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Tag Archives: Misinformation

Chaos and confusion are intentional weapons: Albanese must strengthen not weaken the misinformation bill

The Albanese government announced this week that it would weaken proposed disinformation-suppressing measures because the Coalition was implacably opposed to them. It is hardly surprising that Peter Dutton’s Opposition should fight the bill; it is disappointing that Labor should have so little commitment to protecting its own chances let alone the democratic project.

Dutton’s Coalition showed, over the referendum campaign, that engaging in culture war divorced from empirical truth is their chosen path to regaining power. Thus it is in Labor’s interest to enhance our democracy by reinforcing integrity in civic debate and politics with as much vigour as they possess.

There are many forces at work fostering chaos and confusion. Some of the problem is structural: social media monetisation driven by pandering to the id; old gatekeeper media organisations struggling to remain solvent in the face of the internet challenge; too much competition for our attention.

There are, however, forces determined to capitalise on that situation. There are many kinds of disinformation at work. Some of it is merely random trolling or malice at play. There is however much that stems from national actors, with such technology functioning as a military asset in hot or cold war situations. Cyber warfare forces are amongst the least expensive divisions and weapons at a government’s disposal, but we have seen repeatedly how powerful one facet, the digital versions of leaflet dropping over enemy lines, has become. Compared to traditional wartime propaganda, it is much harder to distinguish from reliable information.

The US has also used its giant tech firms to meddle in foreign countries’ politics: Google, for example, interfered in countries such as Syria, against Assad, for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many nations have such divisions with China, Iran and Israel divisions making news. Israel also spawns a number of troubling private “security” companies that deploy military expertise for profit or patriotic goals. It can, of course, be challenging to measure the integrity and intent of the reports and complaints made about these nations’ forays into disinformation.

Russia has been notorious in the field using Facebook to shove crowbars into the civic divides that pervade America. It has also been most effectively muddying opinion about its neoimperialist and traditional imperialist actions regarding nations in its region. As well as allegedly strategising against Israel, it has been working since the invasion of Ukraine to hide the truth. A factor as basic as motive has become fodder for endless debate.

This derives from the same information campaign skills that Russia developed over the Syrian civil war where, for example, the moral reputation of the White Helmets remains starkly divided, depending on the individual’s information source. Some believe them to be heroes who rescue the injured; others see them as a propaganda operation that supports terrorist groups. The latter opinion appears to be the result of a sustained Russian and Syrian government disinformation campaign. Publications such as The Grayzone seem thoroughly integrated into Russian information networking.

The situation is not aided by the old anti-war left becoming susceptible to Russian propaganda about Ukraine driven by long and justified disgust with Western neoimperial foreign policy. To see figures like Noam Chomsky spreading the new imperialist aggressor’s talking points is odd: there is room for villains all around. This is one facet of the new diagonalist politics where leftish figures end up working for the Right.

The same information chaos surrounds understanding the sustained Israeli bombardment of Gaza after Hamas’s gruesome attack on the 7th of October. Cyber strategies, including disinformation, have been important tools. There are many actors involved, including minor third parties.

The power of lobby groups to suppress discussion of information arising from the violence has been stark. Jewish peak bodies have Australian government and media so dedicated to avoiding charges of antisemitism that they can barely challenge action that is “perilously close to meeting the threshold” of genocide. Penny Wong’s long-delayed and tepid request to halt attacks on hospitals is depicted as supporting “false and harmful narratives,” a call that has the peak bodies “highly concerned.” Moreover it’s important for journalists (and Kmart) to distinguish between real Jewish community peak bodies and a disgraceful imitation. Disinformation augments misinformation natural in the chaos of warfare so that knowing where to find factual accounts is fraught.

News Corp is certainly one source to avoid. Rupert Murdoch’s investment, with Dick Cheney, in Genie Energy has prevented his media organisation being a reliable source on Israel and Palestine. Genie has had exclusive rights to explore for oil and gas in the contested Golan Heights since 2013. (Did Rupert Murdoch request Scott Morrison send peacekeeping forces to the Golan Heights in 2019?) The investment is also argued to be a substantial factor in News Corp’s climate denial propaganda.

This illustrates that private sector efforts to manipulate opinion can be just as critical as national efforts to achieve military goals. Climate denial and culture wars promoting ultraconservative social positions have long been tied to muddying the civic information space. The primary goal was overtly crippling public ability to commit to fighting for industry regulation.

The model was honed in the campaign to stop certainty taking hold about the gold standard science linking tobacco smoking and cancer. The cigarette, in 2013 considered “the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilisation,” was not regulated for decades because of the long PR war fought by the tobacco lobby. Many of the same people and scientists used the same strategies to stop the transition from carbon-based energy to renewables. The number of deaths to be caused by this 50-year delay will dwarf tobacco deaths in the decades ahead.

