As we’ve written before, Coalition backbencher Craig Kelly — presumably annoyed that deaths caused by his relentlessly spruiked coal industry are taking too long — has dived headlong into spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
He spent a great deal of 2020 endorsing the drug hydroxychloroquine over the protests of Australia’s chief medical officer, and now he’s going after masks. Yesterday he shared a (non-peer-reviewed) paper looking at the side effects of mask wearing, which led him to the conclusion that forcing adolescents to wear masks was child abuse.
This drew the ire of the Australian Medical Association, whose vice president Dr Chris Moy who said misinformation like this was “torching the foundation of community health and science”.
Of course, going against public health advice would be bad enough for any elected representative, but Kelly’s Facebook page is one of the most popular of any Australian politician — which may not be unrelated to his relentless misinformation.
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Kelly’s Facebook posts tick pretty much all the boxes that keep Australian doctors up at night: the focus on early studies that haven’t been peer reviewed; promoting mistrust in health institutions; emotively focusing on “miracle cures” like hydroxychloroquine, the antiseptic skin ointment Betadine, or the drug ivermectin.
Canberra Law School assistant Professor Bruce Baer Arnold tells Crikey that Australia was not well set up to counter pandemic misinformation.
“That’s partly a result of messy law — a mix of Commonwealth and state and territory law regarding health, business, crime, telecommunications,” he said.
“Partly a result of expectation that influential people will behave responsibly, and partly because we haven’t faced a population-scale pandemic for many years and we’re not seeing the death toll [like that of] the US, UK, Ireland, etc.”
But action is most definitely possible, it just has to come from other mechanisms.
“The Commonwealth has power to persuade digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to label fake news (which we’ve seen in the US with Trump) and indeed to deplatform people engaged in hate speech, fake health news, etc,” he said.
“The platforms have traditionally claimed that, one, they just can’t do it, and two, they shouldn’t have to do it because it’s contrary to free speech.
“They’ve now demonstrated that they can do it and — responding to public condemnation and threats of government regulation in Australia, the EU and US — have started to do so.”
Part of the problem, Arnold says, is inconsistent rules governing harmful speech and misinformation.
“Health practitioners, especially doctors, can expect investigation and possibly discipline if they spout fake health news,” he said.
“MPs are special animals, protected under parliamentary privilege. Some of them are tempted to become trolls — putting attention ahead of responsibility. As long as they have the numbers and colleagues don’t condemn them they will get away with it.”
The News and Media Research Centre, looking at misinformation in the age of COVID-19, conducted a survey in which 62% of respondents said they engaged with at least “one type of news verification behaviour” regarding claims around the virus and, significantly, that people who come across misinformation on social media are more likely to attempt to verify it than those who come across misinformation from news media or politicians.
And of course with a virus as infectious as COVID-19 it doesn’t really matter if 62% of people verify what they read — the 900 people who shared Kelly’s post could well be plenty.
Beyond the practical implications, does Kelly’s persistent misinformation rise to the level of breaking the law? Once again, according to Arnold, it’s “messy”.
Kelly’s speeches, say on hydroxychloroquine, are protected under parliamentary privilege and he’ll “keep gabbing for as long as he sees he can get away with it”.
Thus a situation like Kelly’s required the PM and and deputy PM to “get a spine” and condemn him for spreading of fake news.
Yeah, about that. Crikey has long noted Kelly has done nothing but function as a kind of perpetual embarrassment generator for his entire career. But not only can not a single senior Liberal find a bad word to say about him for reasons no one can quite work out, he has had prime ministers and senior party officials consistently intervene to make sure he stays where he is.
Indeed, following this latest episode, Kelly’s senior colleagues bravely stood up and defended his right to say whatever he wants. Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack said that as a former newspaper editor (oh, we remember…) he’s “not in favour of censorship”, while Health Minister Greg Hunt was equivocal, simply reiterating that Australians should follow official health advice.
We asked McCormack if there was anything that Kelly could say that would be too harmful to fall under the banner of free speech absolutism, but he didn’t get back to us.