Dan Andrews broke his back – why is there such a conspiracy frenzy around this? | Ariel bogle
When Liberal MP Louise Staley on Monday published a list of questions about a potential “cover-up” of how Daniel Andrews injured his back, the reaction was largely predictable – and a warning about the risks when politics and conspiracies combine.
Labor figures called it “gutter policy” on Twitter, accusing Staley of turning an accident into something sinister. Federal ministers weighed, denying the list was a nod to “grassy-knoll conspiracy theories,” and the media gave it days of coverage. But in other corners of the internet, Staley’s list was finally being recognized by the general public.
In groups and Facebook pages – some with more than 73,000 followers – conspiracies about Andrews’ injury have been brewing for months. On anti-lockdown Telegram channels with thousands of members, theories swung sharply from the time his injury was announced on March 9 – from accusing the PM of not being hurt at all to more sinister cover-ups . Every new published photo of Andrews has been rigorously dissected for evidence.
A heavily Australia-focused conspiracy theory website appears to have played a significant role in this medium, posting a constant stream of speculation about Andrews’ downfall. Apparently helping spread some of the more colorful allegations on Facebook, the site took to Twitter this week, pushed by those who wish to speculate on Andrews’ downfall as well as pro-Labor figures who shared a link only for the denounce.
The growing information ecosystem around Andrews cannot be easily diagnosed. Once a constant daily presence, his sudden absence from public life arguably left a void that conspiracies could fill, especially among communities predisposed to doubt both the severity of Covid-19 and state restrictions. to manage it. The unsatisfactory randomness of a fall could come with other pieces of information – a vaccine rollout, other politicians get sick the same week – to create something completely malicious.
Certainly, conspiracies can be a compelling way to make sense of the world during a time of deep disruption. While the QAnon conspiracy theory gained followers last year, it seemed part of the appeal was that active participation in the creation of theories about evil cabals provided a sense of agency and community, even though it caused the breakdown of other social relationships.
We might also view the very partisan tenor of the conversation around Andrews throughout the pandemic as fertile ground for whirlwinds of speculation: the emotional language that saw him be seen as a “liar” in the press as well. that diehard Twitter fans have helped duel the #DanLiedPeopleDied and #IStandWithDan hashtags trending in 2020. Thanks in part, according to research from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), to a collection of very active hyper-partisan opinion leaders and their followers on social media.
Conspiracy feedback loops carry significant social risks. Dr Kate Starbird, an academic at the University of Washington, followed closely how does a cycle of participatory disinformation fueled what has been dubbed the ‘big lie’: that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump through electoral fraud. According to his analysis, a pro-Trump political class repeated the message of a rigged election, which helped anchor expectations of a stolen election for a receptive audience.
“Evidence” of electoral fraud was then proactively generated by the public on the ground – both intentionally and due to sincere misunderstandings of the voting process – and disseminated on social media. Remember Sharpiegate, when a claim that ballots filled with felt-tip pens could not be read by vote scanning machines traveled from a local Arizona Facebook group across the country, encouraged by public figures including Trump’s own children.
Into that mix, according to Starbird, came “grassroots” activists and social media influencers who helped amplify these stories, making sure they reached the political elites who then echoed them. According to her, this dynamic helped lay the foundations for the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. “[From] initial feelings of grievance at calls to action, ”she said. “He continued to be fed.”
Of course, Starbird’s “Big Lie” participatory disinformation model does not fit perfectly with the Australian ecosystem, which has its own peculiarities.
Tim Graham, a QUT researcher, suggested that we could also call Andrews’ recent episode “participatory. flooding of the areaIn other words, ‘throw stuff on the wall and see what sticks out’ because that elicits a strong partisan backlash, distracts reporters and creates a cloud of suspicion.
Cycles of participatory disinformation could ultimately be “stickier” than misleading claims coming only from politicians or partisan media. As Starbird put it, Trump supporters were given a “reward structure to keep sharing more” when their theories of voter fraud were repeated by the media and politicians.
That’s why providing conspiratorial thinking with traditional validation – like a list of rather disturbing questions about a prime minister’s injury, as Labor has characterized it – can be damaging even if it may serve a political purpose. For those who are willing to believe in Andrews’ plots, the questions can never be answered satisfactorily. New evidence will always be interpreted as supporting the plot.
No politician, let alone the head of state who has suffered some of Australia’s most severe pandemic restrictions, escapes scrutiny.
But as Australia prepares for another election, and amid the pressure to pull the country out of a pandemic, we must be vigilant against feedback loops that can undermine public confidence and introduce conspiracies into the public life – and in particular, undermining reality-based accountability for those in public office.