Disinformation continues to infect Australia’s body politic. It’s time to anchor our discourse in shared reality – Peter Lewis

March 26, 2024

Photo by Magnus Mueller: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-hand-holding-a-black-smartphone-2818118/

From a viable news media to social media platforms free from state control to enforceable election ground rules, guardrails are urgently needed.

Lockdowns, mask mandates and QR entry codes may be consigned to the annals of pandemic history, but those wide-eyed “cookers” convinced that Covid was a deep state conspiracy continue to infect our body politic.

Having railed against the public health mandates, the erosion of fact-based consensus on issues as diverse as energy transition, First Nations justice and regulation of vapes is creating new challenges for reform-minded governments.

While it’s fun to dismiss the alternate universes of QAnon cosplay, sovereign citizenship and fear of the “Great Reset”, there is a more uncomfortable truth we need to confront.

Because if a cooker is someone who rejects established sources of information and scours the internet to build their own version of reality, then this week’s Guardian Essential Report suggests many more of us fit this recipe than we may like to admit.

These findings suggest a least a third of the Australian population is drowning in an excess of low-quality information, unsure who to believe, seeking out truth via the internet and social media while actively avoiding the news media gatekeepers.

There are some clear standouts behind these findings: young people are more likely to say they are overwhelmed by information and less likely to consumer the news; older people say they are more likely to question things. Voters for the independents and minor parties are more likely to say they don’t know who or what to believe.

What’s also interesting is the way these responses interplay with each other: those who reject traditional media sources are also more likely to google their own truths; those who say they are overwhelmed by information also say that for all the noise they don’t know what to believe.

Our quarterly companion focus group fleshes out this picture, suggesting there are two distinct ways people are processing the vast swathes of information that flood their devices.

Some say they are not at all overwhelmed by the amount of information and always question “facts” and will “look at different opinions on different topics to come to my own conclusion”, as one participant put it.

Others recognise they are being targeted with information to fit their personal profile and actively avoid news. “I have enough sad or scary stories and I don’t want to be faced with this in my personal and downtime,” said another participant.

This growing chasm in civic engagement between those who hyper-engage with bad information and those who withdraw altogether is part of a bigger story about where our efforts to seek refuge from the noise are taking us.

Collectively cooked brains have been a constant of the worst moments in history from religious crusades, fascist uprisings, communist purges; cynical leaders unlock mobs whose reality is bent so far they no longer see their fellow humans as whole beings.

But while propaganda and ideology designed to discombobulate is nothing new, never has information been so ubiquitous, where the liberty to live our chosen truth and the internet’s capacity to distribute that version at scale has left us staring into a nihilist void.

This systemic dysfunction lies at the intersection of government, the traditional media gatekeepers and the digital platforms, whose extractive business models are coming under increasing scrutiny.

A second question in this week’s Essential Report shows there is strong public appetite for more muscular regulation of these platforms although there are big differences across the generations.

The pointy end of these calls is the ongoing debate about whether the Chinese government should maintain a stake in TikTok, where the interests and desires of young westerners are served and captured by opaque algorithms. A majority of our respondents support forced divestment of TikTok.

A second front is opening around the responsibility of US-based platforms to ensure their content does not do damage, with regulators attempting to whittle away at the foundational principles that the internet is merely a carriage service with no responsibility for the quality of the information that flows through its pipes.

Meanwhile, the showdown between the media and the company now trading as Meta over whether news journalism has an intrinsically higher value that should be recognised, is ready for a fresh airing in Australia.

The first round of the news media bargaining code saw Facebook block news and other community services to its site, before striking commercial deals that have seen an estimated $70m per year flow into Australian media companies .

Meta has signalled there will be no new deal for the news businesses, promoting vocal opposition from said outlets. In a world where people are taking in less news, the broader public response is one of confusion rather than outrage.

Finally, a new effort to impose truth in advertising on election campaigns as well as limits to and real-time reporting of donations, has strong public support across the partisan divide, with less enthusiasm for the trade-off of increased public funding.

Combined, these results suggest that people can see the warning signs when it comes to tethering reality, be it a viable news media, platforms free from state control or some basic, enforceable election ground rules.

Better still would be a coordinated systematic approach to our current polluted information ecosystem, such as that proposed in 2019 by the Australian Completion and Consumer Commissions’ digital platforms inquiry.

That inquiry recommended the aforementioned news media bargaining code, but also a range of other critical interventions including privacy reform, enforceable disinformation codes and support for public interest journalism.

Successive governments have approached that inquiry’s broad sweep of recommendations as a suite of specific transactions, rendering most of them difficult to execute, mired as they are in vested interest.

If ever there was time for a grand bargain between media, platforms and government to reconcile our preference for freedom of expression with the public interest in anchoring our discourse in shared reality, it is now.

Regulating the status quo won’t cut it. We need to get the guardrails in place urgently before we cede our capacity for collective intelligent thought. The pot is approaching boiling point and we need to lower the heat before we are all cooked.


Originally published in The Guardian Australia, 26 March 2024.