The bodies fighting industry regulation and taxes merged with ultraconservatives fighting the growing diversity of 20th century societies. Networks like the Council for National Policy and the Atlas Network were developed with the goal of destroying civic discourse in order to achieve the ultimate liberty of business combined with statist control of public morality. Much of the money funding this project comes from fossil fuel billionaires.

The strategies used include owning media bodies. Religious radio networks in the US, for example, proved powerful. It involved founding schools or funding chairs in universities intended to produce intellectual material to support their goals. Representatives and delegates continue to write columns for the newspapers, bolstered by big advertorial and advertising spending. Metastasising clusters of civil society organisations are still being established: some were intended to present as thinktanks, others to present as grass roots organisations. The fakery involved in these is captured in the strategy’s label “astroturfing.”

These interests work with full-service influence companies to manipulate the debate. The company that developed the model, Black, Manafort and Stone, became known as the Torturers’ Lobby. It was not just murderous autocrats that they whitewashed for Washington dollars, however. They perverted the information space and democracy for corporate and political clients too.

Australia spawned Crosby Textor, and New Zealand Topham Guerin, as offspring of that innovative forebear.

The Murdoch family was involved, alongside some of Australia’s best known mining magnates, in the founding of such “think” tanks in Australia. The Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies and the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance are several of the Australian bodies that belong to the insidious international Atlas Network.

The Voice referendum campaign become another tool in the array of targets selected by these bodies. Dr Jeremy Walker and Anthony Klan’s investigations into the ways that Advance and Fair Australia are connected to the Atlas Network’s Australian affiliates also highlighted how the No campaign used the typical strategies to muddy the debate until clarity was impossible. The connections to fossil fuel are clear and follow a long history of Atlas affiliates attacking First People’s efforts to protect their land.

The slogan used by the No campaign, “If you don’t know, vote no,” was an embarrassing celebration of Australian ignorance. It was also peak fossil fuel disinformation. This command to abandon the search for truth and understanding is precisely what tobacco and fossil fuel interests sought to create and manipulate. The study of agnotology is, in part, a study of the deliberate fostering of this ignorance. They want us all to vote no to regulating or taxing industry because we just don’t know.

China and Russia are both amongst powers alleged to have powered an attack on information about the Voice, including the deployment of bots. The AEC’s efforts to check lies have been described as “like a man standing with a backyard hose, waving it at an inferno.”

In celebrating the defeat of the Voice, Jacinta Nampijinpa price signalled that her next target would be Queer Australians. Andrew Bolt highlighted again the link between the Voice and fighting climate action: slamming renewable energy with “Now let’s do Labor’s other mad crusade” (23/10).

Fighting disinformation about fossil fuels and similar controversial sectors, as well as inhibiting destructive culture war battles used to disguise the primary goals, has become the field of independents and minor parties like the Greens. Monique Ryan has introduced a bill to limit the toxic impact of lobbyists with her Clean Up Politics proposal. Zali Steggall has introduced her Voter Protections in Political Advertising bill. Sophie Scamps has tabled a bill to provide safeguards for public appointments. They are collectively fighting alongside the Greens to pressure Labor to make the misinformation bill strong and also extend it to cover the mainstream media.

The Liberal Party has arguably become the political arm of the various interests represented by the Atlas Network’s Australian affiliates. Their direct and broader interest lie in the information space being chaotic. In this light, their criticism that the misinformation bill attacks “freedom of speech” must be seen as the disingenuous nonsense that it is.

Australia can’t be a functioning democracy unless voters understand policy platforms on offer and the stakes. Unless we properly control dis- and misinformation in the civic space, we have little chance to vote well. Albanese must find a backbone for his own sake as well as the nation’s.

 

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The Emperor’s New Truth

So there’s been another boat.

Never mind that Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have been insisting for years that “the boats have stopped”, now, during a contested election that’s not all going the Coalition’s way, suddenly the people smugglers have started up again. Bit of a coincidence, that.

One might be tempted to suspect that perhaps the boats had not stopped at all. As all knowledge of such matters falls into the Coalition’s “on-water” black hole, there’s no way we would know. Reasonable people may entertain the glimmers of doubt about the information we’re being fed. But the Coalition’s latest announcement is not aimed at reasonable people.

On any reasonable metric, the Abbott/Turnbull Coalition government has been an abject failure since 2013. On the domestic issues, whichever your primary priority – economic success, reduction of the deficit, unemployment rate, government spend as share of GDP, real wages, broadband speed, and even general standard of living – every metric has declined since Abbott toppled the Gillard/Rudd government. If you turn your attention to the “moral” issues – those that have no immediate, material impact on the national economy – the Abbott / Turnbull government is similarly unimpressive. From environmental protection, to action on climate change, to refugees and immigration – both in how we “stop the boats”, and in how we treat those who have reached our shores – Australia’s performance over the past three years has dropped from substantial to dismal. So why would people still choose to vote for the Coalition, with this litany of failures behind them?

