During the federal election, politicians of all persuasions will use a range of campaigning and spin tactics. But there is a difference between “gilding the lily” and lying with strategic intent, a trend that is growing in western democracies.
The February 2022 Edelman global trust survey finds citizens increasingly expect government leaders will “purposefully mislead them by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations”. In Australia, that expectation has risen three percentage points to 61% since last year.
In a “post truth” world, we are seeing lies proliferate online. Recent election campaigns in the United States and United Kingdom suggest lying is now a successful strategic campaign tool.
Australian voters need to be on high alert.
The ‘strategic lie’
As we argue in our recent journal article, “strategic lying” has evolved from political spin tactics, intensified by the growing ranks of political communication professionals and the rise of social media.
It is a campaign device used to shape what issues are discussed in the media and how they are framed. It is designed to grab media attention with an initial, deliberate lie. This shifts the news agenda onto a politician’s preferred territory.
It doesn’t matter if the lie is easily corrected because the subject of the lie is then amplified and kept on the news agenda. The distribution of the lie is further increased by social media and amplified by the mainstream media.
The more outlandish the lie, the better.
The Trump approach
Former US president Donald Trump used strategic lies before, during, and after his time in office.
His first most obvious strategic lie came in 2011 when he claimed to have “proof” Barack Obama was not born in the United States, making him ineligible to occupy the White House (the so-called “birther controversy”).
Over the next three years, Trump continued to raise the issue, despite the lie being comprehensively rebutted. He did so not because he expected people to believe it but, as a strategic lie, it kept the issue of Obama’s origins and his “otherness” on the mainstream news agenda.
More recently, Trump’s baseless claims of the “election steal” have fuelled riots and generated support for a possible presidential re-election campaign, while distracting attention from the simple fact that he legitimately lost the election.
In the UK, lies about the cost of staying in the European Union featured heavily in the Brexit campaign. The false claim “we send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead” was central to the “Leave” campaign and ensured the “cost” of EU membership dominated the referendum.
Its architect, political adviser Dominic Cummings, subsequently gloated the falsehood was designed “to provoke people into argument. This worked much better than I thought it would”. He also described it as “a brilliant communications ploy”.
The Australian federal election
The issue of truth and lies is at the core of the 2022 federal election.
Labor argues it goes to the heart of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s character, who has already been criticised for being loose with the truth by members of the Coalition and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The Labor party also has form when it comes to political dishonesty. It’s “Mediscare” campaign in 2016 paved the way for the Coalition’s “Death Tax” scare campaign in 2019. Both campaigns were gross misrepresentations of the truth, the latter arguably a local example of strategic lying.
A brief search of the Facebook Ad library shows signs both parties are running similar scare ads in the 2022 election about the Coalition making cuts to Medicare and Labor increasing taxes.
Labor is also arguing the Coalition wants to put all pensioners on a cashless debit card, while the Liberal Party has alleged Labor wants a “retiree tax”. Neither claim is true.
In the lead up to the election, the Morrison government alleged Labor leader Anthony Albanese was China’s preferred choice as prime minister and his deputy Richard Marles was a “Manchurian candidate”. This was roundly rejected by leaders of the intelligence community.
What can be done?
There is renewed debate about the need for federal laws about truth in political advertising.
The Hawke government introduced provisions in 1983 but they were deemed “unworkable” and scrapped the following year partly because
political advertising involves ‘intangibles, ideas, policies and images’ which cannot be subjected to a test of truth, truth itself being inherently difficult to define.
Despite this, South Australia has had laws prohibiting political ads that are “inaccurate and misleading to a material extent” since 1985. These are generally seen to set positive boundaries, even though adjudication of complaints is time consuming. New provisions came into force in the ACT in 2021 but are yet to be tested.
The Australian Electoral Commission has launched a campaign to combat misinformation, but its aim is to “debunk mistruths about federal electoral processes”, not the veracity of political claims made by candidates.
Twitter banned political advertising in 2019, and Google and Facebook have increased transparency around spending on political ads. Facebook is also fact-checking misinformation from third parties such as unions and advocacy groups.
The real solution is in the hands of politicians and political parties. As the Edelman trust suvey finds, improving the quality of information would help lift trust across institutions. If politicians care about the quality of debate, the integrity of the election result, and public trust, then they can’t give in to the temptation of strategic lies.
In the meantime, media outlets need to be very careful about how they refer to these claims once they have been proven to be false.