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After the Voice referendum, Australia must find a better way to cut through the noise online

Posted By on October 25, 2023 @ 11:00

The expert assessment is emphatic: the Voice referendum campaign was beset by information that was false, distracting or conducive to an information space so confusing that many people switched off or were diverted away from reliable sources.

On top of the spread of false and manipulated information about Covid-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and now Israel and Gaza, Australians might be tempted to accept fake news and unreliability as an inevitable effect of the sheer amount of information online and the ease with which we can access it.

But it’s not something we should be willing to accept. We can’t make the problem disappear, but we can expect governments to create a healthier information environment.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Voice campaign—among them that governments need to understand better how Australians get news and messages on important issues, how information circulates through the population, and what can be done to better inform voters. Many of the answers come down to strengthening the signal of reliable information while reducing the noise of irrelevant, false and manipulated information.

One potent slogan from the no campaign, ‘If you don’t know, vote no’, perfectly illustrates a problem that plagued this referendum. Too many people, by their own admission, didn’t know what they were voting on, and many didn’t make enough effort to improve their understanding. Some who did seek to learn more were left unsatisfied with the level of detail they could find. There simply wasn’t a strong enough signal of reliable information on the yes campaign.

There are several reasons [1] why it’s difficult for people to sort through information online. A flood of information can often overwhelm readers and prompt them to disengage. We are also prone to accepting information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs without checking its reliability. Both human tendencies can be exploited by malign actors to influence people—though this also happens when people are sharing information with good intentions.

Throughout the referendum and in various other election campaigns, political parties, foreign governments [2] and other actors were accused of spreading disinformation online to sow division or influence an outcome. It’s easy to think that a lot of the false information online is highly targeted, tactical and precise in an effort to manipulate people and decisions. But in reality, the online space is typically more like a whirlwind of chaotic messaging, fear, anger and confusion.

People are entitled to their opinions. We can’t change that and nor should we want to, even if we know that some of those opinions are going to be informed by misleading or incorrect information. So the focus must be on improving people’s access to facts in as unpolluted an information environment as possible.

It can start with better promotion of the tools that are already available. There were many places to find accurate and reliable information on the Voice, starting with voice.gov.au and the Australian Electoral Commission website. Many of these were drowned out. An analysis using the online tracking tool Meltwater shows that the number of online public mentions of the Voice averaged more than 20,000 per day this year, and influential popular culture icons, influencers and well-funded lobbyists dominated the space.

There were viral videos created by grassroots campaigns that encouraged people to at least search for more information about the Voice through Google before making a decision, which would have helped drive more traffic to government websites. But videos such as one [3] from Australian rapper Briggs—which amassed nearly four million views on Facebook and Instagram in 48 hours, 10 times more than Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s video did in a month—were rare and largely highlighted the government’s failures to get information to voters. Meanwhile, conservative activist group Fair Australia [4] delivered at least nine TikTok videos that drew more than one million views each.

Grassroots campaigning is great. But the Australian government shouldn’t be relying on individuals and influencers among the population to drive voter towards more and better information.

Governments should learn from what has worked well so that messages can be better tailored in future campaigns.

One successful example of a major company cutting through the noise happened in 2020 as the rollout of 5G internet intersected with fear and confusion about Covid-19. Telstra [5] produced some entertaining and effective videos that dispelled online conspiracies that 5G and Covid were related and sought to inform 5G fence-sitters through humour while providing them with scientific evidence about the safety of 5G installation and use. The videos reached an audience 10 times larger than the standard Telstra video. This campaign shows that crafting the message so that it reaches and engages audiences online is one way of strengthening the signal in the noise.

Rather than having rules or norms that rely only social media companies to identify and label clear instances of misinformation and disinformation, strengthening the signal can occur by applying labels more widely and earlier to more of the conversation and at lower thresholds, especially ahead of elections and referendums. Labels could even be put on uncontested opinions and information, and links to government websites and further information could highlighted so they stand out more clearly on posts.

Education must also play a role in assisting the population to sort through the noise and find sources of reliable information online. From the moment children are expected to use the internet as a resource they must be taught how to spot disinformation tactics and avoid misinformation traps.

The online confusion around the Voice referendum was another wake-up call for our country to act on a problem that goes beyond politics and foreign influence. We are faced with a societal challenge that requires fundamentally changing the way people think about, engage with and process information from all sources. We need to invest more time and effort in deciphering what happens in the information space and helping everyone better understand what they are seeing.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/after-the-voice-referendum-australia-must-find-a-better-way-to-cut-through-the-noise-online/

URLs in this post:

[1] reasons: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/spotting-misinformation-and-disinformation-in-australias-voice-to-parliament-referendum/

[2] foreign governments: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-cyber-interference-narrows-in-on-australian-politics-and-policy/

[3] one: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-06/australian-rappers-yes-voice-skit-goes-viral/102937176

[4] Fair Australia: https://theconversation.com/what-are-advance-and-fair-australia-and-why-are-they-spearheading-the-no-campaign-on-the-voice-209390

[5] Telstra: https://www.mobileworldlive.com/blog/blog-telstra-turns-to-humour-to-battle-false-5g-claims/

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