The reason, of course, is that voters do not vote on the basis of performance and record. They’re voting on the basis of promise and expectation. But the promises of the Coalition don’t fare much better than their record of successes. Delving deeply into the government’s budget and forecasts, it’s reasonably fair to say that their entire policy platform rests on a single “innovation” – a $50bn tax cut for businesses. In all other areas, they promise more of the same. More of the ineffective, expensive Direct Action plan – a plan which Liberal true believers still think is efficient, but which most of Australia has recognised as wasteful and well insufficient to the task. More attempts to implement the 2014 budget of cuts to health and education. More attempts to establish a co-payment by stealth, more attacks on Medicare, more invective directed towards those who haven’t been successful in acquiring one of the increasingly sparse jobs in our “exciting” economy. But thank goodness, no more of those juvenile “knights and dames”, so that’s okay.

For some, the pertinent measure of a good government is stability. For these voters, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years were a debacle to be resolutely punished, and punished the Labor government was. It’s a good thing that the Abbott government is so committed to stability. Sorry, the Turnbull government. At least their policy platform is stable – it has barely changed since the 1950s, and the Coalition parties wouldn’t dream of proposing half-baked policy.

So if people aren’t voting on the basis of what the Government has done so far, and they’re not paying attention to what the Government is promising to do should it be returned, why then does Malcolm Turnbull stand a good chance of being reelected in his own right on July 3?

The reason is that voters are voting on the basis of a fiction. They’re playing a game of Fantasy Government in their heads and they’re voting for their imagined Good Government. Their vision of governance is informed by the established truths that attach to each of the major parties. For Coalition supporters, this might be the established truth that the Coalition is better at managing the economy and that Labor will put the country further into unsustainable debt. For Labor supporters, it might be that workers’ unions always act in the best interests of its members. Greens supporters cling to the belief that the party is above normal politics, and every action and position is taken on the basis of the best outcomes for the environment and social equality rather than grubby vote-grabbing. All of these established truths are at best open to debate, but to the true believer they are sacrosanct.

To someone with an interest in politics and attention to the actual facts and statistics, it can be eye-gouging to watch voters in critical electorates responding to voting intention questionnaires with platitudes about Labor’s debt and the Coalition’s savings. On this site and others, the usual suspects may be relied upon to always populate the comments section with their opinion on any political topic of the day, and their opinions are always the same and undented by being shown proven, empirical evidence that what they’re claiming just isn’t true.

It is well known that people seek out and pay credence to evidence and opinion that matches or reinforces their own beliefs. Confirmation Bias is a phenomenon recognised sufficiently to warrant its own term in psychological textbooks. However, it doesn’t work alone. Recent research shows that attempting to debunk a political rumour – or an entrenched belief – may have the contrary outcome of making them stronger. Possibly, this is due to the believer discounting the efforts of the debunker because of perceived bias. Once Fairfax media acquires a reputation as a left-wing outlet, nothing printed in one of its mastheads is likely to change the minds of a conservative voter and may instead reinforce perverse beliefs in the face of published evidence.

So it seems that propaganda exists in two phases. The first phase is the implantation of an idea. Think about it in terms of “brain ownership”: once you’ve acquired someone’s loyalty, it’s extremely hard to dislodge. Political strategists know this. There is strength in the approach of lying with impunity, in order to seed a belief in the understanding that it will become a new truth. Tony Abbott’s government was a master at this technique, but really it’s been a modus operandi for conservative politics for decades.

Once seeded, repetition is the fertiliser that helps it to flower. Repetition of an idea plays directly into confirmation bias, and every repetition makes it harder for a contrary idea to cut through.

Finally, once the idea has been seeded and watered and has taken root in the desired electorate, it is important to discredit all potential sources of contrary information with allegations of bias. This explains why Gillian Triggs has been represented as such a threat. Her empirical report into offshore processing camps had to be discredited, and the best way to do that is to taint the figurehead with allegations of bias. The Coalition succeeded in creating this impression, and from that point on any reference to her report simply reinforces the Coalition’s position of the necessity and tolerability of those camps.

This is why a boat has suddenly appeared on our borders for the first time in years. Logically, both things cannot be true: either the boats have stopped, or the people smugglers are still “trying our resolve” and sending the boats. But voters don’t think about it in this manner. The Coalition is having its cake and eating it too. For those who wish to believe the Coalition’s policies have been successful and should continue, the Boats have Stopped. For another part of the electorate, fear of the incoming hordes is the stronger motivator, and the news of a new boat reinforces that fear. Both things do not have to be true; one of these things simply needs to be accepted as true for the Coalition’s stance to be justified.

