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.
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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