CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.
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CheckMate May 13, 2022
In this week’s edition of CheckMate, we bring you an investigation into the forces behind Advance Australia, the conservative lobby group going after independent ACT candidate David Pocock.
We also check in with Mosaic, FactLab’s election misinformation monitoring team, and share the stats on voter fraud in Australia.
Why doesn’t Advance Australia like former Wallabies captain David Pocock?
Conservative lobby group Advance Australia has independent ACT Senate candidate David Pocock in its sights, with Facebook advertising data revealing that the group’s offensive against the former rugby star is disproportionate to its campaigning against any other candidate.
Advance Australia made waves early in the election with mobile billboards depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping casting a vote for Labor, and although the group regularly attacks Labor and the Greens, it describes itself as “an independent movement that lives for mainstream Australia” that is not aligned to any political party.
The group has form when it comes to misinformation, with South Australia’s electoral commissioner recently finding the group had breached the state’s electoral laws by publishing “misleading and inaccurate” material, which remains online.
The analysis by FactLab’s Mosaic team, which drew on data compiled by Queensland University of Technology’s PoliDashboard, found that during March and April the group ran 88 “unique ads” targeting voters in particular states and territories.
Canberrans were on the receiving end of 22 of those (25 per cent), all of which attacked Mr Pocock either alone or alongside other candidates.
To put that in context, Queenslanders were targeted with 16 ads (18 per cent) and all were about national issues. Meanwhile, just one other candidate was singled out in highly geo-targeted material: independent MP Zali Steggall, who featured in four of the 19 ads targeting NSW voters, or roughly 5 per cent of the total sponsored by Advance Australia.
Unique ads refers to the advertisements’ distinct budgets, and it is possible for ads with identical content to count as multiple unique ads.
Advance Australia has run numerous ads — online and offline — depicting Mr Pocock as an undercover Greens candidate, sowing confusion about his political affiliation and echoing a theme common to its recent campaigns: that voters aren’t being told the full story.
So, why target Mr Pocock?
Policies aside, the independent is running for one of the ACT’s two senate seats, one held by Labor and the other by the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, a Liberal who opinion polls suggest is fighting for his political survival.
Advance Australia has links to a number of people close to Senator Seselja, including his former colleagues and family.
For example, Australian Security and Investments Commission (ASIC) documents show that Vicki Dunne, who served as shadow attorney general when the senator was leader of the Canberra Liberals, became a director of the organisation in February 2021.
Liz Storer, who once helmed the group, was reportedly a former adviser to Senator Seselja.
Separately, Advance Australia’s Facebook account is co-managed by the conservative campaign consultancy Whitestone Strategic.
That firm’s current secretary and sole director is Stephen Doyle, a name shared by Senator Seselja’s brother-in-law and former chief of staff who, the senator told parliament, had “played a particularly important role in my political journey”.
Advance Australia and Whitestone Strategic also list the same Adelaide addresses on their ASIC records. Seemingly belonging to an accounting firm, these addresses have been used by various other conservative groups.
They include an anti-euthanasia group run by one of Senator Seselja’s sisters, as well as Marriage Alliance, a lobby group founded by the senator’s “former right-hand man”, Tio Faulkner, who is also a director of Binary Australia (Gender Awareness Australia).
Actually, voter fraud is negligible
Echoing calls from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party for the introduction of compulsory voter ID checks, social media users have repeated dubious claims about the integrity of Australia’s federal electoral processes.
“[A] person can easily vote more than once and postal votes are not as secure as they should be,” reads one popular Facebook post.
“There’s nothing stopping an individual walking into every polling booth in their electorate or any other electorate and voting more than once.”
But as RMIT FactLab found this week, voter fraud is not a serious problem in Australia, with fewer than 0.03 per cent of votes cast in the last election deemed to be potential multiple votes.
So, what checks are in place?
At polling booths, voters are asked for their full name and address, and whether they have already voted. If they answer no, they receive their ballot papers and their names are “marked off” a copy of the electoral roll.
Immediately after the election, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) digitally cross-references these rolls against a master list to check for multiple mark-offs.
As Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers told a 2019 parliamentary committee:
“[W]e examine multiple marks in every electorate to make sure that there’s never a situation where if there was multiple voting, it was greater than the margin in the election itself”.
Were that to happen, he said, the AEC “would then go to the Court of Disputed Returns and seek for that result to be overturned and we’ve never had to do that”.
A spokesman for the commission told FactLab the AEC also had “a longstanding and robust partnership” with Australia Post that included “integrity measures in the postal system being applied for the carriage of … completed postal ballot papers”.
In addition, he said, candidate- and party-appointed scrutineers can also be present in the tally room to observe “every aspect of the vote”.
People convicted or suspected of casting multiple votes may be forced to complete a provisional ballot in future polls that is only included in the count once their name has been validated against the electoral roll.