So how can a propaganda-driven New Truth be combatted by those with facts and data on their side?

First, it is important to be – and to be perceived to be – impartial. Opponents of the inconvenient facts will attempt to discredit them as biased. If possible, it is best to lead people to discover the facts on their own, rather than simply telling. Contrary to normal argumentative rhetoric, it may be most effective to find out first what sources of information would be regarded as acceptably impartial before presenting any facts at all.

A single instance of leading a horse to water may not be enough to make them drink. The second component of re-education is repetition. You can never allow a statement of New Truth to pass unchallenged. Much of the time this is a recipe for frustration: New Truth will regularly be spouted in the media and there is no immediate way to respond to this. But on a one-to-one basis, in daily communication with your friends, family and workmates, a response is possible – and indeed, the only ethical choice.

Whether you’re interested in the virtue of truthfulness and data rather than lies and misinformation, or you’re concerned for the future governance of the country, or if you just want to prevent the next generation being implanted with New Truth before they’re old enough to make up their own minds with the evidence, we must respond. We must do so carefully, without reference to the information resources we ourselves find so convincing. But respond we must. Otherwise the New Truth will live on to poison the next election – it’s probably too late for this one.

The Ministry for Misinformation and Wealth Protection

The AIMN has obtained a copy of a draft proposal circulating the Coalition party machine.

In an attempt to better use available resources, state and local governments will be abolished. All federal and state ministries, departments, advisory bodies, and their employees, will be coalesced into one organisation known as the Ministry for Misinformation and Wealth Protection (MMaWP).

It is estimated that this will eventually result in one million redundancies which will come from, as far as possible, natural attrition. Retraining as spin doctors will be available to those with a penchant for prevarication. Others will join a mobile workforce to be deployed wherever the mining or agricultural industries may need them. Others will build the roads of the 21st century. Those who refuse will be transferred to an undisclosed location to undergo behavioural rehabilitation followed by resettlement.

MMaWP will be headed by the Creator of all things seen and unseen, Peta Credlin. Through her all things are made.

The Creator’s wisdom will be disseminated by the Knights of the Star Chamber – Brian Loughnane, Tony Nutt, Andrew Hirst, Mark Textor, Michael Ronaldson and Kevin Andrews. These six men meet around a table emblazoned with the Star of David to reflect our Judao-Christian heritage.

Appointments have been made on merit.

Two Archanglers will head up Operation Corporate Marauders.

Scott Morrison will be in charge of Misinformation. He will give a weekly briefing though, due to concerns about wealth security and diplomatic relations with other companies, the time and place of these briefings will be kept secret.

Greg Hunt will head the Wealth Protection program. He has had 175,000 rubber stamps made and will be sending them to those who are in the top 1% of income earners. This will save an enormous amount of red-tape as developers and entrepreneurs can be self-regulating.

Advising the Archanglers, there will be a Coalition of Cheaters.

Joe Hockey has a team devoted to getting blood out of a stone. Discarded stones will be washed away by the rising tide. Middle-class stones will be put on orange life-rafts while they regenerate more blood for harvesting. Diamonds will be given a transfusion and accommodated on a fleet of custom-built yachts.

Malcom Turnbull will advise on how to sell things you wouldn’t buy.

Andrew Robb has been charged with protecting the wealth of pharmaceutical companies so they can continue to contribute to the Pollie Pedal ride.

Julie Bishop will be in charge of grooming. It is understood that she has a memorandum of understanding with Armani to provide uniforms for MMaWP officials. She will also instruct in deportment and the importance of making eye contact.

Christopher Pyne will give back-to-basics direct instruction on indignation.

Anthony Mundine will advise about Aboriginal Muslim sports stars.

Bronwyn Bishop will act as interpreter and mediator.

Tony Abbott will be the face of the MMaWP, available to travel anywhere for a photo opportunity. Audio will not be allowed.

Banks and Private Health Insurers will remain outside the purview of the Ministry.

Perhaps the most courageous proposal of the MMaWP is to abolish the Australia Sale Act, paving the way for majority foreign ownership of Australia. They argue that privatising Australia would bring enormous wealth to a few people which will allow them to feed more serfs. Hungry serfs will find sweatshops offshore.

Concerned Aussies Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Bolt have put together a partnership which is understood to have made an offer to keep Australia in the hands of Australians. Their Board of Directors, the IPA, have been in close negotiation with the MMaWP, and insiders have told AIMN that agreement in lack of principle has been reached.

We will endeavour to keep you informed of reaction to, and progress on, this proposal.

PS: This is satire.

 

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