No, not fake news: Why truth and trust are still in good shape in Australia

According to political scientist John Keane, when the Pitjantjatjara people of central Australia talk of truth, “they recognise what mainstream white society usually forgets: that truth and trust are twins”.

Put simply, the reason for a stronger local sense of trust, or at least a residual willingness to still believe in “truth”, rests on Australia now being a more successful society than those we are often compared with in Europe and North America. Large parts of Europe are saddled by high government debt, stagnant growth, rising anti-immigration sentiment, moves to hobble the judiciary in some countries, and in central and eastern Europe by nervousness about Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s sullen irredentism.

In Australia, sustained economic growth, a targeted social welfare system, a relatively high minimum wage, labour mobility, compulsory voting, a well-managed migration scheme and a successful multicultural society, make this place more “believable” – for the time being, anyway.

Erosion of public trust

It’s important not to downplay the negatives. Some pretty ordinary behaviour at the top on both sides of politics over the past decade has earned Australia the “coup capital of the democratic world” title. Furthermore, an open-trading country with a small population is vulnerable to damage wreaked by a drawn-out US-China trade war, and is not immune from social dislocation spreading out of Europe and North America.

Factors such as growing anti-immigration sentiment in the northern hemisphere have Antipodean echoes in figures such as One Nation’s Pauline Hanson and rejected Katter Australia Party Senator Fraser Anning. This is in addition to the corrosive impact on Australians’ sense of trust in local institutions, part of the fallout from the banking and institutional sexual abuse royal commissions, plus widespread allegations of bullying of female politicians.

Once again, at the heart of this litany of bad deeds is the issue of trust. If you don’t trust someone, you are not going to believe them. “Much of the time, the edifice that we refer to as ‘truth’ is really an investment of trust,” according to British sociologist William Davies. A “collective leap of faith” lies at the core of any functioning democracy, he writes, but “when trust sinks beneath a certain point, many people may come to view the entire spectacle of politics and public life as a sham”.

The current political zeitgeist can be likened to a leaky ship – let’s call it Democracy – in rough seas. For some time, all seems to be OK. Democracy may be taking on water but the hard-working crew are bailing away. No one notices, however, that water levels inside the ship are steadily rising; at a critical point, Democracy starts to sink.

This sinking process may threaten, for example, when too many key public figures, “notably politicians and journalists”, are regarded as “untrustworthy”, Davies wrote in a recent article published in The Guardian. A significant factor in that erosion of public trust is “the spread of digital technology” and its “latent potential” to “undermine entire public institutions”.

According to John Keane, a Professor of Politics at Sydney University and at the Wissenschaftszentum in Berlin, we live “in an unfinished revolutionary age of communicative abundance … dogged by politically threatening contradictions and decadent counter-trends”. This includes a drift towards “post-truth” politics. Once again, Keane’s words evoke that image of a listing ship.

Keane refers to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of post-truth as the public burial of “objective facts” by an avalanche of media “appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The result is that “ever greater sections of the population are ready to ignore facts, and even to accept obvious lies willingly. Not the claim to truth, but the expression of the ‘felt truth’ leads to success in the post-factual age,” Professor Keane wrote in an essay published online recently by The Conversation.

“Its troubling potency in public life flows from its hybrid qualities, its combination of different elements in ways that defy expectations and confuse its recipients,” Professor Keane went on.

Trump at the extreme

Exhibit A is beleaguered President Trump, who, according to US media reports, is now the subject of 17 separate inquiries. His miasma of lie-strewn comments has been likened by Politico to “the rhetorical equivalent of a bunch of beer cans, potato-chip bags and the odd shiny pool of oil floating down a filthy river”.

Protesters have upended the centrist French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reform program. David Rowe

Trump is at the extreme. Most politicians inhabit a grey rhetorical world between truth and lies. Davies points out that it is “impossible to conclusively prove that a politician is morally innocent or that a news report is undistorted” but “it is far easier to demonstrate the opposite”. While trust “relies on a leap of faith, distrust is supported by ever-mounting piles of evidence”, now compounded many times over by the dark deeds of lying memes and bots.

Clair Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a US site specialising in the analysis of journalism, is alarmed by what she calls the “drip, drip, drip of divisive hyper-partisan memes on society”, particularly as the content is often being shared on “closed or ephemeral spaces” such as Facebook, WhatsApp groups, SnapChat, and Instagram. “As we spend more time in these types of spaces online, inhabited by our closest friends and family, I believe we’re even more susceptible to these emotive, disproportionately visual messages,” Wardle writes.

Russell Skelton, the director of RMIT-ABC Fact Check, says “the problem with Facebook and Google is that they control very much what we read” on-line, including what he says are “the most outrageous” phony news reports. Attempts to “moderate the extreme voices have had very little impact”.

These “extreme voices” include those, like Russian government agents operating online who abuse their access to Facebook and Google “to discredit democracy. You have all these forces coming to bear on these big social media feeds. Trust is very hard to grasp in what I call the firehoses of disinformation.”

