Disinformation is electoral integrity’s biggest threat and the Australian Electoral Commission must tackle this while remaining neutral, writes Deputy Electoral Commissioner Jeff Pope APM GAICD.
Free, fair and impartial elections are the cornerstone of Australian democracy. A federal election is one of the nation’s largest and most complex peacetime logistical exercises, involving approximately 100,000 temporary staff, nearly 8000 polling locations, just over 17 million electors, and 50 million ballot papers — not to mention countless “democracy sausages”.
For the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), running such an event is the main game, but of course there is much more to the election than cardboard, paper, pencils and counting. Operational delivery underpins its electoral integrity and the AEC goes to great lengths to ensure all electoral processes are secure and of the highest integrity. There is also the broad area of communication — and the large volume of competing communication at election time. For the AEC’s part, this involves educating voters on of our voting system.
The rise and continual evolution of online communication has seen the global environment around elections and the perceptions of electoral integrity questioned like never before. In some jurisdictions internationally, it would not be a stretch to suggest that the reputation of the electoral system has come close to a complete collapse. This is not necessarily due to the fallibility of processes, but rather the noise surrounding the politics and those looking to undermine or influence the process.
Australia is not immune to issues experienced internationally. The AEC is a key part of Australian elections and as the electoral expert entrusted with administering the legislation, it also has a responsibility to defend it publicly. It is for this reason that the AEC established a new Reputation Management strategy ahead of the 2022 federal election, setting in place six key principles to its reputational communication (see infographic below).
Before running headfirst into a bold approach of standing on the wall between disinformation and elections, the AEC had to assess its neutrality and where “the line” must be. Political neutrality — both real and perceived — is critical.
“Social media is the disinformation frontier and the AEC consults closely with a range of platforms in Australia and overseas.”
For the AEC, the dividing line is whether public communication is about politics or election processes. In a democracy, there is a freedom in political communication, and it’s up to voters to decide what’s true, what’s not and how it might influence the way they vote. The channels have changed, but the voters’ role hasn’t — they must stop and consider.
Electoral laws only provide us with the ability to ensure communication is appropriately authorised, the intent being for voters to know who is communicating with them. However, with growing calls for truth in political communication and attached suggestions of diminished electoral integrity without it, the AEC saw a need to expand its approach to protecting electoral integrity. It assessed the situation internationally and considered what other jurisdictions were doing to alert voters to be careful of disinformation. At the 2019 federal election, for the first time, the AEC ran its own anti-disinformation campaign called “Stop and Consider” — asking voters to check the source of what they’re seeing, hearing or reading. For a heavily scrutinised independent body, something so new wasn’t without risk, but it worked well and will be run again in 2022 in an expanded fashion.
For the AEC, that’s where efforts around political messaging must end – the limits of its legislative power. However, the growing threat of disinformation regarding the election processes is perhaps even more dangerous.
Strategy: quicker, firmer, bolder
During the 2019 federal election, the AEC took a risk-based approach in social media and a firmer approach to “bat back” disinformation. This was unusual for the Australian Public Service — which is not always known for its swift, jargon-free communication — and raised some eyebrows at first, but this is now a critical part of protecting electoral integrity. The AEC also assisted with the implementation of the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce, of which I am co-chair. The taskforce is a network of federal government agencies that enables efficient and effective communication and coordination on matters relating to the integrity of federal elections.
In an effort to deliver on the principles of its reputation management strategy — and provide clarity on the processes it delivers — the AEC’s engagement with the media and on its own social media channels is proactive and bold. It has a noticeably active social media approach — monitoring and responding not just to content on its own accounts, but from the dedicated social media monitoring it actively undertakes.
The AEC’s language in these forums is sometimes humorous, other times firm, but always factual. Its YouTube channel AEC TV hosts more than 60 internally-produced short-form videos educating Australians about electoral processes as well as tackling myths about preferential voting and the use of technology.
A comprehensive series of pre-election media briefings gave media outlets (or journalists) access to the Electoral Commissioner that will hopefully lead to stronger relationships and a willingness to engage with the AEC for more accurate reporting.
In addition, the AEC has developed and released a disinformation register on its website (aec.gov.au) that documents egregious attempts to spread falsehoods about electoral processes that have the potential to undermine confidence in the process. This is not just a resource for voters to refer to, but also a potential disincentive to those spreading misinformation.
In many ways, social media is the disinformation frontier and the AEC consults closely with a range of platforms both in Australia and overseas. This engagement has led to joint initiatives promoting electoral participation, referral paths to de-escalate or take down offending content, and advanced platform understanding of electoral threats to inform policies.
The work of the AEC Electoral Integrity and Communications Branch, the monitoring undertaken in its new command centre, and its collaboration with the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce, all combine for a sophisticated and robust approach to disinformation. It is doing as much as it can within its legislative framework to tackle this issue, but this is also a broader societal challenge where citizens can play an active role in not engaging with disinformation and calling out those that peddle it.
Elections belong to all Australians and everyone has an important role to play in shaping the communications environment in which our elections are held and in defending our precise democracy.
Six principles for reputational communication
- Be proactive in building a positive reputation for the Australian electoral system
- Undertake open and regular communication with voters and stakeholders
- Position the AEC as the foremost subject matter expert on federal electoral processes in Australia
- Exercise judicious use of language, tone and timing in political, media and social media environments
- Back up public statements with operational delivery
- Actively monitor issues, manage risks, and plan for crisis situations
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