The Voice of Disinformation
The Voice of Disinformation
In the theatre of contemporary politics where hearts and minds are the target market, disinformation has become a valuable weapon in the toolkit of persuasion. More than mere propaganda, disinformation does not seek to convince the public of a specific truth. It does not even need to believe in the message; its only goal is to muddy the waters of discourse and confuse the public consciousness so that the idea of objective truth becomes impossible.
In his recent book On Disinformation: How to Fight For Truth and Protect Democracy (2023), author Lee McIntyre lays out the ‘post-truth playbook’ as such:
attack the truth tellers, lie about anything and everything, manufacture disinformation, encourage distrust and polarization, create confusion and cynicism … The goal is not merely to get people to believe any particular false claim, but to so demoralize them with a tsunami of falsehoods that they begin to give up on the idea that truth can be known at all… (p. 2)
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum serves as a microcosm of the challenges facing public discourse around the world. This essay will be an exploration of democracy, public debate, and the ominous influence of misinformation and disinformation in the age of social media. Moreover, it questions whether this polarisation is an inherent feature of democracy or a toxic by-product of modern society.
The Firehose of Falsehoods
Traditional propaganda broadcast a single message through mass media which they wanted to convince the public to believe. However, the age of the internet and the rise of social media has transformed the media ecology into a multi-faceted, multi-directional network in which theoretically, everyone can contribute, share, and disseminate their own perspective. To adapt to this new environment, propaganda has had to evolve ways to infiltrate these new platforms by taking new forms. In this new paradigm, sincere, well thought out arguments must compete with TikTok videos, memes and viral Facebook posts which are largely unregulated, and for the most part beyond regulation – because of their speed and shareability. Without the oversight of an editor, propagandists have learnt that sharing false statements with little to no pushback is highly effective. Those that agree will share, those that don’t will argue in the comments, and either way, the algorithm rewards the engagement. This tactic has become known as the ‘firehose of falsehoods’ and it has been highly successful in hijacking online culture with a taste for conspiracy.
After the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States, social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter were flooded with disinformation. Everything from accusations of murder to paedophilia was levelled at Hillary Clinton, despite zero evidence or corroboration from mainstream media. After the election, a forensic investigation by an international network of journalists revealed the architects of these disinformation rabbit holes. They discovered that there was not just one source of disinformation – there were thousands – with a range of motives from international propaganda to partisan politics and finally pure profit motive. In St Petersburg, whistle-blowers revealed that the ‘Internet Research Agency’ was a 24 hour ‘troll farm’ in which employees were paid to setup fake accounts across multiple platforms and pump out a daily quota of posts. In the Veles, Macedonia, a booming economy of clickbait entrepreneurs saw the writing on the wall and turned it into money in the bank through a vast network of fake posts, sharing articles from fake news accounts which they had set up all designed to offend and outrage – truth be damned.
This epidemic of fake news sources was then reinforced and amplified by conspiracy theorists and unscrupulous actors in the US political sphere who could claim ignorance once the sources were easily proven to be false, by which time it was too late. The entire process of editorial checks and balances was circumvented, and the information stream was polluted with this ‘firehose of falsehoods’ to the point that the general public, uninterested in checking their facts and cynical of mainstream media, had already absorbed the falsehoods into their personal narrative.
The Voice of Disinformation
The referendum for a Voice to parliament is a textbook example of the use and abuse of disinformation and how it can be utilised to create division amongst allies, toxify the public discourse and undermine any attempt at civil debate, because it eats up all the oxygen in the room. Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, speaking on Radio National, summarised this clearly when he said: ‘The No campaign strategy … has been to ignore the proposal that’s on the ballot paper, to sow fear and division across our wonderful country and talk about anything other than what’s on the ballot paper.’ Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney also weighed in on the disinformation being spread around the debate and likened it to people ‘…importing Trump style politics to Australia. It is post-truth’ This statement was used against her by Andrew Bolt from Sky News as an example of Burney’s supposed disrespect for freedom of speech.
If It Bleeds It Leads
The media plays a pivotal role in shaping public discourse. Ideally, journalists and news organisations uphold the principles of accuracy, objectivity, and balance to provide citizens with reliable information. The media's role in scrutinizing claims and holding those in power accountable is paramount, but it can also be a powerful propaganda machine that can amplify our fears and prejudices. While public broadcasters like SBS and ABC could be accused of promoting public discussion and offering multiple points of view. Sky News on the other hand, makes its bread and butter through broadcasting conservative talking points, replicating the formula of Fox News in the United States.
