Stop and consider the slogans: @MediaActive #AusVotes #PropagandaWatch

The Australian Electoral Commission (@AEC) is one of our most trusted national institutions (albeit with a couple of blots on its copy-book, including a re-run of a senate election for Western Australia). Watching the electoral shenanigans in the United States with its state-based, highly partisan voting systems for national elections, we can only give thanks for a reasonably robust set of voting mechanisms here. So far at least, we have not succumbed to the vagaries and manifest security risks of computer voting. Pencil and paper. A paper trail. It works.

For this 2019 federal election, however, the AEC is additionally concerned about security of a different kind: informational integrity. It has set up a website titled Stop and Consider.

In the context of the febrile Trump era’s so called ‘post-facts’ or ‘post-truth’ realities with ‘fake news’ — used with both its true meaning and as a recurring anti-journalism, propagandist put-down by Trump and many dictators and authoritarians around the world — the AEC has set out some predictably prudent but relevant markers. This is presumably for the ‘average’ voter, a user of social media and consumer of news products, to guide their thinking and choices.

In doing so, in its intro to Stop and Consider, the AEC is at pains not to project itself as the “umpire” of the veracity of political communications during the election campaigns either legislatively or practically: they advise.

Their advice doesn’t involve rocket surgery. It includes appraising the source of information for its reliability, checking its date of release and consulting others to crowdsource a measure of judgement and verification. This is, of course, a fraught process in itself. What actually is ‘reliability’? Do we finally make this an individual act or join ‘the group’?

Spraying facts and figures

Implicit in the AEC’s social media advertising campaign is that ‘questionable’ information, opinion, journalism etc. nearly always have ‘tells’, give-aways, and textual signs that it is propaganda aiming to persuade by whatever means and techniques. The forcefulness, the omissions, the gaps, the conflations are some obvious ones. Persuasion by argument and marshalling ‘evidence’ is fine per se. It is fundamental to our culture and especially in science and law. But ‘facts’ and data become problematic in any act of persuasion.

We see that daily from all politicians as economic and funding figures are sprayed around, often shorn of accurate chronological and other relevant contexts. Somehow ‘billions’ is an analytical brain fuser. Our enthusiasm to comprehend astronomical figures is short-circuited. You can see this constantly used as a propaganda tactic that bamboozles most frontline political interviewers. No one journalist, no matter how assiduous in research, can be across the fine-grain detail that a prime minister or treasurer purposively conjures up in the cause of political persuasion (and to block further enquiry or verification). It is specialist knowledge, used as a weapon.

In relation to when a piece of information is issued, the recent move by The Guardian to more rigorously date-stamp its copy makes it a journalism pathfinder in the individual appraisal and verification of the cascades of information hurtling around our personal mediascapes.

Decoding slogans

Uluru as a visual icon in the ‘red centre’ of Australia is endlessly fascinating. Geologically, this striking protrusion on the desert plains is tiny compared to the several kilometres of similar red sandstone beneath it.

So it is with the favourite slogan Scott Morrison has been hammering and slightly re-working for months: ‘A fair go for those who have a go’ or variations of that.

As with so many key slogans (remember that Peta Credlin ultimately fessed up about the utterly cynical and propagandist character of Tony Abbot’s drumbeat slogan ‘carbon tax’ as “brutal retail politics”), Morrison’s apparently simple, folksy slogan is but the tip of a much larger set of embedded beliefs and values, most not explicit. The slogan is the banner. The politician hopes we will read something positive into it according to our experiences and proclivities and not think too deeply about any implications.

At his press conference announcing the 2019 election in the PM’s courtyard, Morrison, after his prepared speech, was asked by Australian Financial Review reporter Phillip Coorey about how he would counter the Labor campaign around “fairness”. Morrison then became much more explicit and revealing of the details of his world view beneath the slogan.

The Guardian’s political editor Katherine Murphy did some ‘de-coding’ of that answer. What jumped out at me at the time (and Murphy unpacks) was Morrison’s use of the word, “contribution”.

And what that means is, part of the promise we all keep as Australians, is that we make a contribution and don’t seek to take one. And when all Australians do that, that’s when we get the ‘fair go’ mentality and culture that has made our country strong today. So under our policies, if you’re having a go you’ll get a go. And that involves an obligation on all of us to be able to bring what we have to the table.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Let that sink in for a moment: “… and don’t seek to take one”. Now, fleetingly consider the plethora of special interest subsidies, tax-breaks, rent-seeking concessions etc. woven into the Australian economy. Clang!

ScoMo gives his slogan the thumbs up.

Murphy veers through the PM’s freighted-language obstacle course to conclude that the ‘fair go’ slogan from Morrison should include a warning: ‘Conditions apply’. She emphasises the “social contract” and that, “If we fall on hard times we look to government to support us”.  She opines that expectation for most Australians is not “conditional” as Morrison explicitly says it is.

This is a rare moment when an all-purpose, bolt-on election slogan snaps back briefly into its intended values framework for us to examine. So, the key words to remember aren’t the front of house, ‘fair’ or ‘go’ but ‘contribution’ and ‘seek to make’ and ‘take’. We’ll hear Morrison declaim this slogan endlessly during the campaign. Now we know what he actually means by it, and it isn’t pretty.

Democracy jokes

To mark the way to later posts and arguments in this #PropagandaWatch series, I leave you this time with two quotes to chew over:

This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gives its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.

Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, 1933-45

There is a simple and compelling argument, known since Plato, which would lead us to expect that even apparently robust democracies are such in name only. The argument is as follows. A certain form of propaganda associated with demagogues, poses an existential threat to liberal democracy. The nature of liberal democracy prevents propagandistic statements from being banned, since among the liberties it permits is the freedom of speech. But since humans have characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation, allowing propaganda has a high likelihood of leading to tyranny, and hence to the end of liberal democracy.

Philosopher Jason Stanley in How Propaganda Works

Peter Clarke’s Twitter handle is @MediaActive. He welcomes all comments and feedback, especially YOUR examples and analyses of direct partisan propaganda or ‘inattentive’ journalism during the 2019 federal election.

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