When Liberal MP Louise Staley issued a list of questions on Monday about a potential “cover up” of how Daniel Andrews hurt his back, the reaction was largely predictable – and a warning about the risks when politics and conspiracies combine.
Labor figures called it “gutter politics” on Twitter, accusing Staley of turning an accident into something sinister. Federal ministers weighed in, denying the list was a nod to “grassy-knoll conspiracy theories”, and the media gave it days of coverage. But in other corners of the internet, Staley’s list was mainstream recognition at last.
In Facebook groups and pages – some with a following of more than 73,000 – conspiracies about Andrews’ injury have been fomenting for months. On anti-lockdown Telegram channels with thousands of members, theories veered wildly from the moment his injury was announced on 9 March – from accusing the premier of not being injured at all to more sinister coverups. Each new photo issued of Andrews was rigorously dissected for evidence.
A conspiracy theory website heavily focused on Australia seems to have played a significant role in this milieu, publishing a steady flow of conjecture about Andrews’ fall. Seemingly helping to spread some of the more colourful allegations across Facebook, the site crossed over to Twitter this week, pushed by those eager to speculate about Andrews’ fall as well as pro-Labor figures who shared a link only to denounce it.
The increasingly florid information ecosystem around Andrews cannot be easily diagnosed. Once a constant daily presence, his sudden absence from public life arguably left a gap conspiracies could fill, especially among communities predisposed to doubt both the severity of Covid-19 and the state’s restrictions to manage it. The unsatisfying randomness of a fall could come with other bits and pieces of information – a vaccine rollout, other politicians getting sick the same week – to create something altogether malevolent.
Certainly, conspiracies can be a compelling way to make sense of the world during a moment of profound disruption. As the QAnon conspiracy theory drew adherents last year, it seemed part of the appeal was that active participation in creating theories about evil cabals provided a sense of agency and community, even as it caused other social relationships to fracture.
We might also look at the highly partisan tenor of conversation around Andrews throughout the pandemic as a potential breeding ground for the swirls of speculation: the emotional language that saw him being deemed a “liar” in the press as well as diehard Twitter fans helped send duelling hashtags #DanLiedPeopleDied and #IStandWithDan trending in 2020. Thanks in part, according to Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research, to a collection of highly active hyper-partisan opinion leaders and their followers on social media.
There are significant social risks to feedback loops of conspiracy. Dr Kate Starbird, an academic at the University of Washington, has closely tracked how a cycle of participatory disinformation fueled what’s been dubbed the “Big Lie”: that the 2020 election was stolen from president Donald Trump by election fraud. According to her analysis, a pro-Trump political class repeated the message of a rigged election, which helped anchor expectations of a stolen election for receptive audiences.
“Evidence” of voter fraud was then proactively generated by audiences on the ground – both intentionally and due to sincere misunderstandings of the voting process – and spread on social media. Recall Sharpiegate, when a claim that ballots filled out with felt-tipped pens could not be read by vote-scanning machines travelled from a local Arizona Facebook group across the country, egged on by public figures including Trump’s own children.
Into this mix, according to Starbird, came “grassroots” activists and social media influencers who helped amplify these stories, ensuring they reached political elites who then echoed them back out. In her view, this dynamic helped build the groundwork for the 6 January riot at the Capitol. “[From] initial feelings of grievance to calls to action,” she said. “It kept being fed.”
Of course, Starbird’s “Big Lie” model of participatory disinformation does not map perfectly onto the Australian ecosystem, which has its own particularities.
Tim Graham, a QUT researcher, suggested we could also call the recent Andrews episode “participatory ‘flooding the zone’”. In other words, “throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks” because it provokes a strong partisan reaction, distracts journalists and creates a cloud of suspicion.
Cycles of participatory disinformation might ultimately be “stickier” than misleading claims that come solely from politicians or partisan media. As Starbird said, Trump supporters were given a “reward structure for continuing to share more” when their election-fraud theories were repeated by the media and politicians.
That’s why providing conspiratorial thinking with mainstream validation – like a list of rather ominous questions about a premier’s injury, as Labor has characterised it – can be damaging even as it may serve a political purpose. For those disposed to believe in Andrews conspiracies, the questions can never be answered satisfactorily. New evidence will always be interpreted as supporting the conspiracy.
No politician, let alone the leader of a state that has endured some of the most severe pandemic restrictions in Australia, is beyond scrutiny.
But as Australia prepares for another election, and amid the pressure of bringing the country out of a pandemic, we must be vigilant against feedback loops that can undermine public trust and bring conspiracies into public life – and most especially, undermine accountability grounded in reality for those holding public office.
Ariel Bogle is a journalist and analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who researches online disinformation