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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Can there ever be truth in political advertising?

A roadside corflute from the 2022 federal election dishonestly characterising independent candidate David Pocock as a Greens extremist member… the damage was done, says Andrew Hughes.

“So much of what political communications has become about is making us believe fake is real. That what we are seeing, hearing and reading is the most accurate reflection of the world,” writes political columnist ANDREW HUGHES.

One of the questions I get asked a lot about is can we ever have truth in political advertising? Can we regulate political advertising to ensure it is honest and truthful?  

Dr Andrew Hughes.

The first question is a yes, the last no.  

Can we ever have truth in political advertising?  

Just look at what gets the views on social media. But also votes in a ballot box if I promise new and shiny things sometime in the next government.  

This is what so much of what political communications has become about. Making us believe fake is real. That what we are seeing, hearing and reading is the most accurate reflection of the world.  

Algorithms on social media are part of the issue. They are diluting democracy and creating echo chambers where we accept, rather than critically analyse, the information we are presented with. We are becoming blind to those who want to manipulate us for their own ends.  

Remember the Saturday read? Getting multiple papers and sitting down for hours to obtain a balanced perspective of the world? That’s gone. And even though we have so much information now compared to even a few years ago, which is good, much of it is open to manipulation and distortion. 

This is because we want entertainment, not a great analytical piece. We are as guilty sometimes as those manipulating us when it comes to the value placed on truth.  

The broader environmental context means that “truth” in politics is becoming harder and harder to find. As the Coaldrake Review into the Queensland Public Service noted, even frank and fearless advice, aka the truth, meant to be provided by public servants is disappearing.  

So it does fall back to those making comms and ads to do so truthfully. But that is just not going to happen to the level we need to see actual truth in political advertising and comms. It can be though if the culture starts to punish those doing this. 

So the answer is yes, but conditions do apply.  

Is it possible to regulate truth in political communications?  

The answer here is no. Why? Laws are reactive and not proactive. Existing laws on truth in political advertising, like those in South Australia, are triggered only when an ad or comms is shown. 

By then it has likely achieved its objectives. And challenging the ads may actually help as people want to see what all the fuss is about. In the time it takes a court to issue the order for it to go down usually it’s too late as you can’t unsee something and it may have been running for weeks, only to reappear again anyway somewhere else on the net.  

This is exactly what happened in SA during the last state election when Labor was asked to take down two misleading ads it had been running. The damage had been done. The same with the comms targeting David Pocock in the 2022 federal election. Damage was done.  

What would work better is a more proactive response. For example, providing a verified symbol on ads from an independent panel of fact checkers. Or a temperature-style gauge for how close to the truth an ad is out of 100. Giving the AEC more powers would help as well.  

Keep in mind though that this is just for the paid and identified comms. 

Everything else falls into questionable grey areas, which means it becomes a social media giant issue. TikTok, for example, only had 3-4 moderators during the 2022 federal election campaign. So don’t expect anything other than the most offensive to get taken down.  

If BlindFreddy182 posts disinformation or other misleading content to 10,000 followers on their platforms, it’s just an individual expressing their freedom of speech. And the people then resharing that content to their networks? The same, right?  

And how about AI? A bot posting its own created content? AI and deep fakes will be a factor in all political comms from now on. 

The laws could be broadened here on the definitions of political advertising and communication to help the AEC, but ultimately the free-speech argument, and the sheer volume of content, makes it hard to regulate. 

Ultimately, it gets back to us and the parties. We need to become our own best fact checkers. We need to hold parties who lie and manipulate accountable at the ballot box. Otherwise we will only ever have a form of truth in political advertising. 

Dr Andrew Hughes is a lecturer in marketing with the Research School of Management at ANU where he specialises in political marketing and advertising. 

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