‘It’s okay to be white’- The problem of junk speech in Australia’s political debate

How did the Senate have a vote on the white supremacist catchphrase ‘It’s ok to be white’? They weren’t paying close attention to what they were voting on. I suspect in a time of information overload, this sort of thing will become more commonplace. That’s why it’s important to recognize that the speech in Parliament House (and in US Congress – and all open democracies) is important enough to defend from such diversions, disinformation and weaponised narratives. (I don’t think ‘It’s okay to be white’ qualifies as a weaponised narrative, but it is divisive and unproductive for democratic debate, so it acts as a good guide for this emerging trend.)

Hanson’s motion

There are ways to defend against this happening again. They involve recognizing that in a time of ultra-cheap speech, restraining information flows is futile. Instead, it’s preferable to discern different qualities of information and treat them accordingly.

“Australia needs to adapt to this environment by assigning value to the unequal quality of political information available,” an Australian National University paper on Weaponised Narratives states.

In this case, “It’s ok to be white” – a white supremacist catchphrase and hashtag – rates as low quality political speech, in large part because of how its is propagated online to shift opinion, rather than to make a cogent argument. Arguably, it’s so low, that it doesn’t belong in a healthy democratic discussion in the Senate without at least being flagged as problematic. That doesn’t mean it should be censored. Rather, it should be contextualised as the junk-information, white supremacist meme that it is.

To prevent another instance of this, a body in Parliament, such as the Parliamentary Library, could be tasked with evaluating language being read into the proposed legislation or debate, seeking terms and ideas that qualify as “weaponised narratives.” (For more, read the ANU paper.)

Once identified, their designation could be added to the official discussion. This way, no speech is censored. Rather than trying to block speech which is both wrong and probably pointless, parliamentarians would be given the tools to put such narratives and ideas in context. The context, made public, could help shield the parliament from the worst effects of junk-speech, conspiracy theory, disinformation invading official debate. (Which is what happened with ‘It’s ok to be white’ and the resulting furore).

To the extent that speech is social, the goal of such a program would be for politicians to self-correct as a group. In turn, they would keep their democratic debate open and robust – while also healthy and productive. Recent events in Australia (and the US) show how genuine political discussion (in the people’s house) can be hijacked by the low-value material circulating on the internet.



Weaponised narratives divide public, disrupt reasoned discussion

Online propaganda is not just about bots and trolls but about exploiting and manipulating the sense-seeking nature of the humans using the internet.

Credit: Wikicommons

As Australia confronts the China interference issue, local academics have reported a wave of talk about racism and anti-China bias.

This sort of narrative not only divides the community, but makes intelligent discussion about the real-world issue difficult. It raises the question: is this accusation of racism and hostility a weaponised narrative, like those seen elsewhere in the world?

A weaponised narrative is a type of information attack that “undermines an opponent’s civilisation, identity, and will…by generating confusion, complexity, and political and social schisms [which] confounds response on the part of the defender,” according to the Weaponised Narrative Institute.

In this case, the constant talk of a supposed Australian hostility to China or Chinese people echoes talking points from sources linked to the Chinese Communist Party. While it may just reflect the views of the authoritarian party, information used in this way can be ginned up to damage a targeted nation.

Unlike simple “soft power” that all nations, including Australia, seek to build in order to influence other nations,  weaponised narrative is a form of coercive power, where ideas, fears, perceptions can be directed at a nation, or even a community within a nation.

While weaponised narratives have arguably existed as long as conflict has, the internet has created new possibilities to amplify and target the message. These narratives online have become all-too-common in recent years.

When high school students in the US rose in rebellion about lax gun laws, they were smeared as “crisis actors” by pro-gun advocates in the US. Even if the claim was not true, it sowed doubt in the public’s mind, shifting the story for long enough to slow its momentum in national affairs.

Likewise, after Britain blamed Russia for the nerve agent poisoning of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, a wave of narratives were unleashed that placed the blame back on Britain, in an effort to confuse the public and fracture the British public’s will to confront Russia.

As the internet matures, the ways of exploiting it to disseminate propaganda do, as well.

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