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AEC Twitter experiment outrages election conspiracy theorists

The Australian Electoral Commission has logged on, and both drips and antivaxxers are outside the window shouting at them to log off. (Show yourselves, cowards!)

Misinformation about voting is clearly at the top of the minds of election administrators around the world. The culture war is truly transnational and nonsense about Dominion voting machines, elections being a big scam, and people intentionally voting more than once is increasingly infecting the Australian discourse just as they have ruined America’s.

The Australian Electoral Commission, the independent government agency that runs federal elections, is acutely aware of this trend and have become extremely online — as the conspiracists are — in response. Earlier this year, they have taken advantage of YouTube’s Shorts feature to make shareable videos debunking common misconceptions. Since October, they have also become active on Twitter responding to the public’s takes on the procedures governing the upcoming election.

This Twitter strategy of outreach, in particular, seems to be quite novel for elections boards and the lessons learnt from it will no doubt be informative for future government outreach campaigns. 

The response has, so far, been polarising with conspiracy theorists accusing the Commission of “orchestrating pile-ons” against them and of “planning” conspiracy theories to respond to. Anecdotally, based on my admittedly slanted Twitter timeline, it seems that most based posters™ think that the strategy rocks.

That is not to say that it has gone without a hitch.

Dategate

A post by Melbourne-based writer Su Dharmapala accused the Prime Minister of “pulling in the constitutional lawyers” to find pandemic-related loopholes allowing him to “delay elections”. 

“Make no mistake — Morrison will be pulling in the constitutional lawyers to find out how much he can use the pandemic to delay elections. That will be his game plan” ~ Su Dharmapala, Dec 21 2021.

The AEC responded that this was nonsense and that “[t]he next election must occur before 21 May 2022” and suggesting that she check with the electoral commission in future before “posting misleading speculation”.

The AEC was — strictly speaking — correct. There must be, at the very least, a half-Senate election by 21 May 2022, as such the next election will occur by then whether the Prime Minister and his QCs like it or not. In neither the original tweet by Dharmapala nor the AEC did anyone say anything about a particular form of election. Whatever Dharmapala meant, to hold a House election after that would not  be a “delay” and is a constitutionally valid option for holding an election.

In Australia, the federal House and Senate elections can occur separately but they haven’t since 1974. According to the Parliamentary Library, “conventional wisdom” suggests that to intentionally call split elections would be electorally toxic. A House election can occur as late as September 3rd 2022 but, as stated above, a half-Senate election must happen by May 21st.

Such split elections were normal from 1963, when Robert Menzies called an early House election at a time when he couldn’t call a Senate election, until 1974, when Gough Whitlam called a double dissolution election bringing the two houses’ election schedule back into sync.

Dharmapala did not, as her defenders and the AEC’s rather polite response suggest, merely “speculate” on the electoral process. She said in no uncertain terms that she believed that legal chicanery was Morrison’s “game plan”. She instructed readers to “make no mistake” about the plan she raised.

To criticise this position is correct. It is not based in any evidence and was clearly made to cast aspersions upon the integrity of the upcoming election. The AEC was undoubtedly right to call it out, even if they charitably described her contribution as “speculation”.

Her and her supporters’ response was to a rather mundane fact check was to move the goalposts. Instead of just admitting that her theory was bullshit, she insisted that she actually meant the House elections (despite not stating as much in the original post). Again, to hold the House elections in September would not be a “delay” but a legal choice available to Morrison which he — as Menzies did in 1963 — would be entitled to make as the Governor-General’s principal advisor.

The AEC’s response created what I will charitably describe as an utterly unhinged mob against both the AEC and a child.

6 News, a news blog run by 14-year-old journalism prodigy Leo Puglisi, made a short blog post fact-check outlining why Dharmapala’s theory is balderdash.

No doubt embarrassed for being taken down a peg by both a government agency and a literal child, Dharmapala’s supporters harassed Puglisi — a fourteen year old boy — after she accused him of singling out her post, an arguably newsworthy post seen by and responded to by thousands, because she is a woman of colour. 

Dharmapala did receive many comments about her race and gender, which Puglisi rightfully condemned (and which I also unwaveringly denounce). But Dharamapala did not merely accuse Puglisi of sending racists her way by fact-checking her initial post, she accused him in no uncertain terms of being a racist whose “schtick” is to “[drag] women of colour”. 