A survey of headlines of the Sky News YouTube page reveals the station’s partisan agenda and their intention to brand the referendum a failed Labor initiative and symbol of their unfitness to lead:
Sky News headlines:
“The Voice is a campaign to ‘insult and demonise’ ordinary Australians”
“PM has ‘misled’ Australians on crucial detail about the Voice to Parliament.”
“Yes vote ‘circling the drain’ as support for the Voice drops.”
“Labor’s Voice to Parliament is ‘lost’.”
“‘Shameful act’: Albenese splitting Australia ‘in two’ with Voice proposal.”
“Australian public experiencing ‘so much fatigue’ over the Voice to Parliament.”
“Anthony Albanese will take a ‘very big personal blow’ if Voice referendum ‘goes down.”
“‘Father of the Voice’: Noel Pearson proving the proposal is based on false hopes’.”
“Albanese is preparing ‘apartheid’ with Indigenous voice.”
Clearly, by associating the Voice with the Labor brand the aim is to politicise the referendum along partisan lines. No matter who supports the campaign – from major corporate brands, sporting groups, community organisations; to cultural icons like John Farnham – the strategy is to brand the referendum as part of a ‘moralising’ movement of elites. Anyone who questions this narrative and its obvious bias is accused of stifling freedom of speech.
Divide and Conquer
The main advocacy group for the NO vote is the conservative organisation ‘Advance Australia’ which claims a membership of 44,000 (unverified) and that it ‘represents the Australian majority’. Advance Australia’s other ‘anti-woke’ campaigns include ‘Not Zero’ aimed at curbing ‘woke climate hysteria’; ‘Erasing History’ which seeks to preserve Australia’s education system’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage and your mainstream values’; and ‘Dump The Heritage Laws’ in Western Australia which were legislated to Indigenous consultation after Rio Tinto accidentally blew up a cultural heritage site in the Pilbara. The core slogan of the Advance campaign is ‘If you don’t know, vote no’ which feels more like a call to ignorance. A celebration of miseducation.
In a Sydney Morning Herald article titled ‘No campaign's “fear, doubt" strategy revealed’ (12th September, 2023), Advance Australia’s tactics of disinformation have been revealed to intentionally play upon the public’s fear: ‘The campaign to sink the Voice has instructed volunteers to use fear and doubt rather than facts to trump arguments used by the Yes camp’ focusing on the threat to ‘abolish Australia Day’ and offer ‘compensation and reparations through a treaty’.
Furthermore, Advance’s Tiktok brand ‘Fair Australia’ contains hundreds of videos custom made for the platform which amplify this scaremongering with emotive music and the spokesperson Jacinta Price declaring: ‘they want to pay their respects to the communist party … they want to abolish Australia Day … they want to tear down our system … they want to divide us!’
Despite originating from a bipartisan reconciliation project initiated by former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum has become ensnared in the web of partisan politics. As the referendum aims to empower Indigenous voices, it has triggered a sharp divide between political ideologies. While the YES campaign assumed it represented a uniting vision, the NO campaign has exploited political divisions by manipulating pre-existing biases and framing the referendum as a threat to Australian values, equality, and the foundations of democracy itself.
Racebaiting and Gaslighting
One of the main criticisms the NO campaign and commentators have made about the Voice, is that it will divide the country, which is a deep form of gaslighting. There is a sickening irony that Andrew Bolt, who might be the most divisive media personality this country has ever known, is accusing others of being divisive.
When Professor Marcia Langton was asked to describe the reasons for people voting No, she explained that there was a real undercurrent of ‘base racism’ which was leading about one fifth of the vote. Langton was immediately rebuked by conservative commentators. ‘Australians don’t like being called racist,’ said Andrew Clenell on Sky News. ‘They’re sensitive to any suggestion of it. This is a disaster for the YES campaign.’ The doublethink of this situation in which a white conservative commentator could tell a senior Indigenous leader off for pointing out racism is grandiose in its hypocrisy – as if to even mention the existence of racism in Australia were a cardinal sin that doomed the Yes vote.
