CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.
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CheckMate June 3, 2022
This week, CheckMate delves into some of the predictable, incorrect claims of electoral fraud shared in the aftermath of the federal poll.
We also reveal whose tweets were the most popular of the campaign, and analyse two changes to Victorian laws that set off a wave of viral misinformation.
Election disinformation at 'very low levels', AEC says
The Australian Electoral Commission says the level of incorrect and misleading information being shared in relation to the recent federal election is continuing to decline two weeks on from the poll that saw Labor returned to power after almost 10 years.
A spokeswoman for the AEC told CheckMate that the number of disinformation narratives had been "very minimal", echoing a news release dated May 27 in which electoral commissioner Tom Rogers noted that the week immediately after the vote had featured "very low levels of electoral disinformation".
"While a very small number of individuals have chosen to engage in promoting predictable and disappointing conspiracy theories, I'm very pleased to report that the vast majority of Australians are choosing not to engage with this stuff," Mr Rogers said.
Where election misinformation has been shared, the AEC — and fact checkers — have been quick to quash it.
Online, the AEC has refuted dozens of claims about voter turnout, the counting process and the use of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth on official election writs.
A suggestion, for instance, that more than 4 million eligible voters (around one-quarter of people enrolled to vote in Australia) didn't turn out for the election was rubbished by the Commission.
According to the United Australia Party, which made the claim in an email sent to members in the week following the election, the figure represented the "highest number of people who have failed to turn out for voting since 1922".
The AEC, however, labelled that suggestion "absolutely false".
"The number being quoted here is an extremely premature point-in-time number of ballot papers counted by the AEC just under one week into the count," the Commission's election disinformation register states.
"It is not an accurate measure of electoral turnout and should not be compared with turnout figures from earlier elections, which were produced after all ballot papers had been received and counted."
As for the vote-counting process, the Commission debunked incorrect claims that counting had been outsourced, and explained that a photo appearing to show a disorganised and chaotic counting process at one polling booth instead depicted AEC workers utilising limited space to sort and unfold ballots prior to vote counting.
On Facebook, meanwhile, some users suggested the AEC "rigged" the election by "ignoring" voters' preferences and distributing votes only to the two major parties.
However, these claims were a mischaracterisation of Australia's voting system and the Commission's counting process.
As FactLab explained, the AEC conducts an initial two-candidate-preferred count on election night in an effort to give an early indication of which party will form government, with subsequent counts of the ballots then distributing preferences according to voter priorities.
Finally, when it came to claims that election writs issued by the Attorney-General were invalid because they lacked the Great Seal, the AEC patiently pointed out that the seal was not a legal requirement for the writs.
How the 'teals' toppled their rivals
As part of its Mosaic election monitoring project, RMIT FactLab analysed how two high-profile "teal" independents outmanoeuvred and unseated their political opponents with the help of effective social media campaigns.
In Melbourne's Goldstein electorate, outgoing Liberal MP Tim Wilson and former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel adopted starkly different online approaches, with the latter amplifying local voices and targeting young voters.
FactLab's analysis found that Mr Wilson relied heavily on Liberal Party talking points and regularly attacked the credibility of his rival and her supporters, while Ms Daniel's messaging remained largely positive yet focused on voter dissatisfaction with perceived government inaction on climate change, gender equality and integrity in politics.
In addition to publishing dozens of posts per day, Ms Daniel and her team spent at least six times more than Mr Wilson on social media advertising.
However, her costs were considerably lower than those of other successful independent candidates, at least partly thanks to her effective use of video.
Meanwhile, in the nearby electorate of Kooyong — where the ad spend of the two lead candidates was 31 times higher than that of the Goldstein rivals — FactLab found Dr Monique Ryan's use of TikTok may have helped win voters in the seat's largest age demographic: young people aged 18 to 34.
Nearly 60 TikTok videos created by Dr Ryan and a volunteer-run account called ‘Youth4Mon' attracted a combined 730,000-plus views.
While one of the only two TikToks posted by opponent Josh Frydenberg garnered more than 175,000 views, this may have been due to a cameo from popular AFL star Bailey Smith (who appeared to be making light of Mr Frydenberg's lack of hair in the video).
FactLab also concluded that Dr Ryan's messaging, similar to that of Ms Daniel, was overwhelmingly positive when compared to Mr Frydenberg's advertising, which rarely mentioned Dr Ryan by name but often questioned her independence.
Getting to the core of fruit and veggie falsehood
Social media was recently set abuzz with claims that Victorians would be banned from growing fruit and vegetables, with US podcaster Joe Rogan among those to fall for the lie.
"Premier Dan Andrews is passing a bill that prohibits people from growing their own food", read one viral post shared across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, while another post claimed the new rules would be "enforce[d] with drones".
But as RMIT FactLab found, such claims are high on fertiliser.
The Victorian government's proposed Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 seeks to amend various existing laws relating to commercial agricultural and food production.
A major focus of the bill is protecting the state's biosecurity, for example, by increasing the government's inspection and enforcement powers "to better regulate the risk of introduction or spread of noxious weeds and pest animals".
Other changes seek to stop plant pests and diseases from entering Victoria, or to limit the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
A spokesperson for Agriculture Victoria told FactLab that the bill makes no reference to home gardens and that "no one will be prevented from growing their own food as part of these changes, which are designed to support the agricultural sector".
Professor Paul Martin, director of the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, said the notion that Victorians wouldn't be able to grow their own food was "wrong" and that such interpretations of the bill were "misguided".
Meanwhile, industry group the Victorian Farmers Federation has called out misinformation that it says "misrepresents and misinterprets the amendments set out in the Bill".
CoronaCheck: Health officials granted legal immunity, but there's no 'cover-up'
Still in Victoria, the state government has been attacked for shielding its health bureaucrats from being sued over public health decisions, with one widely shared tweet labelling the move "the most shocking political cover-up in Australian history".
Featuring video of an independent state MP railing against since-legislated amendments to Victoria's health laws, as well as lockdowns and vaccine mandates, the tweet claimed the changes would "give the Chief Health Officer full immunity for the past 2 years".
So, what does the law actually say?
The provision in question, section 227AA of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, indeed grants legal immunity to the Chief Health Officer and other officials "for anything done or omitted to be done in good faith" under the auspices of the Act or its regulations (including anything done with the reasonable belief that the law allowed or required it).
Deakin University law professor Matthew Groves told CheckMate that the change "codifies and clarifies" immunity that "in practice" already existed, and explained that the new provision transfers any personal liability to the state government.
On April 7, Labor MP Tien Kieu told parliament the amendment "will not impact on the proceedings that are going on at present in the courts or in the legal system".
Professor Groves said although the law was silent on whether the new provision would apply retrospectively, "for cases that have not been commenced, the presumption is that this immunity would almost certainly apply".
Importantly, such legal protections for officials were not "exceptional", he said, highlighting near-identical clauses contained in the Ambulances Services Act 1986 (s22) and the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act 2008 (ss 94, 110), among other laws.
Patrick Emerton, an associate law professor at Deakin University, pointed to similar protections in other states.
For example, he said, the NSW Public Health Act 2010 (s133) "confers personal immunity in similar though slightly more narrow terms than the Victorian Act".
Notably, while the Victorian law protects individual officials, it does not shield the state government itself from liability.
That stands in contrast to the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act 2015 (s644), which Dr Emerton explained "removes the right to sue the Commonwealth government as well as an individual officer".