Vote Losers Now Target ‘Misinformation’

16 January 2024
Vote Losers Now Target ‘Misinformation’ - Featured image

The elite activist class will seek retribution against those who voted No to the divisive race-based Voice to Parliament by attempting to silence their voices, warns IPA Legal Rights Program director John Storey.

More than 150 years ago, English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty (1859):

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of opinion is, that it is robbing the human race … If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Like so many aspects of modern Western culture it feels like we must relearn the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past, even if we must relearn the hard way. The freedom to express an opinion as espoused by Mill is under assault in Australia and elsewhere, and the motivations of those keen to discard it are abundantly transparent.

Based on the way the polls were trending in the lead up to the Voice referendum on 14 October 2023, the outcome was not a surprise. In fact, the only thing less surprising than the overwhelming victory of the No case was the predictable reaction of the defeated activists for the Yes campaign: to blame “misinformation”.

Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin claimed Australians comprehensively voted No to the Voice because they were subject to “the single largest misinformation campaign that this country has ever seen”. Prominent Yes case spokesperson Thomas Mayo went one further and blamed the “disgusting No campaign, a campaign that has been dishonest, that has lied to the Australian people”. He placed sole blame on the lies of the No Campaign: “It is not [Albanese’s] fault, it is not the Australian people’s fault, it is the people that have lied to the Australian people—they are the ones we should be blaming.”

The groundwork for this justification had been laid well in advance. In February 2023, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese accused critics of the Voice of deliberately spreading falsehoods: “There are already people out there pushing misinformation on social media, drumming up outrage, trying to start a culture war. That’s an inevitable consequence of trying to achieve change.”

In July 2023, Mayo was already on the case, writing: “On one side is misinformation, fearmongering and the defence of a failed approach to Indigenous affairs, and on the other is truth, hope, and a better way.”

In September, Uluru Statement from the Heart architect Megan Davis lamented the arrival of “Trumpian misinformation”, stating “There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation circulating, particularly on Facebook, but also through mainstream media as a consequence of that. And it makes our job harder”.

So, according to most of the prominent Yes campaigners, the referendum result was all the fault of the media, and a dishonest campaign, and the spread of lies on social media, and ‘Trumpian’ misinformation. What these sore losers fail to identify is precisely what lies were told during the campaign. The key campaign messages by the No case were that the Voice would divide the country on the basis of race, that it was legally risky, that there were insufficient details, that the Voice would be followed by a Treaty, and a Canberra-based Voice would not improve conditions for Indigenous people in remote areas. How exactly these claims are false has yet to be explained.

The left control the culture.

Someone might disagree with them and believe the Voice would not have caused division or been risky and would have helped disadvantaged Indigenous communities. But that just proves there is a difference of opinion, not that anyone is lying. Regarding the lack of details, the one who chose to campaign without releasing any draft legislation explaining what the precise model would look like was Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. To say you would prefer to know the fine print before voting to change the Constitution is not a lie. And in the case of a future Treaty, that was expressly set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which the Prime Minister said he would implement “in full”. If you are opposed to the whole Voice, Treaty, and Truth agenda, then rejecting the Voice was a perfectly reasonable place to start.

The claim that 60 per cent of Australians voted No because of misinformation is clearly absurd. It might be a coping method for supporters of the Voice (after all, many of them needed a week of mourning to grieve the loss), it might be a cynical ploy (more on that topic later), but it could also be their honest opinion. In the progressive cocoon where many of the Voice activists live, it might literally be unfathomable that someone would vote No. The only explanation can be that the people were being told lies.

One of the features of modern life is the ability to retreat into ‘echo chambers’. We are all susceptible to it. When scrolling through Facebook or X (the social media platform formerly known as Twitter), or watching YouTube or listening to a podcast, we would rather read or hear things we already agree with and that reinforce our biases. But there is a difference between left-wing progressives and conservatives in this regard.