Similarly, hypocrisy abounds when Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Jacinta Price accuses ‘middle class Aboriginals’ as leading the campaign, even though her partner in the NO campaign Warren Mundine is a powerful figure in the Liberal Party and a non-executive director on the board of Aura Energy. ‘Why do we need to have it in the constitution?’ asks Mundine in a newsbyte promoted by Sky News on YouTube ‘…We don’t need a voice, we already have a voice.’ Yet how many have his level of access?
In today's interconnected world, social media has become the primary source of information for many. Unfortunately, it is also a breeding ground for polarisation and fertile ground for conspiracy and misinformation. Social media platforms often foster echo chambers and filter bubbles, reinforcing users' existing beliefs. Moreover, the rapid dissemination of misinformation on platforms like Facebook and Twitter can sway public opinion. Algorithms further exacerbate the problem by tailoring content to users' preconceived notions.
Sushi Das from RMIT’s FactLab, who deal with numerous cases of disinformation, stated ‘…it would appear that the vast majority of false claims we’ve seen so far are being made by the No supporters.’ A think piece broadcast on ABC’s 7:30 Report titled ‘The Indigenous Voice To Parliament – Separating Fact From Fiction’ demonstrates a clear distinction of how The Advance Australia campaign differs from normal political lobbying and verges into the realm of disinformation.
Advance Australia is conducting a secondary ‘Not Enough’ campaign aimed toward Indigenous people who don’t think the Voice goes far enough toward treaty. This hypocritical approach reveals a strategy that is both disingenuous and manipulative. Indigenous activist and Arrente woman Celeste Liddle discovered that she had been quoted in a sponsored advertisement funded by Advance Australia through the Not Enough Facebook page without her permission. Amongst other things it states: ‘…as someone who has engaged in Indigenous movements for a long time … I am unconvinced.’ Liddle was asked about the use of her words out of context and expressed her 'disgust' at how the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were being co-opted. After complaints, the ad was taken down for violating Facebook standards.
It was never meant to last forever. It had done its job. The rumour had been spread. the meme had been made. The TikTok had gone viral. Complex truth and balanced journalism be damned. This is what makes it disinformation.
These examples point to a strategy of divide and conquer when it comes to platforming Indigenous voices who are against the Voice because they think it goes too far such as Price and Mundine, and those who don’t think it goes far enough. This has further muddied the waters of debate and adds to the cognitive dissonance surrounding the issue. Non-Indigenous people who want to support First Nations voices are intentionally caught in a paradoxical situation in which they are hearing from Indigenous leaders from two diametrically opposed camps, all of whom are opposing the voice for completely different reasons. The fact that these voices are a minority amongst the broad support of Aboriginal people is ignored, and the sense that the Voice is not supported by Indigenous people remains.
The consequences of this polarisation are toxic. Civil discourse is replaced by vitriol, trust in democratic institutions erodes, and the decision-making process becomes tainted by misinformation. The debate surrounding the Voice serves as a stark reminder of these challenges. To mitigate the impact of polarisation and misinformation, media literacy and critical thinking must be emphasised.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum in Australia encapsulates the contemporary struggles of democracy, tainted by polarisation and the insidious influence of misinformation and disinformation spread through social media. This essay's central question lingers: Is polarisation a natural facet of democracy or a harmful by-product of our modern society and the digital age? Is this a healthy process – or is it divisive and damaging to the social fabric? What other options are there for creating consensus without this kind of polarisation?
It has been said the democracy is an endless meeting – which is to say it is a process – not an end in itself. While it may seem that public debates such as the current referendum are sowing divisions in our society, perhaps they are just revealing the divisions that already exist. Some might argue that it is a healthy part of our democracy that we can have these arguments without resorting to violence, and this is the only way that things can change. Others might interpret all of this as the normal cut and thrust of politics, in which competing interests rarely agree, and will use issues to drive a wedge between the electorate and their opponents for political advantage. This is the reason why people hate politics.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, one message seems clear: Australia has a long way to go until the issue of Indigenous rights and reconciliation are something that we can all agree upon and perhaps this is a naïve ideal. At the very least, the referendum has become a powerful barometer of where stand as a nation, and how far we still have to go.
About the Storyteller
Timothy Parish is an artist, writer and filmmaker and Creative Director of Undergrowth Productions. He has a Bachelor of Media Arts from RMIT. He has produced documentaries for ABC TV and his films have been screened at Flickerfest International Film Festival. He was previously Director of the Darwin International Film Festival and was founder of the Transitions Film Festival – dedicated to showcasing visionary solutions to social and environmental issues.