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How to spot misinformation in the Federal Election campaign: a Q&A with Simon Copland

Misinformation is often spread online

Over recent years, Australians have been exposed to misinformation and disinformation in many forms. For example, during the 2019 Federal Election, and throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.

With the 2022 Federal Election on the horizon, it is more important than ever before that voters are able to critically analyse the information they receive.

To learn more about how to identify misinformation and disinformation, and how it may influences voters at the upcoming election, I talked with Simon Copland, a PhD candidate in Sociology, and an expert in political misinformation on digital platforms.

Q: What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

A: There’s a slight difference between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is nonfactual material that can get spread anywhere but more often online. It’s normal stuff that is spread without the person who is doing so realising that it’s not true.

Disinformation is when someone often with malicious intent will make up lies and spread them for political or social or personal gain.

Misinformation is far more common than disinformation.

It’s quite frequent for misinformation to come from disinformation. So someone might start a lie and then a bunch of people believe it’s true and spread it around.

Q: Why is misinformation important regarding the upcoming Federal Election?

A: It’s important for a number of reasons. We have seen instances in the past where either misinformation or disinformation has had an impact on people’s votes.

When people are lead to believe stuff that isn’t true, that can impact how they might vote and the way they think about a party.

There are elements of misinformation or disinformation happening around our electoral system — the trustworthiness and integrity of our electoral system. That obviously starts to have an impact on how much people trust our democratic systems. It can start to have huge impacts on how people view their electoral system, how people trust the electoral process, and how much they trust the democratic systems overall which can lead to quite significant social ruptures.

Misinformation can heavily impact people’s votes
Photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash

Q: Have you seen any recent examples within this Federal Election that could be a part of misinformation?

A: Before the election was called we had a consistent rumour or belief going around that Scott Morrison wouldn’t call the election. That was happening a lot on social media. People believed that he would try to find some way to delay holding the election or not holding the election at all.

That had an impact on some of the trust in the election system. Particularly when we saw accounts such as the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) get involved in trying to counteract that. Some people then responded to that [alleging that it] shows the AEC is being run by the Liberal Party effectively. That undermines trust in the AEC.

You will get some politicians who tap into that and run the same line and I think that is deliberate.

They might spread information and material that isn’t true but it’s benefical for them.

We also have examples of things that happen every election. There is constant misinformation going around about the preferential voting system in Australia. The belief is that if you vote for a minor party, that will inevitably lead to one of the other major parties getting elected. Our system is designed specifically so that doesn’t happen.

Q: Why is misinformation legal when it’s obviously such a dangerous thing?

A: The short answer is it’s impossible to regulate. Because what is someone’s truth? That’s really difficult the define. It’s really difficult to regulate what I consider to be misinformation you may consider to be a fact. Who gets to decide what the truth is here can often be very difficult, particularly when we are talking about a bunch of political issues.

It becomes really hard to regulate

Q: Does misinformation benefit the government while hurting the citizens?

A: The thing we need to pay attention to in these debates is who has the power in spreading this kind of content. There’s a lot of real concern about misinformation on social media and some bot accounts creating misinformation and spreading it online. But in reality, it’s going to be really hard for an individual to create and spread big rumours online unless we have big resources behind us.

People with resources can use misinformation to benefit themselves

A government has resources. They have the authority, they’ve been elected. They have a media platform, a whole range of different platforms available to them. So it’s really easy for elected politicians to spread false material and for it to become believed as part of the discussion.

Photo by Aditya Joshi on Unsplash

Q: How can we counteract misinformation?

A: To really counteract some of this misinformation you need two things. [Firstly] you need a trusted source and that trusted source will be different for different communities.

A lot of misinformation comes from distrust

The second thing you need is to focus more on what we call alternative narratives rather than counter-narratives, so focusing on positive stories rather than trying to argue back against somebody. So if they come and say that’s misinformation you don’t push back you instead create alternative narratives. It would be like acknowledging the genuine reasons people have for that distrust but directing the fear and anger in other directions. That’s a lot harder to do than simply putting up a fact-checking story but in the long run, it will have better outcomes but it requires quite significant investment.

Q: What advice would you have for first time voters who are unsure of who to trust because of misinformation?

A: The best thing you can do is go to the source of what you’re trying to find out. It takes work but in an election, you’re faced with a choice of parties that you might want to vote for and you probably have a good sense of what matters to you.

That can give you an entry point into understanding what they believe in and whether that aligns with what you believe.

Most parties will put up their position statements on a range of issues. They are the best sources that you can actually find the policy statements, the vision statements those kinds of things. To at least give you a sense of how a party may align to your own values and your own beliefs.

Check out parties’ policies and ask yourself what connects best with me:

The other thing I would suggest people do is if they don’t understand the voting system, we are really lucky here in Australia in that the Australian Electoral Commission is a genuinely independent election body. They provide really good material that explains simply how our election system works and they also respond to people’s questions. They have a pretty active social media presence so you can go and ask them questions and they will respond. If people are confused about the voting system they are the best people to go to.

Original photos by Olivia Paull