In a presidency marked by a daily assault on the truth one set of figures stands out: by July this year, one third of Americans did not believe the official death toll from COVID-19, even as infections and hospitalisations surged to a new high.
The figures from polling company Ipsos are an indicator of the central role which misinformation and conspiracy theory have played in the United States election, as President Donald Trump has taken scepticism of official sources and honed it into a lethal political tool, combined with an appeal to the American ideal of individual freedom. Mask. No mask. Are you with us? Or against us? Do you believe in science or do you believe in me?
Perhaps the worst and most dangerous has been left until last, with Trump peddling the deadly fictions that he has already won the election and that it is now being “stolen” by the Democrats with “illegal” ballots.
In the face of Trump’s attack on the very fundamentals of democracy, Facebook has reacted by removing a Republican-linked account where people have been spreading misinformation about the election process and calling for violence.
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Meanwhile, Twitter suspended the account of Trump loyalist Steve Bannon who called for Dr Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray to be beheaded “as a warning to federal bureaucrats”.
In Maricopa county, Arizona, where ballots were being counted, the sight of a crazed Trump supporter denouncing “the Biden crime family” — a QAnon conspiracy catch-cry — was as good an epitaph as any of the Trump years.
In 2017, the QAnon conspiracy theory was little more than a fevered idea with its central implausible tenet that Donald Trump was in the White House to cleanse the world of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who had infiltrated the institutions governing America.
Four years on it has mushroomed into a movement with up to 3 million followers according to a study conducted by Facebook. It has also been given the nod of approval by Trump himself.
QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor has been elected as a Republican party representative for Georgia. Among other things she has attacked the Black Lives Matter movement and the use of face masks to protect against COVID-19 as well as alleging that there has been an “Islamic invasion” of government offices and accusing Jewish billionaire George Soros of collaborating with Nazis. Other QAnoners are emerging at state level politics, with Arizona a hotspot.
But who needs QAnon when you’ve got Fox News — America’s most popular cable network?
The Ipsos poll which revealed that 30% of Americans did not believe official COVID-19 death figures also found that Fox News — owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — had been a key accomplice in spreading the disinformation. Of Fox viewers, 62% doubted the official numbers.
The same poll showed that 30% of those who get their information from online sources doubted the official figures, a finding which suggests that Fox is just as culpable in the war on truth as online actors such as Breitbart and Alex Jones’ conspiracy website Infowars.
In Australia, Murdoch’s Sky News Australia has weighed in with its own Trump-aligned disinformation campaign. A week out from the US elections it ran a special “investigation” into the alleged dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, a story which it claimed was “covered up” by social media.
The story, ignored by US networks, was viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube drawing grateful comments from Americans complaining about “CNN, NBC, NPR, and the rest of the leftist fake news” who had not covered the story.
On election day, Sky commentators lined up to spout Trump rhetoric. Biden had cognitive issues. He was a lunatic, a prisoner of the left. Star commentator Miranda Devine, beamed in from New York, mimicked Trump’s dangerous line, without challenge, that mail-in ballots meant there would be electoral fraud.
So what of this pile-on? Is there anything to stop the gush of bias and bile? It would appear not.
As a subscription TV broadcaster, Sky News Australia is subject to almost no regulation. It is the closest you can get to a broadcast free-for-all.
Industry regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has done a deal whereby Sky and other subscription broadcasters operate under a code of practice which is drawn up with industry body the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association.
The deal makes special allowance for the nature of subscriber television, which the industry characterises as a “voluntary relationship” between the provider and subscriber, with the subscriber able to exercise freedom of choice.
“In this sense,” the code says, “subscription TV is in the nature of an invited guest, brought into the home in the full and prior knowledge of the guest’s character.”
In theory Sky News should be presented “accurately, fairly and impartially”. It should also “clearly distinguish” news from commentary and analysis. Beyond that Sky commentators are pretty well free to say whatever they like. And if you don’t like it you can cancel.
(Sky is also now available on the free to air WIN television network covering regional Australia. According to ACMA, Sky is subject to the slightly tighter controls of the free-to-air industry code when it is on WIN, but subject to the subscription code when broadcast on Foxtel.)
Sitting atop the disinformation factory that is Sky News Australia are three directors. One of them, Siobhan McKenna, has long had a close business association with Lachlan Murdoch. She is a director of his private investment company Illyria Pty Ltd and other of his interests.
In tandem with Fox, it would appear that subscription television, based on a model of unregulated far-right outrage and misinformation, is the way of the future for Murdoch the younger.
Fox Corp’s September quarter financial results as reported by Crikey yesterday revealed a 2% rise in revenue to US$2.7 billion with Fox News again the star, driving revenues in Fox’s cable business up by around 3% to US$1.325 billion for the quarter.
When it comes to the digital sewer of “news” and conspiracy peddled through Facebook and Twitter, ACMA has absolutely no power at all. Australian regulators have been working up a voluntary code of conduct with the tech giants for over a year, to establish some brake on the AI-driven mess of lies and distortions that are shaping views and actions.
Ultimately though it will be up to big digital to self-regulate — something it has struggled to do, as the Trump presidency has demonstrated.