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Truth or dare: Australia's misinformation challenge

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The Commonwealth Government is committed to bringing to Parliament a Misinformation Bill by the end of the year. A consultation process has been underway for some months following initial concern about the scope of the proposed legislation. When the legislation does make its way to parliament it will now be considered in light of public discourse on the Voice referendum and the conflict in Israel and Palestine. In both cases, claims and cross claims about misleading and deceptive content have been significant parts of the public discussion.

In an open letter to parliamentarians last week, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Yes campaign leaders baldly stated, ‘[l]ies in political advertising and communication were a primary feature of [the No] campaign.’ The letter asserted that there were unprecedented levels of ‘deliberate disinformation and misinformation’ throughout the campaign. And the publication of this misleading material, they argue, led to the unleashing of ‘a tsunami of racism against our people.’

No campaigners, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander campaign leaders, reject this of course. It is as striking an example of the public epistemic chasm as any in Australian public conversation. It’s not simply that there is disagreement about ‘the issue’. There’s a deeper, more intractable disagreement about what information is relevant, what ways of knowing are legitimate, which voices are authentic and authoritative.

This is not to suggest there are not lies, or that there are not participants in public discourse who knowingly sow misleading information to induce fear or doubt. The difficulty is that when such mistruths are exposed there is not a general acceptance across groups in dispute that we can be clear about what is a lie and what is not.

We have seen something of this in the reactions to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. This is not an equivalent event to the Voice referendum, and in neither case am I seeking to address the broader issues in play. I simply seek to note that what those issues are, and ways of knowing and understanding information about them, is seriously contested.

When Palestinians and those in support of the Palestinian cause protested at the Sydney Opera House and elsewhere within 24 hours of Hamas militants attacking Israeli citizens, a claim was being made to the information relevant to understand the current situation. Protesters were suggesting, among other things, that the context for the Hamas attacks was broad. In a sense, the protest sought to highlight, among some deeply offensive language, that the public would be misinformed if it were to consider the killings in isolation.

Many, I included, would suggest that whatever of the broader context, a protest drawing attention away from the acute suffering, so soon after such barbarous acts, was wrong. One can hold this view whilst acknowledging that there are divergent but legitimate perspectives on the proper focus of public attention at that time. There can be legitimate difference about what contexts should be drawn upon, balancing different information, that then give rise to differing views about ‘the issue’.


'Our society’s public discourse is made much poorer by an inability to agree on the basic underlying information that creates the basis for conversation. If we cannot agree on what is relevant in a given conversation, what constitute legitimate ways of knowing and which voices can be trusted as authoritative, then we can only talk past each other.'


What has followed, as with the Voice referendum aftermath, is that disagreeing parties do not discuss issues so much as questions as to the legitimacy of information and the basis for making claims. This can be seen in the way verification is sought on basic factual questions as well as broader questions about the deeper political and historical currents in play.

One does not have to think that information and knowledge is without objective value, dependent on your political standpoint, to recognise that our public discourse tends to exist in just such an environment. Such an environment makes dangerous the possibility of governments’ determining, and policing, what constitutes ‘misinformation’. Such designations are likely to only further divide rather than create consensus on the basis of debate.

In the draft exposure bill, the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023, disinformation and misinformation are both defined as ‘information that is false, misleading or deceptive’ and that ‘is reasonably likely to cause or contribute to serious harm’. The powers that would be available to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) are reasonably limited. They won’t be pulling down content.

They would be given ‘powers to combat online misinformation and disinformation’, under the existing Broadcasting Services Act 1992 by making platforms report on measures taken to combat false, misleading, or deceptive content, introduce new codes of practice to deal with such content and ‘make an enforceable standard for all digital services providers in the relevant section[s] of the industry’.

On their face the powers seem proportionate to what is a significant challenge in a democratic community, where some agreement on the basis for shared conversation is imperative. The difficulty lies in the fact that the powers rely on defining what is false, and what is not.

One concern the Australian Human Rights Commission have raised with the draft bill is that whereas the term ‘misinformation’ would not usually assume a deliberate attempt to deceive, here it is defined synonymously  with ‘disinformation’ which is applied as a term to content that is deliberately disseminated to deceive. So, there is a lack of precision in what might be caught by these powers. This is compounded by the subjective nature of what would be considered ‘significant harm’ under the legislation. All sorts of harms are captured, including to the health of Australians and to the environment.

Public servants seeking to apply a standard of truth on public information seems likely to create difficulty enough. Requiring media platforms, including social media platforms, to report on efforts to combat misinformation creates the possibility of those platforms being understood as mandated arbiters of truth. This concern is not to deny the social responsibility such platforms should seek to exhibit but to recognise the real difficulty a government standard might impose on the sharing of unpopular, minority views if media organisations feel legally obliged to self-censor.

Our society’s public discourse is made much poorer by an inability to agree on the basic underlying information that creates the basis for conversation. If we cannot agree on what is relevant in a given conversation, what constitute legitimate ways of knowing and which voices can be trusted as authoritative, then we can only talk past each other. The intent, then, of the government’s bill is noble. But its application is likely only to exacerbate a politics in which the disputed ground is precisely what constitutes misinformation, when the government is viewed by many as one among many players in that debate.





Julian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Anthony Albanese (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Julian Butler, Misinformation, Australia, Democracy



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Existing comments

Julian Buller’s mild criticism of the draft exposure bill tends to obscure what a disaster such legislation would be. First, experience has taught that even independent judges charged with determining what is misleading and deceptive conduct within the meaning of the trades practices legislation have difficulty in cases before them in agreeing whether conduct complained of infringes the standard.What chances do less experienced people have in making a similar judgment? Secondly, to expect public servants and commercial people to apply similar standards of independence in determining what is misleading or deceptive is the triumph of hope over experience. When Elon Musk acquired Facebook there was disclosed the corrupt way in which offerings for publication were suppressed if they did not conform to the political views of the censors employed by Facebook. If this legislation proceeds it will realise the worst fears of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

JL Trew | 03 November 2023  

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