© Reuters.

By Byron Kaye

BRISBANE, Australia (Reuters) – At a beachside park in north Brisbane, suspended Australian doctor William Bay told a gathering that a forthcoming referendum to recognize the country’s first residents and enshrine an indigenous advisory body in the constitution “opens a gateway to endless… tyranny would open”. and lawlessness”.

The proposal corresponds to “the German Enabling Act of 1933 that made Hitler the Führer,” Bay said in the August speech, which he posted on Facebook (NASDAQ:) to his 14,000 followers. The advisory body could “control parliament and government, replacing our system of representative democracy,” added Bay, who lost his medical license in 2022 after protesting COVID-19 vaccines.

Dozens of activists who have built sizable audiences during the COVID-era by opposing Australia’s pandemic response have focused on undermining the October 14 referendum, an analysis of social media posts by independent fact-checkers shows .

Many of their demands bear little resemblance to the proposal Australians will be voting on: the creation of a body called the Voice to Parliament to give lawmakers non-binding advice on matters affecting Indigenous Australians.

These influencers are playing an outsized role in the debate, spreading falsehoods that could derail the landmark vote, eight political analysts and anti-misinformation experts told Reuters. The direct link between COVID agitators and misinformation about The Voice has not been reported in detail.

Polls show support for the vote has fallen from around two-thirds in April to less than 40% this month. While factors cited by political commentators include a lack of bipartisan support, uncertainty about the scope of the Voice and a lackluster “yes” campaign, experts speaking to Reuters said some of the decline was due to misinformation.

Facebook owner Meta increased funding for outside fact-checkers in July, but a month later 40% of posts from accounts reported for sharing “misinformation or toxic narratives related to the referendum” went viral, as per one so far unpublished study by Reset.Tech Australia was first reported by Reuters. The Internet advocacy group defines “viral” as receiving more than 100 engagements within 24 hours.

Just 4% of posts on Facebook that contained independently assessed misinformation about the election process were flagged or removed after three weeks, said Reset.Tech, which tracked 99 misleading posts with a combined reach of 486,000 people on Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter) monitored ) and TikTok.

According to Reset.Tech, no X-post with incorrect voting information was marked or removed during the monitoring period either before or after the report was made.

X, which laid off many employees after billionaire Elon Musk bought the platform in 2022, did not respond to a request for comment. The company’s civic integrity policy states that using its services to manipulate or mislead people in connection with elections is a violation of its User Agreement.

According to Reset.Tech, TikTok flagged or removed a third of misleading posts, making it the most proactive in the study.

“Many of the accounts promoting misinformation about elections turned to a style of anti-lockdown politics during the pandemic,” said Alice Dawkins, chief executive of Reset.Tech Australia. “Some of these reports have since reached new levels of virality in the run-up to the referendum, particularly on X.”

A Meta spokesperson said the company wants healthy debate on its platforms, but it is “challenging to always find the right balance” when some users “want to abuse our services during election periods and referendums.”

Ella Woods-Joyce, director of public policy in Australia at TikTok, said the company is focused on “protecting the integrity of the process and our platform while maintaining a neutral position.”

In relation to the referendum, the Australian Electoral Commission has found that “more false comments about electoral processes have been disseminated in the information ecosystem than we have observed in previous election events,” its media and digital director, Evan Ekin-Smyth, told Reuters.

Beneath a giant fig tree, Bay urged his mostly middle-aged audience – and Facebook followers – to “check” polling stations to “make sure the count is accurate,” with remarks echoing unsubstantiated allegations of vote-rigging by former US President Donald Trump remembering his defeat in 2020.

Speaking to Reuters, Bay denied spreading misinformation and said he believes his claims are correct. He acknowledged that his statements “might carry some weight” given his public profile in the context of the pandemic.

At the same event, local MP Luke Howarth spoke out against the vote, sticking with the Conservative opposition’s argument that the proposal would be ineffective and divisive because it would give some people additional rights based on their race.


Australia’s strict pandemic lockdown and vaccination measures sparked numerous protests, often inspired by social media influencers and anti-vaccination activists.

“Covid seemed to instill in people a complete distrust of authority and a lack of trust in the state,” said David Heilpern, dean of Southern Cross University’s law school, who studies anti-government movements. “It will certainly have an impact on voting.”

Bay is far from alone in the anti-voice online ecosystem that has emerged from the pandemic.

Graham Hood, a Qantas pilot who resigned because of the airline’s COVID vaccination requirement, is now hosting a webcast that he shares with 142,000 Facebook followers.

His July 10 guest, far-right Senator Pauline Hanson, told viewers that the vote would turn Australia’s Northern Territory into a breakaway “black Aboriginal state” and add additional seats in parliament “that they create exclusively for Indigenous Aboriginal people can”.

Tristan Van Rye, an electrician with 22,000 Facebook followers after protesting against COVID vaccines, wrote in a July 10 post that the indigenous body was “taking control of certain beaches, nature reserves and national forests and either restricting access for Hood, Hanson and Van Rye did not respond to Reuters’ questions about the spread of misinformation.

The Voice was proposed by Aboriginal leaders in 2017 as a step towards healing a national wound stemming from colonization. Unlike Canada, the US and New Zealand, Australia has no treaty with its indigenous people, who make up about 3.2% of the population and lag behind the national average on socio-economic standards.

Ed Coper, director of communications agency Populares, said that for voters confronted with a new issue like the Voice, it is “much easier to see misinformation on social media and thereby skew their opinions while (still) form that opinion.” .

An X-account that misinformation researchers suspected it might be fake due to its high volume of anti-voice content was ultimately linked to a real person, a retired Melbourne cleaning contractor.

“I’ve only been involved in politics for the last two years,” account operator Rosita Diaz, 75, told Reuters by phone. “99.9% of what I post is 100% correct. I would say 100% but some people would turn me around and call me a liar. Sometimes I might misunderstand something.”

Diaz said she was banned from Facebook “seven or eight times” for posts deemed false. She now mostly posts on X, where she has 20,600 followers and pays to subscribe, which means her posts appear more frequently in users’ feeds.

Misinformation Act

Australia’s left-leaning Labor government, which supports The Voice, introduced legislation this year that would allow the media regulator to determine what constitutes misinformation and penalize social media companies that fail to curb it.

The bill, which is still under public deliberation, has been criticized by Voice opponents as state censorship. But it may not become law until after the referendum.

A spokeswoman for Communications Secretary Michelle Rowland said the government wants to pass the bill later this year but social media platforms are expected to adhere to a voluntary code of practice on the voice.

The Yes campaign, meanwhile, has accused the No camp of deliberately spreading misinformation as part of its strategy. A spokesman for Advance Australia, which is coordinating the no campaign, told Reuters there are “tens of thousands of (no campaign) hats and t-shirts out there and we are not responsible for what people say while wearing them.” .

Elise Thomas, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the lack of evidence-based research meant Australians may never get a full picture of how disinformation and misinformation are affecting the referendum outcome.

“It’s a shame, both for us here in the present and for future generations of Australians trying to make sense of this moment in history,” she said.

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