“Dragging women of colour is your schtick”, she says — while lying about her “speculation — to a literal child who said nothing of anyone’s race or gender

Neither Puglisi’s blog post, nor any of his follow-up Twitter posts, mention anything to do with Dharmapala’s race or the fact that she is a woman. The focus of his post was her clearly stated claim that Morrison was trying to get out of holding an election. 

Dharmapala, clearly upset that she had been fact checked (twice) by a literal child, began to posit (without evidence) that a random account in her replies was run by his mother and cringeily (if that is a word?) gave her parenting advice:

“TBH — if he were my son..I’d unplug his computer now and make him go out and play in the sun.”

If only she would take her own advice and log off for a few days to reflect and, as the young reporter’s Fortnite teammates might say, take the L.

Meanwhile, she accused the AEC of conducting an “orchestrated pile on”. She did not present any evidence which actually showed the AEC orchestrating much of anything, instead quote-tweeting a rather reasonable response from the AEC saying that they are not responsible for what random morons say on Twitter and that she could report responses she felt menaced by. 

Dominiongate?

As mentioned in the lede, one trend that the AEC has found themselves responding to is the utter nonsense claims that Dominion’s line of voting machines would rig the next Australian election. This is in line with the conspiracy theories currently being litigated in the United States.

Real Rukshan, a video blogger who has amassed a large following of anti-vaxxers (and fascists) by means of his coverage of various anti-vaccination and anti-mandate protests (including the Scab Riots at the CFMMEU office).

Inserting himself into the previous controversy, Rukshan (with a wink) asked the AEC to “provide more information on Dominion voting systems”. They promptly did, posting a video from their fact-checking series which states that voting machines are not used in federal elections.

Many responded with laughter, asserting that “Rukshan set himself up to be owned”. Others accused the AEC of “planning” the video specifically to embarrass conspiracy theorists as part of a broader conspiracy with Dominion.

“LOL, the AEC didn’t own me”, he continued to insist as he slowly shrank and transformed into a corn cob, before demanding answers from the Victorian Electoral Commission to enquire the same about Victorian state elections. (He’s just jestfully asking questions, of course)

The VEC has not adopted the AEC’s social media style it seems, referring to a previous tweet in which clarified that The VEC has not adopted the AEC’s very direct posting style it seems, simply referring him to a previous tweet in which clarified that Victoria’s Legislative Council ballots are counted with computer assistance while the state Legislative Assembly votes are all counted by hand.

Voting machines are relatively uncommon in Australia. Victoria does not use electronic voting at all in state elections, while New South Wales uses online voting in limited circumstances in state elections, and the Australian Capital Territory allows voters to use voting machines of its own design in territory elections. Unlike the United States, federal elections are not run by the states.

What to learn from the AEC’s Posting

In an era where mainstream political elites — Trump and Keiko Fujimori being two notable recent cases — around the world are raising confected doubts about the integrity of fair elections, it is clear that more work needs to be done in educating voters about their electoral system and the checks in place to ensure that it is not being abused.

The AEC is statutorily limited as to what kinds of claims it can respond to. Many have criticised the AEC for not responding to terminological inexactitudes which are not related to the electoral process, such as the minor United Australia Party’s use of mass texts to spread vaccine misinformation. Vaccine information is beyond the AEC’s remit while the final possible dates for federal election and the method by which votes are counted are not.

Will the AEC’s strategy work? So far it has really pissed off conspiracy theorists, which could have an effect somewhere between two extremes. These two extremes being that the AEC’s rather direct responses could bring more attention drawn to conspiracy theories and misinformation or that it could place this misinformation into its proper context.

Perhaps nobody would have cared of Dharmapala’s deep-state lawyer conspiracy if the AEC had never responded to it. At the same time, the Liberal government is currently pushing a line of “electoral integrity” to justify the introduction of Voter ID laws that most psephologists seem to believe are unnecessary. (The relevant bill did not pass). Perhaps, without greater public outreach by electoral officials, appeals to American culture war conspiracies about Dominion voting machines would be more accepted.

Either way, it has clearly captivated Australian Twitter’s attention. Though, perhaps some more ironing out of the kinks, informed by public feedback, is in order.