The AEC’s role in an evolving information ecosystem — and its perceived neutrality — are under serious threat, writes Deputy Electoral Commissioner Jeff Pope APM GAICD.
As the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) prepares to deliver the first Australian referendum in nearly a quarter of a century, you would expect educating the electorate on the referendum process to be one of the only major challenges. However, domestic and global events have impacted election delivery and citizen perceptions to the extent that the AEC must now navigate the most challenging, complex and unpredictable period in its history.
The stability of democracy relies on electoral integrity — and both the real and perceived legitimacy of electoral processes and results. Over the decades, the AEC has developed an extremely strong reputation as a highly effective, statutorily independent, election management body, which is guided by a well-established legislative framework. Robust internal processes as well as strict neutrality and impartiality policies have ensured that Australians can trust the AEC and the democratic process.
However, the evolving online ecosystem and the single-issue referendum proposed for later this year have further created an environment for misinformation and disinformation to be propagated across the electorate.
Elections — and referendums — are now delivered in a highly contested information environment where anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can quickly and easily — and in many cases, with anonymity — spread mis- and disinformation to a large, engaged, often hostile audience. Examples from across the globe are plentiful, including evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 US elections, the ongoing claims of the “stolen” 2020 US elections and the increasing prevalence of “deep state” conspiracy theories.
Despite their well-earned reputations, Australian electoral administrators are not immune to the increased intensity of mis- and disinformation. At the 2023 NSW state election, staff were filmed transporting ballot papers via their personal vehicles. Despite this being a legitimate, necessary and long-standing part of the electoral process, footage and images were used to create disinformation suggesting that ballot paper tampering or wholesale destruction of votes was occurring.
The NSW Electoral Commission took swift action to debunk this narrative, but the promulgation of this story disrupted staff in the course of their duties and raised questions for some sectors of the community about the integrity of the electoral process.
The AEC is no stranger to criticism, which can come from all corners of the community, particularly at election time. We are already seeing a sharp increase in referendum-related mis- and disinformation. More worryingly, we have also witnessed an increase in online threats of violence being made against AEC staff.
We have a legal and moral obligation to protect our staff, but also operate in a communication landscape that demands we be visible to defend democracy. Striking this balance is an ever- present challenge and consideration in our preparation for the delivery of the referendum and future elections.
An election is a contest of ideas proffered by political parties and candidates. Through being politically neutral and impartial regarding those ideas and political actors, the AEC and its staff are the impartial referee of the democratic process.
A referendum, by its very nature, is generally about one issue, such as the proposed changes to the constitution to establish an Indigenous Voice to parliament. Both sides of this issue — yes and no — are the focus of campaigning, rather than the political parties or other entities who actively promote the debate.
Campaigning will be pervasive and potentially emotive throughout many parts of society, especially as community groups, organisations and Australian companies continue to overtly align to the yes or no campaigns. Therefore, the neutrality of AEC staff on this issue and perceived surrounding issues are critical to the trust in the result of this referendum.
The AEC is traversing a knife edge of being actively responsive to commentary on the referendum process. We need to ensure Australians are well-informed on how the referendum will be conducted. We need to continue to build trust in the AEC and ensure Australians trust the process of the referendum — and therefore the result. We need to protect the AEC’s excellent reputation against disinformation and our staff against the growing trend of online threats. While doing that, we need to stringently protect our neutrality in the increasingly hostile environment on some social media channels and to not get drawn into — or perceived to be drawn into — any commentary about the issue at the centre of the referendum. We must not be distracted by hostility, conspiracy theories or emotion, and try to remain a model agency and communicator with the Australian public.
What we are doing
The preparations for the 2023 referendum are undoubtedly the most complex event preparations in our history. In response to this challenging environment, the AEC’s Reputation Management System has been developed to guide activities across the organisation as part of our delivery and defence of Australian democracy.
Our Defending Democracy Unit, our Command Centre at the AEC headquarters, engagement with social media organisations, and the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce — of which I am board chair — are all critical structures that were once unheard of in what was seen as a paper, pencil and cardboard organisation.
Our social media and online posture is constantly reviewed to put objective facts into the public domain regarding the election and referendum processes we deliver. We regularly liaise with our external stakeholders and community partners to ensure they understand the impartiality and neutrality policies that must be adhered to when engaging with the AEC. This is more challenging than ever before, given the frequency with which organisations and companies are aligning themselves to one side or other of the referendum issue.
We are increasing our physical security footprint and have de-escalation training resources available for our staff, given the hostility witnessed in the online sphere and the concern this could manifest into genuine danger to staff. The prevalence of conspiracy theorists threatening on-the-ground action to disrupt electoral processes requires genuine consideration and a continuing coordinated response.
The AEC understands the issue of misinformation/ disinformation won’t just go away. Disinformation will continue to be proliferated on some social media channels and has become ubiquitous. All electors are potentially subject to its influence. The AEC is mindful of the impact of disinformation on the integrity of elections and will continue to do everything within its legislative remit to defend democracy. But our role is only one piece of the puzzle. It is increasingly important that Australians who want to protect our democratic processes take up their keyboards to do the same.
This article first appeared under the headline 'Navigating Change’ in the September 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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