Disinformation threatens evidence-based policymaking
26 Feb 2021|

Disinformation often raises concerns about influencing politicians and the outcome of elections and about fostering extremism. Most of us are familiar with the tag ‘fake news’ and with inadvertent or deliberate disinformation spread through social media platforms. If governments do respond to it, they tend to focus on its immediate impacts instead of its long-term distortion of sound evidence-based policy.

Evidence-based decision-making has been the central feature of Australia’s policy landscape since the late 1990s. Putting aside debates about what constitutes evidence, this approach is thought to best serve policymaking by minimising the influence of ideology. However, concerns about data being ‘concocted, cherry-picked or manipulated to suit a predetermined position’ perpetuate and fuel the purist’s desire for more and more detailed information.

The trend is also for policy and advice to be ‘informed’ by evidence rather than based on it, which further downplays the significance of a reliable evidence base.

That said, the convergence of disinformation and ideology in a world rich with social media means that it’s sometimes difficult to locate reliable evidence. Filter bubbles and echo chambers allow us to push and pull the information that best suits our personal perspective on most things. Mainstream media’s response is to fact-check political leaders to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Pick any topical issue and you’ll find many examples. While the experience of Covid-19 is reinforcing our reliance on expert scientific advice, that’s not an automatic response for everyone. Some of us continue to retreat into the fear and misinformation spread on social media by ‘experts’. We’ve witnessed this in relation to state border closures, and it continues with disquiet over border permit systems and confusion over which Covid vaccine is best.

Those examples demonstrate that good policy is easily understood and squeezes out opportunities for disinformation.

The challenge to the evidence base will continue, given the way some politicians embrace and, at times, actively perpetuate disinformation. We don’t need to look far to find promoters of disinformation in Australian politics: serial social media offender Craig Kelly has done his best to take the lead in coronavirus disinformation from celebrity chef Pete Evans.

The concern about misinformation taking hold reminds me of the B-grade movie Idiocracy, in which the lead character is a test subject in a top-secret hibernation program that goes wrong. He wakes up 500 years in the future to discover that society has been dumbed down and he’s now the most intelligent person alive. In that world, weird things, such as irrigating vegetables with soft drink, are commonplace. Knowledge underpinned by evidence doesn’t exist. The plot is all a bit extreme, of course.

Or is it? Two-thirds of respondents to an Australian online survey about access to Covid-19 information say social media is the main source of misinformation. However, fewer than a quarter of those surveyed said that they’d encountered ‘a lot of misinformation’ about Covid-19.

On the positive side, younger news consumers in Australia are more sceptical of online information. So, while the advice of the real experts is increasingly being challenged by the armchair variety, in Australia at least, it may be having less impact than we fear.

The problem arises when disinformation becomes a substitute for evidence. The National Archives of Australia publication Building trust in the public record notes, ‘The Australian Public Service needs authentic, complete and reliable information to make evidence-based decisions, provide sound advice, develop good policy and deliver services and programs effectively.’ Collecting, managing and accessing reliable information are the keys to reversing declining trust in evidence.

Some say misinformation is putting democracy at risk. The US experience of recent weeks provided ample opportunity for commentary. Debating whether democracy is for the vocal minority or the silent majority misses the point. The role of democratic governments isn’t to blindly favour the misinformed and disinformed views of a particular group. Governments must rule for all, consistent with national values, and not disregard, disenfranchise or marginalise other voices and needs.

Last year, Francis Fukuyama noted that ‘social media have enormously greater power to amplify certain voices’ and that in America there are ‘calls for the government to regulate internet platforms in order to preserve democratic discourse itself’. However, action by governments isn’t always needed, particularly if traditional news media are able to challenge disinformation.

After the violence at the Capitol in Washington DC, social media and internet platforms banned users and shut down groups engaging in violent discourse. Donald Trump’s Twitter accounts were closed, and Amazon, Apple and Google suspended the pro-Trump social media platform Parler. Those companies acted in their own capacity, which reinforced for many that they acted too late.

In a world where everyone can be a commentator or a publisher, we need to ask, who decides what is said and what influence it should have, and who decides what role the public sector should play in challenging disinformation to avoid the distortion of the policy evidence base?

The challenge is multiplied many times over for an independent and non-partisan public sector. Rebuilding trust in our institutions requires more than delivering during a pandemic. The prime minister says the public service needs to focus on ‘getting the right data, the right evidence, and the right reporting’. More importantly, a reliable evidence base supports a sharper focus on long-term thinking and planning.

To avoid the disinformation trap, the public service must more effectively leverage authentic and reliable information. It also should actively respond to disinformation through authoritative strategic communications that focus us on the facts. We’ve experienced the benefits of this through Covid, and it needs to become a key feature of a redefined role for the public service.