“Isn’t that illegal?” Another asked.
Marked in the tweet torrent was the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Minutes later, the federal agency responded, calling the video “fake” and “disappointing.” The agency’s actions quickly led Twitter to label the cartoon “misleading,” and Facebook and TikTok removed it altogether.
Last month’s incident reflected a growing wave of misinformation facing Australia as it prepares to go to the polls on Saturday. But it also shows the benefits of a single agency monitoring the country’s election process.
“We are indeed at the forefront of defending democracy in Australia,” said Evan Ekin-Smith, AEC’s head of digital engagement. “If we are not in the talks, arguing about elections, defending people’s perceptions of democracy, well, who is?”
In the United States, elections are monitored by guerrilla government and local officials. Add to the Electoral College, and the system can sometimes seem chaotic or even vulnerable to undue influence, as Americans learned in 2020.
“There are countless big and small differences in the way election laws and regulations are administered across America,” said Pippa Norris, a professor at the Kennedy School of Management at Harvard. “This violates the basic principles of equality and consistency in electoral processes and voting rights, leads to overly biased considerations of the system and encourages numerous abuses.”
Australia’s electoral system, by contrast, has been praised by analysts around the world.
Stephen J. Mulroy, a professor at the University of Memphis and author of a book on American suffragecalled it the “gold standard in election administration.”
Ariadne Vromen, a political scientist at the Australian National University, noted that few other countries have independent election commissions.
“This is one of our good innovations, as well as the mandatory vote,” she said. “People in Australia trust these processes. “They may not feel particularly warm or trusting of political actors, politicians themselves and political parties, but they trust the institutions.
This trust is now being tested.
The flow of misinformation that fed Jan. 6, 2021, the attack on the US Capitol did not spare Australia. Following the country’s last federal election in 2019, Ekin-Smith said, false allegations about the Australian election have skyrocketed. Some appear to be imported from the United States.
“There have been allegations of the use of Dominion voting machines,” he was quoted as saying unfounded statement prompted by former President Donald Trump and some of his advisers. “We do not use Dominion voting machines. We have never done that, and yet people say we will use them and that the election was rigged. “
As the challenges have changed, so has the AEC.
When Ekin-Smyth joined in 2011, AEC he didn’t even have a Twitter account. A decade later, half a dozen people are now helping him tweet at an incredible pace: up to two dozen times an hour. He also has Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts, partnered with TikTok in an election guide, and ran Ask Me Everything on Reddit.
The aim is to counter false allegations before they have a chance to spread.
“We are not blind to the fact that social media is moving incredibly fast,” said Ekin-Smith. “And the actions that social media organizations can take are brilliant. But the action we can take even faster by responding through our channels may be even more effective.
This action is sometimes serious, as recently referred to by the AEC allegedly a double registered candidate of the Australian Federal Police for investigation.
“Their meme game is pretty strong,” Vromen said. “And informal language is really important. It is personalized. Uses daily norms of commitment. And that’s something that people will notice and share. “
“We are a group of civil servants,” he said. “But most of Australia isn’t and they don’t speak like them, so why should we have?”
As the election approaches, the AEC has received numerous complaints about false or misleading statements by candidates, parties or influence groups. It controls only information about the political process, not political speech.
“A party or candidate who talks about another party, their politics, their history – we can’t be regulators of the truth about that,” Ekin-Smith said. “We do not have legislation that allows it. But there would also be some practical problems and some problems with perception if we made decisions about these things. “
In March, for example, a conservative lobby group set up a mobile billboard with a cartoon depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping voting for the center-left Labor Party in Australia. AEC directed the group to change the billboard – not because of his message, but because he was showing his ballot with a tick. Australians need to qualify candidates or parties.
In the event of misinformation online, the agency must be careful not to react in ways that could exacerbate it.
When the far-right One Nation party released a video on April 29 that falsely suggested that illegal votes had decided Australia’s 2010 federal election, Ekin-Smith consulted with the AEC’s legal and executive teams before drafting a response.
“This comment on the electoral system is very disappointing,” he said tweets from the AEC account. “Registered parties are aware of the electoral integrity measures in place, including information received / objections made to deceased Australians and steps to verify outgoing and incoming postal votes.
Some Twitter users complained that it was not sharper, and Ekin-Smith used stronger language in subsequent tweets. But he also didn’t want to stir up a dispute that would spread the video even further.
Meanwhile, colleagues contacted social media companies, which described the video as misleading or downloaded it.
“This was probably one of the most impressive examples we’ve seen,” Ekin-Smith said. “Some of the allegations there are simply untrue and obviously have the ability to undermine people’s trust in the system.”
He dismissed speculation that the AEC was unfair to One Nation. The commission did not oppose previous cartoons, which, while crude, did not mislead people about the electoral system. One actually explained the preferential voting well, he said.
With social media fomenting tribalism, the AEC requires all its employees – including its 100,000 temporary workers – to sign a declaration of political neutrality.
“There is a great responsibility in this,” Ekin-Smith said, “because failed elections — real or perceived — as we have seen in other jurisdictions are potentially devastating.”