In the case of the left, it is possible to go through your life effectively never hearing a conservative opinion or viewpoint or meeting someone who is openly conservative, unless pre-filtered through the distorted reporting of the ABC, The Age, or The Sydney Morning Herald. If you live in an inner-city Teal suburb, went to a university run by Marxists (a tautology?), only visit coffee shops and restaurants that wave one or more of the trifecta of approved flags—Aboriginal, Pride, and Palestine—work for a woke company such as Qantas or any number of others, and surround yourself with fellow progressives, you could easily go through life thinking a conservative is an almost mythical creature. You certainly will not have your politically correct opinions challenged.

On the right, things are different. It is true that conservatives are as prone to jumping into online echo chambers as those on the left, and the social media algorithms that tap into this desire cater for conservatives almost as well as progressives. Conservatives cannot completely cut themselves off from the viewpoints of the left, however, because the left controls the dominant culture. A conservative who goes to a sporting event or concert, watches a Hollywood movie, binges a TV series, attends university, or works for a public company will be forced to hear the viewpoints of the left, no matter how much he or she might prefer otherwise.

Those pushing the ‘misinformation’ narrative have an ulterior agenda.

This asymmetry means left-wing activists may legitimately be unable to comprehend how anyone could have voted No at the referendum. For someone with such a shuttered worldview, the only logical reason must be misinformation and lies. It could not possibly be that someone weighed up the positions of both sides and found the arguments of the No case the most persuasive.

Visit: westminsterdeclaration.org

Leaving the Yes campaigners to wallow in their delusion that the result was all the fault of lies and misinformation ordinarily would be harmless enough. Indeed, such a stance is likely to be politically damaging. Implicit in the argument that the referendum result was caused by lies is that the 60 per cent of Australians who voted No are stupid and ignorant, falling for the misinformation. This would include, by the way, the more than 1.5 million Labor voters who voted No. Reporting by Channel 10’s The Project and by the ABC has been explicit about this, highlighting that higher levels of university education correlated with voting Yes. The No voters were just too stupid, apparently. That is not a message likely to resonate with voters in the future.

But it seems that those pushing the ‘misinformation’ narrative have an ulterior agenda. The referendum result is likely to be used by the Government to push forward with online censorship laws, the proposed Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill. Or worse, try to implement truth in political advertising laws.

The proposed online censorship rules will empower a government agency—the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)—to censor online communications. The proposed Bill would require social media companies to sign up to codes of conduct for how they must moderate online content to ensure they limit the spread of ‘misinformation and disinformation’ that might cause ‘harm’. If the tech companies cannot come up with codes of conduct suitable to ACMA, it can impose one on them. And if ACMA thinks they have not sufficiently censored misinformation or disinformation, they can impose financial penalties. The definition of ‘harm’ is broad, nebulous, and subjective, including “Harm to the integrity of Australian democratic processes or of Commonwealth, State, Territory or local government institutions”. This is precisely the sort of alleged misinformation that Yes campaign activists are complaining about.

Last year, Teal MP Zali Steggall introduced the deceptively titled Stop the Lies legislation into parliament. The law would empower the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to ban misleading or deceptive political advertising material. Immediately after the referendum result, Steggall asserted, without evidence, that “it’s clear that the information people had access to through the course of the debate was often heavy with misleading and deceptive facts”. It seems lost on Steggall that something which is a ‘fact’ cannot be ‘misleading’.

The Prime Minister has already hinted that he is onboard with this agenda, claiming there was “totally abhorrent” misinformation during the Voice referendum campaign and that Labor would be undertaking appropriate processes to deal with it going forward.

These laws are arguably every bit as threatening to Australia’s political system as the Voice would have been. There is a growing realisation around the world that new censorship laws, collusion between governments and social media companies, and the use of so-called ‘fact checkers’—all in the name of combatting misinformation—represent a threat to freedom of speech and democracy. A group of 138 scholars, public intellectuals, and journalists from across the political spectrum recently issued a warning against what they call ‘the Censorship Industrial Complex’.

In their ‘Westminster Declaration’ they denounce these new forms of censorship:

… we are all deeply concerned about attempts to label protected speech as ‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation’, and other ill-defined terms. This abuse of these terms has resulted in the censorship of ordinary people, journalists, and dissidents in countries all over the world. Such interference with the right to free speech suppresses valid discussion about matters of urgent public interest, and undermines the foundational principles of representative democracy.

