A cacophony of voices

| October 1, 2023

Misinformation and disinformation have come to curse all national issues involving major political decisions. This was true of the Covid-19 pandemic with its mask mandates and lockdowns, and of recent elections.

As we approach the 14 October polling day, it’s clearly also true of the Voice to Parliament referendum. False narratives, accusations and counteraccusations are rampant online, making it sometimes difficult for voters to establish facts.

The most important safeguard against disinformation and misinformation is you—the reader, viewer and listener. And that starts with having a good understanding of what misinformation and disinformation are, what they look like, where information comes from and why groups might manipulate that information to interfere in the referendum. Without inoculating ourselves against these modern plagues as best we can, we can’t engage with confidence in a fair and informed debate.

You’ve likely already come across false information about the referendum, whether you’ve noticed it or not. Politicians have been accused, by opponents and others, of peddling misinformation. ASPI has also detected groups of inauthentic social media accounts, likely sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party, amplifying narratives that could be used to spread division and exacerbate confusion.

Not all false information is spread deliberately or with malign intent. Misinformation refers to false or inaccurate information that is spread without intent to mislead or cause harm. Sometimes, individuals or groups may believe they are spreading the truth and helping others.

Disinformation is information spread with the deliberate intent to manipulate, damage or mislead. Sometimes the intent is obvious, such as to direct criticism or anger towards a group or to sway a vote. Other times, the goal is bigger or longer term, such as spreading division in a population or distracting people from other issues that deserve greater scrutiny. People may also be motivated by financial gain. US radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones made millions from his program, InfoWars, by repeatedly denying the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Both forms of false information can cause harm. In the early stages of the pandemic, misinformation about unproven health treatments, such as drinking sanitiser, made people sick. The barrage of conflicting information created a confusing online environment that, in the longer term, reduced public trust in mainstream media and institutions.

The confusion, division and mistrust create a more fertile ground for deliberate and malign disinformation to gain purchase and cause harm, such as the conspiracy theories spread by actors linked to the Chinese government that claimed Covid-19 originated in North America.

Online consumers and voters have access to resources designed to help counter false information. Australia has multiple fact-checking centres, such as RMIT Fact Lab and AAP Fact Check (though people should be cognisant of the claims of political bias in some of these initiatives).

On the referendum process, the Australian Electoral Commission keeps a register listing prominent pieces of disinformation and detailing its response. The AEC, which is strictly apolitical, is not responsible for fact-checking claims made about the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ cases.

But authorities cannot irradiate every falsehood. A healthy and fair debate depends on all of us spotting false information—deliberate or not—and reducing its impact by avoiding spreading it. This latter point is critical; just as misinformation spreads because people are prone to bias and limited attention, purveyors of disinformation deliberately prey on these vulnerabilities. We tend to share appealing falsehoods because they hit us on an emotional level—targeting our biases—or because we don’t spend the time to carefully assess what we’re seeing.

No individual, regardless of passion and dedication, can be expected to grasp all the information on any topic. Even if we care deeply about an issue like Indigenous representation in our constitution, it often takes a back seat to our everyday lives, whether that’s the footy, our favourite TV shows or wrestling with the rising cost of living. There’s only so much time in the day.

People therefore become easily satisfied with what is put before them. When we see news that aligns with our beliefs, we’re more likely to embrace it without examining its authenticity. Deliberate spreaders of disinformation will seek to frame their message in a way that exploits this behaviour.

A recent Recorded Future report identified malign influence narratives targeting the Voice and found that many were based on race, religion or ideology, indicating they were designed to influence voters who hold strong pre-existing views.

Similarly, influence actors might seek to flood the information environment, taking advantage of people’s tendency to accept information that is more prevalent, or to go along with what they perceive to be the majority or popular opinion, especially in their own social groups. These are commonly used heuristics when we don’t have the time to dive deeply into the information ourselves.

Flooding is a technique also used to distract and overwhelm consumers of information. When we see and hear many conflicting and confusing views on a topic, we tend to switch off and become indifferent to the issue or lose motivation to seek out facts. This tactic has been effectively used by Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. Alternative narratives, such as portraying the invasion as a ‘denazification’ mission, continue to muddy the waters.

We should be alive to these risks, particularly before we share information. We should ask ourselves: From whom is the message coming and where else has this message been shared? What is the likely motivation of the messenger? Does it contain information that is verifiable, and how trustworthy are the sources of information underpinning the statement? Is it missing some important context? And does it try to provoke a response by making emotive and spurious connections such as to apartheid, the Jewish community, or a communist or global conspiracy?

Sober consideration of these questions can help identify instances in which someone is trying to manipulate you or is inadvertently misleading you. Most importantly, we should approach the topic with humility, recognising we may be the victims of false or misleading information, and be willing to change our minds if presented with credible arguments and evidence.

This article was written by Albert Zhang and Blake Johnson and published by The Strategist.  For further information regarding what the vote will mean, visit the Australian government’s website on the Voice.