Australian Electoral Commission calls out misinformation

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SYDNEY — The cartoon appeared online early on a Friday morning. Created by a far-right Australian party in the style of “South Park”, it has lit up social media with its crude jokes and false claims about stolen elections.

In a Canberra office covered in computer screens, the alerts started pouring in.

“This requires a #FactCheck,” one person tweeted.

“Isn’t that illegal?” another asked.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) was tagged in the torrent of tweets. Within minutes, the federal agency responded, calling the video “fake” and “disappointing.” The agency’s actions quickly led Twitter to call the cartoon “misleading,” and Facebook and TikTok took it down altogether.

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Last month’s incident reflects the growing wave of misinformation facing Australia as it prepares to go to the polls on Saturday. But it also shows the benefit of a single agency overseeing a country’s electoral process.

“We are truly on the frontline of protecting Australian democracy,” said AEC Digital Engagement Manager Evan Ekin-Smyth. “If we’re not in the conversations, advocating for elections, defending people’s perceptions of democracy, well, who are we?”

In the United States, elections are overseen by a patchwork of partisan state and local officials. Add to that the Electoral College and the system can sometimes feel chaotic or even susceptible to undue influence, as Americans have learned in 2020.

“There are myriad major and minor differences in how election laws and regulations are administered across America,” said Pippa Norris, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It violates fundamental principles of equality and consistency in electoral processes and voting rights, leads to excessively partisan considerations playing on the system, and encourages many abusive practices.”

Australia’s electoral system, on the other hand, is hailed by analysts around the world.

Steven J. Mulroy, a professor at the University of Memphis and author of a book on US election law, called it “the gold standard of election administration.”

In Australia, slot machines are everywhere. The same goes for gambling addiction.

Ariadne Vromen, a political scientist at the Australian National University, noted that few other countries have independent electoral commissions.

“It’s one of our good innovations, along with compulsory voting,” she said. “Australians trust these processes. They may not feel particularly warm or trust political actors, politicians themselves and political parties, but they do trust institutions.

That trust is now being tested.

The flood of misinformation that fueled the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol has not spared Australia. Since the country’s last federal election in 2019, Ekin-Smyth said, false claims about Australia’s election have skyrocketed. Some seem to be imported from the United States.

“There have been allegations about the use of Dominion voting machines,” he said, citing a baseless claim pushed by former President Donald Trump and some of his advisers. “We don’t use Dominion voting machines. We’ve never done that, and yet people claim we’re going to use them and the election is rigged on top of it.

The challenges have changed, and so has the AEC.

When Ekin-Smyth joined in 2011, the AEC didn’t even have a Twitter account. A decade later, half a dozen people now help him tweet at a breakneck pace: up to two dozen times an hour. He also has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, partnered with TikTok on an election guide and hosted an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit.

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The goal is to counter false claims before they have a chance to spread.

“We’re not blind to the fact that social media moves incredibly fast,” Ekin-Smyth said. “And the action that social media organizations can take is brilliant. But the action we can take even faster by responding on our channels may be even more effective.

This action is sometimes serious, as when the AEC recently returned an allegedly dual-registered candidate to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.

However, the AEC also has a sense of humor, mixing posts on Crumpet the election cat and jokes and GIF.

“Their meme game is pretty strong,” Vromen said. “And informal language is really important. It’s personalized. It uses daily commitment standards. And that’s the kind of thing that people will notice and share.

Catchy tweets sometimes elicit pushback from critics who think the AEC should be more calmor even silent. But Ekin-Smyth said it was important to speak to people on their terms.

“We are a bunch of civil servants,” he said. “But most of Australia isn’t, and they don’t talk like them, so why should we?”

As the election approached, the AEC received dozens of complaints about false or misleading statements by candidates, parties or lobby groups. It only controls information about the political process, not political speech.

“A party or a candidate talks about another party, their policies, their history – we can’t be the truth regulators for that,” Ekin-Smyth said. “We don’t have legislation that allows it. But there would also be practical issues and perception issues if we made decisions about these things.

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In March, for example, a conservative lobby group created a mobile billboard with a cartoon depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping voting for the centre-left Australian Labor Party. The AEC asked the group to changing the billboard – not for its message, but because it showed Xi’s ballot with a check mark on it. Australians are required to rank candidates or parties.

If there is misinformation online, the agency should be careful not to respond in a way that could amplify it.

When the far-right One Nation party released its video on April 29 falsely suggesting that illegal votes decided Australia’s 2010 federal election, Ekin-Smyth consulted with the AEC’s legal and executive teams before elaborating. answer.

“This commentary on the electoral system is very disappointing,” he said. tweeted from the AEC account. “Registered parties are aware of the election integrity measures in place, including information received/objection action taken for deceased Australians, and steps to verify outgoing and incoming absentee ballots.”

Some Twitter users complained he hadn’t been more strident, and Ekin-Smyth used stronger language in subsequent tweets. But he also didn’t want to fuel a controversy that would spread the video even more widely.

Meanwhile, colleagues were contacting social media companies, which called the video misleading or took it down.

“That was probably one of the most egregious examples we’ve seen,” Ekin-Smyth said. “Some of the claims in it are simply incorrect, and they clearly have the ability to undermine people’s faith in the system.”

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He ignored suggestions that the AEC was being unfair to One Nation. The commission did not take issue with the previous cartoons which, although crude, did not mislead people about the electoral system. One of them actually explained the preferential vote well, he said.

As social media fuels tribalism, the AEC requires all of its employees — including its 100,000 temporary election workers — to sign a declaration of political neutrality.

“There’s a lot of responsibility,” Ekin-Smyth said, “because a failed election — real or perceived — as we’ve seen in other jurisdictions, is potentially devastating.”

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