Craig Kelly, the Liberal backbench member for the New South Wales seat of Hughes, is a bit player in Australian politics. At best. But he made headlines this week as a case study in the lesson the Australian government has apparently failed to learn from the Trump-fomented insurrection in Washington – the power of misinformation to poison a democracy.
As the United States reckoned with the terrible cost of a president who peddled lies, unchecked by a Republican party hooked on the political power of his falsehoods, Australian ministers refused to call out Kelly’s ill-informed online rants.
In terms of importance or immediate consequence, the two circumstances could not be further apart. But they shared a principle, or the lack of it.
While his political profile is low, Kelly regularly tops the charts among MPs for social media interactions, with a steady stream of questionable Covid cures and climate denial. At his current rate of posting, he will have launched several hundred Facebook posts promoting unproven drugs and vaccine hesitancy by mid-February, when his own government starts spending $24m on ads to promote the Covid-19 shots that are our best hope of resuming some semblance of our former lives.
Kelly is on record as saying approval from Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration will not be sufficient to convince him to get vaccinated, or to vaccinate his family, because he would want to hear from “experts on all sides”. He is now on a crusade to promote the anti-parasite drug ivermectin as a better solution to Covid than vaccination, despite the NSW Health department saying there is not yet enough evidence to support its use for this purpose.
Like most conspiracy theorists, he sees criticism as evidence of a plot to quash “the truth”, labelling journalists who question him “leftist swamp dwellers” and posting a “notice” to the Guardian, the ABC, opposition leader Anthony Albanese and “other useful idiots of the left” who he claims want him “censored”. He says it’s “an outrageous disgrace that the health bureaucrats in this nation have used the power of big government” (the government he is a member of?) to “tout for everyone to be injected with the vaccines” and to “interfere in the sanctity of the doctor/patient relationship”. In KellyWorld, that relationship should extend to doctors being able to prescribe drugs not yet approved for Australian use.
Despite the obvious public health dangers of his posts, no Morrison government figure would say out loud that Kelly was wrong, or that his claims were not backed by Australian health authorities. The AMA did and the chief medical officer did. But the health minister, Greg Hunt – who has overseen Australia’s world leading health response to Covid-19 – refused to call Kelly out, although he did say he would listen to experts, and advised everyone to do the same. The acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, also demurred, with an explanation that would have made Kellyanne “alternative facts” Conway proud.
“Facts sometimes are contentious and what you might think is right, somebody else might think is completely untrue,” he explained, before falsely claiming he was being asked to “censor” his colleague. For the record, labelling lies or misinformation as such is not censorship, and as Malcolm Farr wrote for Guardian Australia, not doing so is effectively giving colleagues “a licence to lie”.
In the immediate term none of this will make much difference. Australia has had a total of just over 28,650 Covid cases. The US has had more than 23m, the UK more than 3.2m. Here daily infections are measured in single figures. Some days there are none at all. Elsewhere they are measured in the many tens of thousands. Here, for now, we are reaping the benefits of being an island and a country where expertise still holds sway.
During the pandemic last year, as I edited Guardian Australia from the corner of my bedroom and tried to keep up with readers’ insatiable demand for reliable factual information, I wrote an essay expressing cautious optimism about Australia’s response to the crisis.
I saw cause for hope in the way that Australia’s response had, for the most part, been informed by facts and expert advice. Governments cooperated. They worked through their differences – mostly. And since this approach delivered good outcomes for the country, and rising popularity for the politicians, I dared to hope it might become a virtuous cycle, reversing the post-truth drift that has been evident for years.
But I also worry, because conditions remain primed for misinformation to take hold. The digital revolution that allowed so many people a voice in the civic debate is also particularly conducive to spreading lies and conspiracies. Those same platforms cracked the traditional media’s business model, hampering our capacity to report and fact check, with hyper-partisan content often filling the gaps. Debates once ring-fenced by facts can now be conducted with fiction in self-referencing misinformation ecosystems, impervious to discussion or external contradiction – the kind of ecosystems that can convince people that an election was won by the candidate who lost. The Washington insurrection proved how infectious that misinformation can be, and how shockingly far and deep its poison can spread.
Whether my optimism is misplaced really depends on our choices.
For politicians there are choices between immediate political expediency and the longer term health of the democratic system. Ministers refusing to call out Kelly this week undoubtedly wanted to avoid him turning on the party altogether, exposing the Coalition to further challenge from the far right. Pauline Hanson, you’ll recall, began her political career as a disendorsed Liberal candidate. It’s the same calculation that has prevented the Coalition from having any semblance of sane climate policy for a decade – expediency that comes at a very high price.
For the digital platforms, and anyone who would regulate them, there are invidious choices. Faced with a civic emergency in Washington, the platforms have been shutting accounts and services and putting warnings on posts. But we are right to be worried about unelected digital giants with opaque decision-making processes deciding who should or should not have a voice, and equally about such decisions being made by governments. Reset Australia, a lobby group working to counter digital threats to democracy, argues for greater accountability, including clearer rules about when an account will be closed, with avenues for appeal. They also want more transparency around the powerful and secret algorithms that determine and prioritise what we read online. News this week that Google “turned off” some major Australian news sites for a small percentage of users, without telling either the sites or the users, as part of an “experiment”, underlines the point.
For the media there are also big choices; about when to ignore misinformation in order to avoid amplifying it and when to call it out, or fact check it. We can be defensive or open to new ideas and alternative views. We can choose to give our audiences a range of opinions, including some with which they may disagree, or we can base a business model around confirming the biases of a partisan tribe.
And for all of us there are choices about how we engage online, or in political discussion, how we talk to people we disagree with, where we get information and how much thought and critical attention we give to what we read.
These are all options with consequences. We can stand up for facts as the guard rails of civic debate and disagreement, or we can look the other way while fiction and conspiracies fill the void. In Washington we saw the ultimate consequence of the latter choice. Kelly is not very important, but turning a blind eye to his kind of disinformation certainly could be.