Donald trump’s miasma of lie-strewn comments has been likened to ‘the rhetorical equivalent of a bunch of beer cans, potato-chip bags and the odd shiny pool of oil floating down a filthy river’. David Rowe

“In countries like Australia, where we have a strong national broadcaster, this tends to have less impact because you have a trusted news service,” Skelton says.

Asked if the nature of Fact Check’s “checks” have changed much over the past six years, Skelton said Fact Check was “not really dealing with the spread of untruths”, but more “with political spin and attempts by lobby groups and politicians to shift the policy debate in their direction. We haven’t been involved in going after those fabricated news sites parading themselves as credible news sources.”

Recently, wild Facebook entries have been widely blamed for fanning six weeks of violent, even deadly, riots by the so-called “gilets jaunes” – angry, often less well-off people with no formal protest structure and no nominated leaders who have nevertheless upended the centrist French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reform program.

There have been no local riots, but some detect a similar process of polarisation developing in Australia. Two former staffers of former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, Lachlan Harris and Matthew Charlton, claimed this year that “the fundamental operating model of Australian politics is breaking down.”

Alarming trend

They based their diagnosis on data from the Australian Electoral Study, which looks at long-term trends in Australian politics. Run by the ANU’s School of Politics, its analysis is based on 100-question surveys taken after each federal election. The most alarming trend is that more than half those surveyed in the last study taken after the 2016 election believe politicians are out of touch, while only a quarter think our politicians do the right thing.

In 1996, when John Howard won his first election, more than one in three Australians rated themselves as political moderates, according to the ANU survey. Twenty years later, only one in 10 described themselves that way.

Curtin University’s Professor Phillimore counters that support for what he calls “the Australian model” is “broader than sometimes thought”. This support is buttressed by Australia’s system of compulsory preferential voting and augmented by the proportional representation system for voting for senators in the Upper House. This voting model means that “mainstream politics must aim for mass support, usually found in the centre. Targeting ‘the base’ is nonsense.”

The Australian voting model includes escape valves for “the disconnected/unhappy via minor parties and independents who can be influential and represented electorally”. At the same time, Australia’s right-wing populists – political parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – “don’t get anywhere near the share of votes they do in Europe”, and “immigration is still generally accepted” in Australia, Phillimore says.

Australians feel we are in danger of heading down the same negative – even dysfunctional – path as Britain.  David Rowe

“This does not mean problems don’t exist or aren’t on the horizon,” he says, citing high under-employmen, fairly flat wages in recent years, the gender pay gap and entrenched poverty, including among Aboriginal people. “But a sense of crisis with Australia regarded as an integral part, or the next step, in a broader Anglosphere or populist crisis narrative, is overblown.”

Phillimore says: “Australia’s long-running economic success is real but sometimes under-appreciated. We are different from the ‘Anglosphere’ crisis analysis. Despite the boom, wealth and income inequality in Australia has not increased markedly. Prosperity has been widespread, with all income deciles benefiting. A rising tide has lifted all boats.”

According to Jill Sheppard, a lecturer in politics at the ANU who is heavily involved in the ANU’s Australian Electoral Study, the “more mundane reality” is that “people living under democracies are not quite as unhappy as headline-grabbing research suggests”. However, “citizens in democracies are expecting more from their political leaders, and they are increasingly underwhelmed by what they see”.

It’s a warning that should be heeded as Australians head towards the next federal election, which must be held by May 18 next year. The campaign itself will be preceded by the final report of the banking royal commission and a federal budget. For many commentators, the nature of the campaign and the likely result have already been framed by opinion polls and pre-campaign positioning.

In a decade that has witnessed six changes of prime minister, four party room putsches, and two extremely close election results, however, there’s a grumpy, “enough already” mood around. In a volatile climate of roiling resentment, the politicians and their marketing massagers will be well advised to take nothing for granted, and heed Jean Borgais warning that “instability is caused by lack of truth in politics”.

Warning political debate at risk

There’s also an ominous warning about the potential for bots and memes to play havoc with the election campaign. “In Australia we have been lucky we haven’t been exposed to that level of false news experienced during the recent French election and subsequent riots,” Fact Check’s Russell Skelton says.

However, “that’s not to say we won’t. Everyone is waiting to see if any outside players or local interest groups on the extreme fringes try to manipulate the political debate.”

One can always predict dangers ahead. But it is also timely to take a considered look at where we are.

Behaviour at the top on both sides of politics over the past decade has earned Australia the ‘coup capital of the democratic world’ title. David Rowe

For centuries, poetry lovers have pondered the meaning of the last lines in John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

At the end of tumultuous year, perhaps it’s enough to agree in the lingering value of truth and trust, a value that has stood up remarkably well in Australia, all things considering.

In a decade that has witnessed six changes of prime minister, four party room putsches, and two extremely close election results, however, there’s a grumpy, “enough already” mood around.  MICK TSIKAS

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