Seeing the referendum to give a Voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples profoundly defeated across Australia today is heart-breaking and confusing.
My heart goes out to all Australians feeling let down, but especially, of course, to the Indigenous people of this country for whom this would have been, at least, one small step in the right direction.
As someone who researches online communication, digital platforms and how we communicate and tell stories to each other, I fear the impact of this referendum will be even wider still.
The rampant and unabashed misinformation and disinformation that washed over social media, and was then amplified and normalised as it was reported in mainstream media, is more than worrying.
Make no mistake, this was Australia’s Brexit. It was the pilot, the test, to see how far disinformation can succeed in campaigning in this country. And succeed it did.
In the UK, the pretty devastating economic impact of Brexit has revealed the lies that drove campaigning for it (as have former campaigners who admitted the truth was no barrier for them).
I fear most non-Indigenous Australians will not have as clear and unambiguous a sign that they’ve been lied to, at least this time.
In Australia, the mechanisms of disinformation have now been tested, polished, refined and sharpened. They will be a force to be reckoned with in all coming elections. And our electoral laws lack the teeth to do almost anything about that right now.
I do not believe that today’s result is just down to disinformation, but I do believe it played a significant role. I’m not sure if it changed the outcome, but I’m not sure it didn’t, either.
There was research that warned about the unprecedented levels of misinformation looking at early campaigning around the Voice. There will be more that looks back after this result.
But before another election comes along, we need more than just research. We need more than just improved digital literacies, although that’s profoundly necessary.
We need critical thinking like never before, we need to equip people to make informed choices by being able to spot bullshit in its myriad forms.
I am under no illusion that means people will agree, but they deserve to have tools to make an actually informed choice. Not a coerced one. Social media isn’t just entertainment; it’s our political sphere. Messages don’t just live on social media, even if they start there.
Messages might start digital, but they travel across all media, old and new.
I know this is a rant after a profoundly disappointing referendum, and probably not the best expressed one. But there is so much work to do if this country isn’t even more assailed by weaponised disinformation at every turn.