Few recent developments in politics and media have been as corrosive and stupid as the emergence of factchecking units and the misinformation beat. The moral busybodies of the media class may think they’re doing the Lord’s work correcting instances of politicians’ flagrant mistruths and lies.
Instead they end up laundering progressive talking points through a prestige academic washing machine so that they can bludgeon their opponents.
This is not a new observation, of course. Many have covered the flaws in the concept, the mess of conflicts of interest and financial arrangements, and the general caustic effect they’ve had on political discourse. The nature of politics is that there has always been inflated rhetoric and political players have always sought to seize on the least charitable possible interpretation of their opponent’s words.
More importantly, often facts have nothing to do with political debates and the relevant questions are about values and priorities and trade-offs.
This is a particularly difficult thing for most technocratic progressives to grasp because lurking underneath their worldview — consciously or otherwise — is the belief that no one actually sincerely disagrees with them. It’s all bad faith, malice or — of course — misinformation.
In other words, to a Progressive in Good Standing the only reason someone would vote differently must be because they don’t have the Correct Information, because if they had the Correct Information they would vote the same way as a Progressive in Good Standing does, because a Progressive in Good Standing has the Correct Information and that is why he votes the way he does.
Once you see this underlying dynamic in the factcheckers, it’s hard to miss. You often see the most tendentious unimportant “facts” getting debunked or labelled misleading or out-of-context when they’re from a conservative or right-leaning perspective while the most outlandish exaggerations and outright lies of the left go unexamined.
So with that lengthy preamble, it is deeply alarming to read that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is exploring a partnership with the RMIT ABC factcheckers for the upcoming voice referendum.
The referendum to establish an Indigenous voice to Parliament is going to be a contentious one — as most constitutional referendums are. Indeed, despite Albo’s best efforts to call this a “modest” request, it is, by definition not modest, because changing the constitution is not modest (now there’s a bit of political rhetoric I won’t be holding my breath for the factcheckers to have a go at). There have been 44 referendum questions put to the Australian people since Federation and all but eight have failed. It’s a tall order to get one of these up.
Now I’m happy to lay my cards on the table at this point: while I would desperately like to see the gap closed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, I find the voice, at a conceptual level, an utterly absurd idea with a minimal chance of actually fixing the problems and a maximal chance of being a divisive constitutional and democratic nightmare.
Note the key phrase there: at a conceptual level.
Because when RMIT ABC factcheckers come bumbling in like Jacques Tati in Playtime and start tut-tutting about the most pedantic stuff from the No side, it’s completely beside the point. Whether or not the voice will literally be a third chamber of Parliament or have a veto power is a secondary question to whether they will be a de facto third chamber with a de facto veto and, in any case, maybe it’s just a bad idea conceptually in the first place?
But the issue here isn’t really about terms of the debate and school prefect monitoring from earnest young journalism graduates. It’s that the AEC has real powers when it comes to the referendum, and partnering with the RMIT team of future Guardian Comment is Free writers means those powers are going to be overwhelmingly targeted in one direction.
And when the factcheckers publish a debunking, the AEC can then use that to censor campaign materials. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media use RMIT and the AEC and will take things down if they get the RMIT red mark.
And when their red mark ends up landing on things that are mere differences of values and emphasis, we have a real threat to the fundamental fairness of this referendum.