet sent to every home in Australia was not obliged to be factual is shocking: Australians do not understand the utter cynicism of the contemporary Right and many are likely to assume something issued by a government-affiliated body will be factual, missing the later fact-checks that pointed out the many misleading elements in the No campaign section of the booklet.

This unreliable material was issued at taxpayer expense; so too is the campaigning against the Voice being carried out by serving Right wing politicians. This ought to impose obligations towards truth, even if it doesn’t oblige politicians to serve the public interest.

It is a Herculean challenge to control the flow of conspiracy disinformation on the internet. Some of it is started by paid operatives and spread by bots, but much of the rest is organic, each new conspiracy detail slotted into the metaconspiracy (or omniconspiracy) that the political Right is exploiting. Health misinformation related to the pandemic merged into QAnon and ideas from Pentecostal preachers. These intermingle in a digital jigsaw that makes room for every other conspiracy theory, to form what Naomi Klein in her latest book labels the “Mirror World.”

Such is the complexity of the mirrored “reality” that its people believe those in the fact-based world are actually in a “clown world” or “the matrix.” Klein explains “we are not having disagreements about differing interpretations of reality – we are having disagreements about who is in reality and who is in a simulation.”

In Australia, the Voice is being used (like the war on “gender”) to activate this radicalised base drawn into MAGA Plus Trumpist politics. It is depicted as an “elite” conspiracy aimed to “enslave” Australians to a “global landlord.”

Above all Klein’s Mirror World features a loathing of everything that emerges from academic and professional expertise. Anything from the old sources of authority is intended to deceive and exploit. Fact-checkers are part of the conspiracy world’s enemy elites. There is no source of information outside their sphere that people within the Mirror World will trust (unless it reinforces their current beliefs).

AEC commissioner Tom Rogers declared the scope of the wild rumours spreading about the Voice referendum is “tinfoil-hat-wearing bonkers mad conspiracy theories” including that the vote is rigged or that the AEC is using Dominion voting machines, the company targeted in the Trump election lie conspiracies. These illustrate that the wider implication of the demonisation of the Voice is an unfounded attack on our democratic processes as unreliable.

With this epistemological crisis, it is crucial that political speech – and the news media that disseminates it – is obliged to lean closer to truthful speech. We must earn and protect the trust that the community not yet drawn into the Mirror World should be able to have in these sources.

Truth in political advertising must be legislated at the federal level as it is in many of our states.

We must also legislate that government-affiliated bodies’ publications be fact-checked before publication, not merely trust that the public will find such fact-checks after the item is distributed.

It is time for debating whether we need sanctions for politicians who systematically mislead the electorate. Obviously this would be unpopular with both main parties since, for example, misleading the public on the functionality of climate “solutions” such as carbon sequestration is standard business. Nonetheless, we can only make the best decisions for the country’s present and the world’s future by pushing for this political reiteration of corporate spin to be challenged.

We should demand a public and real-time register of affiliations of politicians. From whom do they accept money to perform speeches? From whom do they accept travel and accommodation? With which bodies do they regularly associate?

We need a more stringent definition of the nature of “think tank.” If the nature of the thinking is to generate propaganda talking points rather than actual research, they need to be accurately labelled as lobbyists. Bodies that are connected to international ultra-free market strategists like the Atlas Network need to be publicly labelled and forced to reveal donors and pay tax.

The Murdoch Royal Commission must be commenced, with other commercial news organisations to be covered by findings about ensuring true “fair and balanced” coverage. In an age where politicians deploy lies in abundance, we need news organisations compelled to be cordoned off from the propaganda mission – or labelled accordingly.

The ABC needs the many recommendations to strengthen its independence from political interference implemented.

The Greens and independent candidates are correct: there should be no exemption for “professional news content” in the attempt to crackdown on social media misinformation.

This domestic program ought to be more straightforward than the daunting challenge of dealing with international mis- and disinformation fomented on the internet. That ‘X’ is so much worse for bigotry and disinformation than Twitter illustrates two key points. The settings implemented by management can work to limit disinformation. It also illustrates the damage of leaving massive platforms in private hands.

Robert Reich recently posted this message: “The forces undermining our democracy, polluting our planet, and stoking hatred are counting on you to give up.

“They have money.

“They have megaphones.

“And they have an even more powerful weapon – one that’s harder to spot but incredibly effective: Cynicism.

“Don’t give up.”

The Albanese government have the power to ensure that Australian political speech is as truthful as possible in a world where reliable information is both difficult to determine and utterly crucial.

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