Less than a week into the official election campaign, social media feeds are flooded with ads, candidates’ faces peer down from billboards around every corner and the media is reporting breathlessly on every word spoken by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Labor challenger Anthony Albanese.
From the plethora of claims made by politicians about the other side’s record on the economy, climate and public services, to an influx of imported narratives about the electoral process, there’s a lot of incorrect and misleading information circulating.
Throughout the election campaign, both RMIT ABC Fact Check and RMIT FactLab will be working to stop misinformation in its tracks, and will be vital resources for accurate information.
FactLab has partnered with both Meta (Facebook’s parent company) and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas to identify and debunk misinformation spreading online.
Fact Check, meanwhile, will continue to fact check the statements of politicians and other influential public figures.
So, what should you be on the lookout for? Read on to find out.
What are the politicians saying?
While there’s still a long way to go until election day, a few key narratives have emerged from both the government and opposition camps, and not all are rooted in facts.
In the wake of the government’s recently tabled budget Fact Check found both Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and those opposite him to have made a number of misleading suggestions about government spending and the economy.
Climate also looks set to be a talking point, with unprecedented flooding once again bringing to light the consequences of a lack of action on climate change.
Indeed, Fact Check recently found a claim by Mr Morrison comparing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions with those of other countries to be “misleading”.
Online both major parties have strayed from facts and figures into the more theoretical.
RMIT ABC Fact Check’s Election Scare Alert series, which will run throughout the election, has so far delved into two scare campaigns: a Labor line about cashless welfare cards, and the Coalition’s marketing around so-called “death taxes”.
These campaigns, which make unverifiable suggestions about what may happen in the future, can be particularly pervasive, as it is impossible to definitively rule on what a government or political party may or may not do in time.
Regardless, Fact Check found that there was little evidence to suggest the government planned to move all aged care pensioners onto its controversial cashless debit card system, as claimed by Labor, nor was there evidence that the opposition would impose a tax on inheritance payments, as the government has alleged.
Voting and electoral process misinformation
It’s not just misleading claims peddled by political rivals that are muddying the waters in the lead-up to election day: misinformation about voting and the electoral process has also taken hold among some groups.
According to Anne Kruger, the Asia-Pacific Director of First Draft — a nonprofit global organisation that researches online mis- and disinformation — a number of globally familiar election misinformation tropes have been filtering into Australia since late 2021.
“The US may have had the highest profile of late when it comes to the spread of disinformation to discourage and confuse voters and to undermine public confidence in the electoral process with claims of ‘rigged elections’, but these themes are circulating and continuing to pick up pace in an Australian context,” Dr Kruger said in a briefing document supplied to Fact Check.
“Examples include false claims that Australia will use Dominion voting systems; and that the use of pencils on ballots can lead to tampering.”
She added that conspiracy theories alleging that some candidates were “in cahoots with some interest groups or foreign governments” were also circulating, and that such narratives were an effort to “‘sow the seeds’ of doubt over the election results”.
Elise Thomas, a misinformation researcher with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (a think tank dedicated to “reversing the rising tide of extremism”) agreed that imported election misinformation has taken on a more localised narrative, particularly within the anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown movement.
“We’ve seen more of a variety of Australian-focused narratives around the idea, for example, that unvaccinated people wouldn’t be allowed into polling places and wouldn’t be allowed to vote,” she said.
“They would instead be forced to vote by mail-in ballot, but the mail-in ballots would be somehow fraudulent.”
Such claims have led the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to publish an election disinformation register on its website, where prominent pieces of disinformation identified by the AEC are collected and fact checked.
According to the Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, the AEC was “not messing around” when it came to election mis- and disinformation.
“The Australian vote belongs to all Australians and there is freedom of political communication. However, if you spread incorrect information about the processes we run — deliberately or otherwise — we’ll correct you,” he said in a March press release.
And it’s not only the so-called “freedom movement” peddling voting and electoral misinformation.
On Twitter, both the AEC and the ABC’s election expert Antony Green have sent hundreds of replies to users not aligned with anti-lockdown groups but who have made inaccurate and misleading claims about election timing, voting methods and preferential polling.
Will foreign interference play a role?
Dr Kruger detailed how both politicians and lobby groups had “weaponised rhetoric against China for their own political gain”.
“Some recent examples are Scott Morrison calling Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles a ‘manchurian candidate’, and Albanese has been described as a candidate ‘endorsed’ by the Chinese Communist Party,” she noted.
Later, conservative lobby group Advance Australia launched a mobile billboard campaign depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping voting for Labor.
But whether China actually had a preference for a Labor government, and would work to install one, was not supported by evidence.
According to Dr Kruger, while a Sky News article had stated that the “official mouthpiece of the CCP” had endorsed Mr Albanese for Prime Minister, it had quoted an op-ed in the Global Times by an Australian-based author which did not reflect the newspaper or CCP’s official stance.
Ms Thomas, who is collaborating with Fact Check’s sister organisation RMIT FactLab on an election misinformation project, added that she had seen no signs of a foreign interference campaign as yet.
“I haven’t seen any indication that there’s any preference [in China] for either party at this stage,” she said.
“It doesn’t actually make much sense that they would [preference Labor over Liberal] because their policies on China are essentially the same.”
As for whether there was likely to be any Russian interference in the campaign, Ms Thomas noted that Russia was “very busy” with other matters.
“Also, [who gets elected] doesn’t make a significant difference for Russia. The two parties are completely aligned in every way that matters.”
How can you stop the spread of misinformation?
In order to avoid sharing misinformation, Dr Kruger advises that people think about how they might be being manipulated by political advertising, and to consider who is sharing the message and why.
“On the first point, don’t just let what you see on social media wash over you, as images and messages can all sink in and become familiar, allowing people to simply accept things as true,” she said.
She added that it was important to check your own political views and biases, and be aware that acceptance of a fact check on political misinformation “depends quite substantially on your pre-existing beliefs”.