The vexed issue of fake news looks set to become a feature of Australian political campaigning after the WA Liberal Party urged supporters to report “untrue” social media posts by the Labor opposition.
The WA Liberals have launched a campaign website ahead of the state’s March election, listing a series of steps for voters to report to Facebook about under the heading ‘How to Report a Fake Story’.
“If you see a fake or misleading post produced by Mark McGowan or WA Labor, follow these steps to help remove it from Facebook,” the website says.
The WA Liberals also urged users to report a specific post by WA Labor, which made claims about the government’s policies around skilled migration.
Facebook is under pressure to announce measures to combat the issue after a series of fake news stories was disseminated via social media platforms during the US election.
But Queensland University of Technology Professor Axel Bruns, an expert in social media communication, said the post in question did not constitute fake news.
Instead, Professor Bruns said it was part of a growing trend of politicians incorrectly using the term “fake news” to refer to political arguments or reporting they did not agree with.
He said the use of the term for political advantage was “irresponsible” because it undermined the legitimate threat that fake news posed.
“It’s unfortunate that what we’re dealing with at the heart of fake news is being trivialised and obscured be politicians fighting with each other,” Professor Bruns said.
And he predicted the term would be weaponised and become a feature in Australian political campaigning.
“It will be instrumental in trying to discredit opponents in coming elections at least for the next few years,” he said.
Australian politicians have already been using the term “fake news” to attack news reporting and information from credible sources.
In December, Resources and Northern Australia Minister Matt Canavan labelled the ABC’s reporting on the Indian company Adani, which plans to build a coal mine in central Queensland, as “nothing but fake news”.
And former federal treasurer Wayne Swan used the term to discredit a treasury report, written by Griffith University economics professor Tony Makin, that criticised Labor’s response to the global financial crisis.
“Govt through Treasury is now paying to create more fake news,” Mr Swan tweeted.
Some social media users questioned the WA Liberals’ campaign, saying it was incorrectly using Facebook’s functions.
“This is pathetic. You’re misusing Facebook reporting,” wrote Tony Schemz, who added that the campaign was “blurring the line between actual fake news and stuff you disagree with”.
But party officials defended the campaign in a series of responses.
“We are asking people to report blatant lies, like the post we have used as an example,” the party wrote.
“The post is untrue, yet WA Labor continues to circulated (sic) it.
“We believe fake is to claim ‘bricklayers’ are on the skilled migration list, when clearly knowing they have been removed for some time.”
Meanwhile, Professor Bruns warned that malicious fake news could pose a problem in future Australian elections.
“It’s a low-level phenomena that does exist on the fringes of the political debate,” he said.
“There has been a few about halal certifications and funding terrorism, which I do not believe has been proven, that looks like fake news that’s being spread by anti-Islamic groups.
“As it’s been successful, we will see more of it being used, probably from the fringes but also towards the mainstream.
“I would not be surprised if some of that is picked up, innocently, by more mainstream news organisation when it hasn’t been properly verified.”