This is a long, extensively detailed story from the Guardian Australia about the rapid spread on social media, in the closing days of the Australian election, of a completely false claim that the Labor Party had a secret plan to impose a 40% inheritance tax (called a “death tax” in the postings that spread the story). The Labor Party was aware of this issue as it was happening and took numerous measures to try to counteract it. At this stage, no one knows whether this widely circulated lie affected the outcome of the election — and perhaps we will never know.
This in alarm bell for the kinds of tactics we — the campaigns, the platforms, policymakers, and others — have to be prepared for in the 2020 election cycle.
Here is a brief excerpt from the story:
While the contest in 2016 was a harbinger, the federal election of 2019 will go down in history as Australia’s first post-truth campaign. Substantial numbers of people shared material on Facebook that had absolutely no basis in reality, and a lot of it was shared as personal communications between networks of friends, which means there is no requirement that the content be authorised in accordance with the electoral rules, even though it was clearly political communication.
The weaponising of misinformation through peer-to-peer sharing, and the lack of oversight or any meaningful intervention to stop it, suggests this is a significant weakness in Australia’s already lax electoral regime.
Political parties are vulnerable in an online environment akin to the wild west, and more importantly, citizens are vulnerable if they cannot sort fact from fiction.
Some Labor MPs still are not sure whether they lost support predominantly because of the contentious tax-and-spend policies Shorten advanced, or because of policies he never advanced – a deeply disconcerting experience and one with profound implications for democratic contests in the digital age.
And here is an excerpt on how Facebook responded in real-time to this issue:
Facebook’s fact-checkers review stories, detect mistruths, then take steps to limit their spread. They were quickly set to work on the death tax claim.
“AFP [a French news agency] fact-checked this claim in April, and the post was rated as ‘False’,” a Facebook spokesman said. “Based on this rating, people who shared the post were notified that it had been fact-checked and rated as false. As a result, the original post and thousands of similar posts received reduced distribution in News Feed.”