When a New South Wales woman posted on Facebook last year about a conversation with a staffer at her local MP’s office, she had no idea what would happen next.
- An ABC investigation has traced the origins of a scare campaign suggesting the Coalition would force pensioners onto the Cashless Debit Card if re-elected
- A Facebook post taken out of context was shared several times by advocacy groups and a Labor MP
- The Coalition has stated that aged pensioners will not be forced onto the card
Her words would be twisted, shared and amplified, eventually winding up as fodder for a Labor Party scare campaign about a secret government plan to force pensioners onto a cashless debit card.
The author of that post can now be revealed as Mid North Coast carer Corrinne Boon and this the story of how her post became part of a textbook case of political misinformation.
It began in May last year when Ms Boon telephoned the office of her local member, the Nationals MP David Gillespie, about an unrelated electorate issue, and asked in passing about the Cashless Debit Card.
Introduced by the government on a trial basis in 2016, the Cashless Debit Card is a form of income management which restricts the way money is spent by welfare recipients. It has been rolled out across a small number of communities in remote and regional parts of the country.
The card quarantines between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payment, depending on the jurisdiction, and bans the purchase of certain items such as alcohol and gambling products.
The purpose of the program is to ensure welfare payments are spent in responsible ways and to reduce social harm. But critics say it’s an example of government overreach.
Ms Boon said the staffer who answered the call told her that the Cashless Debit Card was a good idea for pensioners.
“I said, ‘But why would you want aged pensioners or carers on it?’ And he said, ‘Well, with the aged pensioners … it’s much safer for them than carrying cash around’,” she told the ABC.
“And I said, ‘What?’ I said that it is so restrictive. It is a terrible card.”
That afternoon she posted about the “heated discussion” in an anti-cashless debit card Facebook group with over 3,000 members.
A spokesperson for Dr David Gillespie’s office told the ABC that “the comments were incorrect and did not reflect the views of Dr Gillespie or the federal government”.
While Ms Boon made no suggestion that the Coalition government planned to place pensioners on the card, her post was quickly shared by advocacy groups opposed to the card and the restrictions they said it placed on personal freedoms.
Advocacy group The Say NO Seven reposted Ms Boon’s original post on Twitter with her name and profile picture redacted.
Their new caption read “staffer from Gillespie’s office does a whoops and reveals #LNP plans and propaganda strat for putting Age Pensioners onto the #INDUE #cashlessdebitcard …”
Ms Boon said while she was against cashless debit cards and was concerned their use could be expanded, she was never told that it was a Coalition policy nor plan by the staffer.
A few days later, Labor MP Julian Hill shared The Say NO Seven’s post containing Ms Boon’s redacted post and put his own spin on it, claiming it exposed “Scott Morrison’s secret plan to force Australia’s pensioners onto the cashless welfare card”.
RMIT ABC Fact Check earlier found the anonymous post was the impetus for Labor’s Cashless Debit Card scare campaign after it was shared by the Labor MP and gained traction last year.
Researcher Julia Bergin — from the non-profit online mis- and dis-information research organisation, First Draft — said that, as an official source, MPs gave information a strong sense of legitimacy.
“Their standing and eminence as government figures gives them both a platform — which means a larger audience — and an automatic stamp of authority,” she said.
“I would anticipate that the narrative pre-dates Corrinne’s post and her anecdote simply acted as an accelerator.
“[It was], ultimately, ‘evidence’ that gave it legs. But the post was critical for Labor to get the scare campaign off the ground in a timely fashion just ahead of the election.
“This is an example of a kernel of truth — in that there were comments made, but in a completely different context — that results in false content.”
Social media posts on Facebook and Twitter repurposing the information from Ms Boon’s initial post have again resurfaced multiple times this month and have been amplified and reshared through local Labor branch pages.
ALP targeting pensioners
At least 15 Labor candidates and MPs have collectively spent thousands of dollars running Facebook ads mentioning the card and pensioners in the past year.
RMIT ABC Fact Check found advertisements that ran last year across the accounts were viewed 367,000 to 460,000 times.
The advertising library of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, shows that several ads were targeted at audiences over the age of 55.
Last June, Labor Party MPs established a “Protecting Pensioners Taskforce”, which later included the rollout of an online petition against the expansion of the card.
Since then, the taskforce has held pensioner forums across Australia, discussing a range of issues, including what they alleged was the Morrison government’s plan to expand the Cashless Debit Card to all pensioners.
Posts shared on social media — by the co-chair of the “Protecting Pensioners Taskforce”, Labor MP Julian Hill, Bass candidate Ross Hart and Senator Helen Polley — show claims made at a pensioner forum in Launceston, Tasmania, last week that Labor would “scrap the cashless welfare card for pensioners”.
In a video posted to Julian Hill’s TikTok account following the forum, he claimed that pensioners were “pissed off” because “no one wants to be forced onto this card … pensioners know how to spend their own money”.
Older Australians used as a political football
Despite a detailed fact check by RMIT ABC Fact Check published last month finding that “expanding the cashless debit card system to aged pensioners is not currently part of the Coalition’s official policy platform”, several Labor MPs have continued to claim this is part of the Morrison government’s plan.
Julian Hill declined a request for an interview but, in a statement to the ABC, a Labor spokesperson said that they made “no apologies for highlighting this issue — and we will not take lectures from this government on scare campaigns”.
“Both Scott Morrison and Anne Ruston as Social Services Minister have talked about applying the cashless welfare card more broadly”.
The statement included previous general quotes about expanding the Cashless Debit Card scheme from both Mr Morrison and Ms Ruston dating back to 2019. None mentioned expanding the card to pensioners.
Chief executive of the Council on the Ageing Ian Yates said he had received calls from pensioners worried that their spending would be controlled by the government.
He pointed out the issue of scare campaigns affecting older Australians was not restricted to one party. The Liberal Party’s claim that Labor planned to introduce a “death tax” has also targeted elderly voters.
“Why on earth are we using vulnerable older Australians as a political football? Scaring people about something that’s not going to happen is not really a good tactic in terms of getting elected,” Mr Yates said.
This week, the Prime Minister called claims that pensioners would be forced onto the card a “disgusting lie”.
A spokesperson for the Liberal Party told the ABC that there was no plan by the Morrison government to force pensioners onto the cashless debit card.
“The Morrison Government has made it clear we have no plan and will never have a plan to force age pensioners onto the Cashless Debit Card,” the spokesperson said.
“We will continue to call this claim out for what it is: a blatant and baseless lie.”
First Draft’s Ms Bergin said many people would likely be surprised to know there was a lack of “catch-all federal laws to prevent lies” in political advertising.
“This patchwork of laws and an approach to political advertising that has had to catch up with the digital age has resulted in a lack of accountability in political campaigns, and the resultant spread of falsehoods, mis- and disinformation.
“Audiences need to be aware also that, in political ads they see on social media, they have likely been targeted for their demographic information to see that ad.”