Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

The effect is all wrong; Plain to see I’m not moved… Do we really care about misinformation this election?

The Federal Election has been called!  If you thought the last 18 months had been bad in public debate, the next six weeks is going to be unbearable.

The fundamental puzzle is the extent to which we care about political debate being a rational exchange of ideas, or does the end justify the means when it comes to ‘our side’ winning the election?

We typically see media debate about ‘fake news’, misinformation, and disinformation in partisan terms: every claim by our opponents are scrutinised to unreasonable degrees in order to demonstrate that our opponents are liars; conversely, we are unreasonably charitable about claims made by people on our own side.

During the pandemic, we saw another dimension to this: the identification and selection of experts.  Public debate began from conclusions and then reverse-engineered the voices they wanted to hear.  Hate masks?  There’s an eminent researcher to support your view.  Think everybody should be sent to jail for not wearing one?  There’s an eminent researcher to support your view.

The necessary element was that most people were not going to change their view.  No matter the evidence.  No matter the data.  Nothing.  You cannot show any data to people to show that Australia’s approach(es) had some flaws but, on balance, was highly successful… and yet this is a stone cold fact.  Instead, rusted on ALP voters and Greens voters think the entire approach was a complete shambles.  We had major newspapers running opinion pieces from eminent people saying that they would never forgive the Prime Minister.  Public debate was entirely detached from reality.

Over the past few weeks, Twitter has been aflame with–speaking frankly–deranged consipiracy theories about the Prime Minister trying to undermine democracy.  Some claims were even made that the Prime Minister would fail to call an election.  It was bonkers stuff.

Worse, attempts to handle the misinformation were subject to highly hostile responses.  We weren’t spreading misinformation–no, no–we were just asking questions.  Just asking questions.  Just asking questions.  It’s important to ask questions, after all, even if we were asking it in a way that strongly suggested a claim was being made and was interpreted by most readers as being an affirmative claim.

But do we care?  If no information is going to change your vote, does it matter if you trade in facts?  If your goal is to get your side elected, does it matter if you spread misinformation?  Does the end justify the means?

Let’s take a simple example: the ALP is worried about an erosion of the primary vote to the Greens.  There’s a financial incentive to be worried: elections are publicly funded and, if you get more than 4% of the vote, you get electoral funding.  If the primary vote leaks to the Greens in large numbers, that’s a hit to the financial return.  Further, the ALP has to worry about the public perception of losing its legitimacy as the mainstream ‘left wing’ party.  Thus, we get the rhetoric from the rusted ons about ‘wasting’ a vote by preferencing the Greens… which is a lie.

But do we care?

Take a more complex example: the ALP is worried about a repeat of the election that resulted in a hung parliament, depending upon Greens support in the House of Reps.  Thus we get rhetoric from the rusted ons that the ALP will govern regardless of the Greens, and the Greens won’t be able to push for policy concessions in a hung parliament scenario… which is a lie.

But do we care?

And take the most complex example: rhetoric about how Australia fared during the pandemic…

At some point, we have to ask ourselves the utility of combatting misinformation in political debate.

Are any of the above lies really going to shift anybody’s vote?  What lies are going to shift votes?

Perhaps this is the wrong line of attack.  Maybe the misinformation is less about changing our political views, but is instead about reassuring us that our political views are the objectively rational decision.  These seem like morally different categories.  If I’m trying to mislead somebody else about political facts, this seems like a morally worse act than if I’m trying to reassure myself about my political decisions.  After all, on some level, don’t most of us need to believe that we have radically different options at the ballot box?  I’m a swinging voter, more interested in the specific candidate than the party… but I’m also in a baked-in ALP seat so nobody gives a shit about my vote.  Maybe if I were rusted-on, I would need at least some glimmer of hope that I wasn’t rusted-on but, instead, a savvy and informed voter (unlike the sheeple and moral imbeciles who vote for other parties).  And maybe that’s what these lies do: they give me some hope that I’m not just voting for my team because it’s my preferred team since I was 16.

But what if an act does both?  I jump on Twitter and ‘just ask questions’ as part of my process of reassuring myself… but also happen to influence other people’s views about political facts.  Maybe I do create some concern that the Prime Minister will ‘steal’ the election.  Maybe I do create some concern that people could waste their vote for preferencing a minor party first.  What then?

I’m not convinced that combatting misinformation does anything except exhaust people who could be spending their time more constructively doing something else.  Is it that unreasonable to have some faith that, sure, maybe one person believes something that is wrong but that they will be ‘cancelled out’ by somebody believing an equally but oppositely wrong fact?  Provided that the electorate as a whole has a right mix of misinformed views, maybe that’s better than trying to throw each starfish back into the ocean of facts.  Maybe it’s time just to let a whole bunch of starfish cook.

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