Australia’s proposed Misinformation Bill was specifically listed as one of the examples of this encroaching authoritarian limitation on free expression.

The problem with laws aimed at combatting ‘misinformation’ is that, ultimately, someone must be in charge of deciding what is true or false. These proposed new censorship laws would empower government agencies—ACMA and the AEC—to determine what can and cannot be said online or in political advertising. To illustrate the problem, look no further than the results of the Voice referendum. The only State or Territory to vote Yes was the ACT, whose vote was almost the exact opposite of the national result (61 per cent Yes versus 60 per cent No). The ACT is where all the politicians and bureaucrats live, including the public servants that run ACMA and the AEC. It will be from Canberra that decisions about what can and cannot be said online or in political advertising are determined, if these new censorship laws are enacted.

Wrong ideas can serve useful purposes.

The Guardian newspaper published an article on 12 October 2023 titled ‘Voice referendum: factchecking the seven biggest pieces of misinformation pushed by the No side’. I do not think it is unrealistic to assume the views of the left-wing Guardian might correlate rather strongly with the views of public servants in Canberra. So, what were these seven deadly sins of the No case, the egregious lies that tilted the result?

Four of the seven were mainstream arguments made for the No case: “The Voice is legally risky”, “The Voice will divide the nation”, “There is no detail”, and “The Voice will force treaties”. There is some irony in calling the last one misinformation. The article goes on to cite No campaign leaders Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price as saying the Voice will ‘lead’ to a treaty. One might have thought that educated journalists could discern the difference between the Voice ‘forcing’ a treaty or the Voice ‘leading to’ a treaty. Misquoting Mundine and Price might in fact be considered a form of misinformation.

It is not the time or place to defend the arguments made by the No case. Needless to say, claiming a mere opinion such as “The Voice will divide the nation” is misinformation is absurd. But the point is, if this standard were adopted by ACMA or the AEC—as no doubt Thomas Mayo, Dean Parkin, and Zali Steggall would dearly wish it could—then it would have been impossible for the No case to make claims such as “The Voice is legally risky” or “There is no detail”. ACMA would shut down such views online, and the AEC would ban political advertising that makes those claims.

This is a frightening prospect. Most of the key arguments put forward for voting No—the arguments that resonated with voters to the tune of a 20-percentage point victory for the No case—would have been banned. Nobody, in a democracy, should ever have the power to determine what is or is not true or to censor those with different opinions. This is especially the case when those doing the censoring appear to be so out of touch with the views of the rest of the country.

The issue with censoring misinformation is not just that it is susceptible to the biases of the censors. To reiterate what John Stuart Mill said, silencing an error can be as harmful as silencing the truth.

Yes, some opponents of the Voice were making claims online that were objectively wrong or dubious. The other three examples of misinformation listed in The Guardian article referred to above were “Australians will lose ownership of homes”, “The Voice will allow the UN to take over Australia”, and “The Australian Electoral Commission will tamper with your votes.” It should be noted that none of these arguments were expressed by the official No campaign. Indeed, the last example is not an argument for or against the Voice at all, it is an allegation against the AEC. But, if you delve into the depths of the internet, you will come across all sorts of weird and wacky claims, and it is certainly true claims were being made as to what power the Voice might have or what it might do that were not correct. But should that be banned?

The more people learnt about the Voice, the more likely they were to vote No.

Allowing even wrong or false ideas to be communicated online can serve two useful purposes: first, it is a way to vent for the person communicating that information, and second, it is useful feedback for the audience. To the first benefit, even communicating false information can still represent the expression of a political viewpoint. Someone claiming something that is likely wrong such as “the Voice will take your land” may simply be an inarticulate way of expressing disapproval of a concept or frustration with a state of affairs. Perhaps the person disagrees with how native title laws have resulted in 55 per cent of the Australian landmass being transferred to Indigenous ownership with new and more trivial claims seeming to appear daily. Perhaps they fear the erosion of property rights demonstrated by Western Australia’s cultural heritage laws might become worse if there is an Indigenous advisory body enshrined in the Constitution. Perhaps they disapprove of claims made by some pro-Voice activists such as “pay the rent”. The outcome of this frustration might be an incorrect claim like “the Voice will take your land”. Incorrect yes, but to put it into terms that the left would understand, the sentiment behind it might represent a cathartic release of anger due to that person’s ‘lived experience’.