The AEC can refer cases of multiple voting to the Australian Federal Police, with convictions attracting a maximum penalty of 12 months’ jail and/or a fine of up to $13,320.
An update on FactLab’s election misinformation monitoring project, Mosaic
Mosaic, which is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, is RMIT FactLab’s election misinformation monitoring project.
This week, the team at Mosaic found that a video shared widely on Twitter showing a fiery confrontation between Labor leader Anthony Albanese and reporters has been doctored to make the journalists’ questioning appear more aggressive.
Some of the footage included in the video, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times, shows journalists jostling to quiz Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a news conference held a few day earlier.
The researchers also published a deep dive into what Australians are searching for with Google in the lead-up to the May 21 election.
Of five issues analysed by Mosaic, aged care appeared to be the most pressing concern for voters across the country, though defence-related queries were the most popular in the ACT and the Northern Territory.
In another Election Watch article, the team detailed the emergence of unauthorised posters attacking Labor MP Ged Kearney in the Melbourne electorate of Cooper.
Meanwhile, a claim made by controversial Liberal candidate Katherine Deves that gender reassignment surgery for transgender teens was defined as “mutilation” in the NSW Crimes Act was found by Mosaic to be incorrect.
Professor Cameron Stewart, a specialist in health, law and ethics at Sydney University, said: “Gender reassignment is not directly discussed in the NSW Crimes Act. That Act criminalises female genital mutilation, but appropriately authorised treatments involving gender reassignment are expressly excluded from that definition.”
No, Pfizer documents do not show its COVID-19 vaccine is unsafe for pregnant women
Screenshots purportedly revealing that Pfizer company documents warned against vaccinating pregnant and breastfeeding women against COVID-19 actually show outdated guidelines from UK regulators before enough data was available on the new vaccine.
In fact, COVID-19 vaccines are now recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The screenshots, allegedly taken from a cache of Pfizer documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act, show a document which states that the Pfizer vaccine is “not recommended during pregnancy” and “should not be used during breastfeeding”.
But as fact checkers at Reuters found, the screenshots were taken from guidelines published by Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in December 2020.
“They do not indicate the shots are unsafe during pregnancy or while lactating but highlight a lack of data at the time of publication,” the fact checkers said.
According to an MHRA spokesperson, new data was subsequently collected supporting the updated advice that those pregnant or breastfeeding should get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Over 104,000 pregnant people have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine in England and Scotland and no concerns of the safety of the vaccines have been raised,” the spokesperson told Reuters.
Has the Morrison government gagged debate in parliament more than any other?
Independent federal MP Helen Haines has taken to Twitter to criticise the Coalition government’s use of so-called “gag motions” to stifle debate in federal parliament.
“This government has moved to gag debate more than any other government in history — more than 340 divisions across the life of the parliament,” she said.
But RMIT ABC Fact Check this week found that claim to be an exaggeration.
Fact Check analysed calendar year data (the only readily accessible information on gag orders) since 1901 in two ways, defining a “government” by either the duration of the parliament they led or the total time the party held power.
According to raw numbers, the Morrison-led parliament came out ahead of all others, having used “closure motions” 332 times since the Coalition’s 2019 election victory.
However, as a fairer means by which to compare governments, Fact Check calculated a yearly average for each parliament and for each government’s period in office.
Viewed this way, Gough Whitlam’s Labor government took out top spot for both.
The Morrison government (since 2019) ranked second among parliaments, while the Coalition government (since 2013) ranked third for overall years in power, coming in behind the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser.
It’s important to note that these measures are imperfect, as calendar year data does not neatly line up with government and parliamentary terms.
Fact Check runs a rule over this week’s leaders’ debates
With less than two weeks to go until the election, Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese faced off twice in televised debates in recent days, sparring over everything from gender equality to affordable housing.
Following Sunday’s war of words, Fact Check investigated claims made by both leaders on defence spending, wages growth, apprentices, bulk-billing rates and the proposed powers of a federal corruption and integrity commission.
Perhaps the most contentious issue of that debate, however, was the Northern Territory government’s leasing of the Port of Darwin to Chinese investors.
According to Mr Morrison, “the federal government had absolutely no authority over that sale whatsoever”, but Fact Check found that was not the full story.
Wednesday night’s showdown, on the other hand, saw the leaders turn their attention to women’s economic progress.
However, claims made by both men were lacking some vital context.
Mr Albanese, for example, claimed Australia had “fallen to 70th in the world for women’s economic participation and opportunity”. Experts, however, have previously explained that the ranking in question does not paint a full picture of the resources and opportunities available to women in Australia.
Meanwhile, Mr Morrison’s claim about a narrowing of the gender pay gap ignored the fact that the gap tends to shrink during economic downturns when wage growth slows in industries that tend to be dominated by men.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan and David Campbell, with thanks to Jack Kerr
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