Will the next federal election be an invitation to flex the truth?

By Tom Ravlic

Wednesday January 12, 2022

63% of voters aged 18-24 say the online actions of political candidates would sway their vote. (Adobe/Aleksei)

Australia is facing a federal election and there will be all kinds of tactics used by the political parties and their supporters online to promote their side, attack the others to win the election, Tom Ravlic writes.

Each side will be up to have a propaganda fight, with talking points at the ready, in their attempt to get voters to swing their way.

This will be in many respects an internal brawl but the politicians, the media, and law enforcement agencies (and, yes, the average punters) will need to be watching carefully for dabblers in the dark arts of online mischief who will seek to insert themselves into the national discourse.

Research has been done by a range of think tanks demonstrating, quite clearly, that disinformation online can take many forms and it has been amped-up by state actors to the point where calling their online activities industrial becomes an understatement.

Consider the depth of work done by the Rand Corporation on the project it calls ‘Truth Decay’ and a recent report that shows the way that certain foreign governments – namely Russia and China – flexed the truth to fit a narrative. 

Before diving into some of the findings of that report, however, it is probably a good idea to look at the factor that Rand Corporation has identified as being problematic when it comes to people trusting what they are told by various sources.

Rand’s research team has developed a suite of publications and multimedia presentations since 2018 laying out the problems in today’s political and media landscape where the average citizen has every right to be confused about how politicians and others define truth.

The folks at Rand focus on four key factors they believe are at the heart of the move away from talking in the public square about facts and analysis.

  1. Increasing disagreements about what constitutes fact in a specific circumstance and how those facts are to be analysed is the first problem.
  2. Then there is the blurring of the line between fact and opinion – what somebody thinks about something rather than determining whether what a person thinks is actually based on an underlying set of facts.
  3. They also talk about the prominence of opinion and personal experience over fact, and that opinions and personal experience seem to get more traction.
  4. The fourth factor – and possibly the most critical for anyone in the public sector, government and the media to think about – is there has been a declining trust in the sources that were previously fonts of factual knowledge.

“Truth Decay is a serious threat to both domestic US and international security, one that is being exacerbated by malign efforts from a variety of national bad actors,” Rand’s ‘Bad Actors In News Reporting’ report says.

“These ill-intentioned efforts to misuse information are labelled many ways—readers might have seen these efforts labelled as disinformation, misinformation, fake news, and information operations.”

The researchers involved in the study of news reporting across 43 English language news sources (of which nine were Russian and five Chinese) revealed China and Russia were responsible for news manipulation to suit their global political goals.

News sources from the United States were examined with 27 domestic news agencies being reviewed and two news services from the United Kingdom also analysed.

NewsAPI was the service used to assemble the data focused on reporting and analysis on the coronavirus pandemic with 247,315 articles forming the sample.

The report found Russian news sources had 14,309 relevant posts related to coronavirus coverage, and there were 2,141 reports from Chinese news sources.

What the researchers found was that straight or ‘traditional news reporting’ was present in the Russian and Chinese articles. This traditional reporting consisted of data on infections, death rates, and medical responses to the pandemic and is identified as a ‘first pillar’ of news stories by the research team.

A ‘second pillar’ of news stories identified by the researchers were news items that were a part of efforts of reputation-laundering for both foreign players.

“Chinese news articles, for example, praise China’s handling of the pandemic and highlight its donations of aid to foreign countries,” the researchers found. 

“Interestingly, Russian news praises China in a similar way. Russian news also appeared to downplay the original COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.”

News articles from Chinese and Russian sources then moved into a separate mode altogether. Both countries had news agencies that promoted conspiracy theories about the pandemic and health measures required or implemented to contain outbreaks.

“Examples of news in this pillar are the suggestion that COVID-19 is a bio-weapon or otherwise engineered in a laboratory or the idea that contact-tracing efforts are part of an effort by government and technology companies to track citizens,” the report said.

The key themes that were covered by the news items included the suggestion that coronavirus was a hoax, the issue of liberation and tyranny, fears about contact tracing associated particularly with fears about violations of privacy, and conspiracy theories about the virus, its origins, safety of treatments, as well as the notion that the virus was a bio-weapon (possibly designed by the United States).

Consider these elements for the moment and reflect on the fact that various sources from China and Russia have been screen-captured and dropped into public channels on the encrypted messaging application, Telegram. 

Stories that are from these sources end up circulating in channels and fuel distrust about the way governments are managing the pandemic in jurisdictions such as the US. 

The purpose for highlighting this work is to point to the fact that people that are disaffected with a government or governing institutions may find material such as this convincing and believe they are not being told the truth by their own government because – guess what – a foreign news source has published material that is critical of pandemic management.

This study from Rand points to the overt use of news agencies to pepper news coverage with narratives that might attack a political or political rival using the cloak of news but other work by Rand, and similar research houses such as the Soufan Center, demonstrate how state-based actors use the internet to dabble, interfere, and further inflame domestic discourse.

Multiple studies have shown the willingness of different governments across the globe to engage in industrial level disinformation campaigns that are designed to unsettle people in other countries.

All of these studies demand politicians, media commentators, and the broader community to think critically about the information that is being presented online by different media organisations.

The story that a friend has posted on their Facebook account from a source based in a foreign county, for example, might not be an example of a foreign news source breaking a story that the Australian government does not want people to know.

Rather, it could be an attempt by foreign mischief makers to dabble in Australian public life by creating further doubt in people’s minds about the motives of political players in this country.

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