Such expressions can provide useful intelligence to the audience. Take the claim that “the Voice will let the UN take over”. This might have been expressed by someone who has grown suspicious of international organisations such as the United Nations. Perhaps the appointment of dictatorships as members of the UN Human Rights Council, or the unhinged declaration by UN Secretary General António Guterres that we are entering a period of “global boiling”, or claims by some activists that Australia is in breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People while those same activists remain silent about the treatment of ethnic minorities in China.

No campaign leader Jacinta Price.
Photo: Fair Australia

A claim by that person that “the Voice will let the UN take over” could be simply dismissed (or censored) for being wrong, but it is communicating potentially useful information. The person is so distrustful or angry at an organisation, process, or agenda that they are willing to make unsupportable claims about them. That communicates something in itself. Perhaps if the Yes case had tried to understand the sentiment behind some of the so-called ‘misinformation’ rather than (or in addition to) simply denouncing it, they may have been able to learn how their ideas and messaging were falling so far short of the mark. There is widespread community hostility towards and suspicion of unelected ‘elites’—represented sometimes by conspiracy theories about the UN and other international organisations—yet the Yes case never looked like anything other than an elitist project of activists and the political class.

Of course, it is also entirely reasonable to judge harshly the spreading of lies. A voter might quite properly be turned off by a political argument or movement if it appears that so many on that side of the debate believe in conspiracy theories or to be spreading lies. But this insight is lost if that information is censored. For example, I certainly judge harshly the activists that still repeat the debunked myth that Indigenous Australians were once governed by the ‘Flora and Fauna Act’ (factchecked, in a moment of clarity, by no less than the ABC). Far from wanting to silence such patently false views, I think it is revealing and useful to know who spreads such falsehoods. If these views were censored, this intelligence would be lost.

Of course, these benefits from tolerating the free expression of all ideas (whether true or false) need to be weighed up against any harm it causes. But what harm is that? There is rarely, if ever, any attempt to explain or quantify what the so-called harm caused by misinformation actually is, and it is probably unfalsifiable either way. We will never know how a voter might have voted if not exposed to some piece of information or other. We cannot rerun the referendum in a different reality, and there are a multitude of reasons that go into why someone might vote a certain way. We are being asked to radically alter how political discourse can be conducted in this country on the basis of no evidence and unprovable assertions.

Given the lack of actual evidence of harm caused by misinformation, why are some so enamoured with censorship (predominantly on the political left) and some so resistant to it (predominantly on the right)? Certainly those who are politically engaged might have a bias towards believing political messaging influences election results, because they consume and are responsible for producing so much of it. If you think every sound bite a politician utters might swing the polls a percentage point, you are probably more inclined to believe misinformation can sway an election.

Another reason might be, to return to a theme explored earlier, that much of our political class have a dim view of the intelligence of their fellow Australians. Most ordinary people know that much of the content on social media is satire, biased, or lies and are smart enough to discern the differences. But our social betters do not trust us to do so.

Finally, it could simply be the case that the ideologies and agenda pushed by the elites do not tend to age well when exposed to sunlight. The Voice is just another example of this. The fact is that the more people learnt about the Voice, the more likely they were to vote No. I suspect this is not the only agenda of the left where this rule applies. A natural reaction to this state of affairs is to ensure such ideas receive far less sunlight in the future.

Australians have categorically rejected a project pushed by the elite activist class, a divisive race-based Voice to Parliament. The activist class will never forgive such a travesty. As retribution they will seek to silence the voices of those who said No. The IPA is resolutely opposed to such measures.

To download the IPA submission in response to the draft Censorship Bill, go to: ipa.org.au/publications-ipa/research-papers/canberras-digital-ministry-of-truth

The Westminster Declaration is available at westminsterdeclaration.org

This article from the Summer 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Legal Rights Program director John Storey.

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