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How this Mayor is addressing disinformation with public health principles and plans

Introduction by Croakey: While much of the public and political debate about tackling misinformation and disinformation is focused on the role of national governments, local government has a critical part to play, including through promoting social cohesion, according to Moira Were AM, the mayor of a rapidly growing area in South Australia.

Were, who is participating in a University of Melbourne research project co-designing a playbook to help cities and local government authorities tackle misinformation and disinformation, argues below that public health principles and plans are an important part of the response.

“My advice to others – whether you are working in local government, or other sectors – is that a good place to start is reviewing your Public Health Plan and seeing how you might strengthen democratic processes to inoculate our communities from the health hazard of disinformation,” she says.


Moira Were writes:

Local government is on the front line of public health. Local government is also on the front line of experiencing the impacts of misinformation and disinformation.

As Mayor of the City of Onkaparinga, on Kaurna Country on the southern fringe of Adelaide in South Australia, I have some personal and professional experiences of misinformation and disinformation.

In January 2023, the second Council meeting I chaired as Mayor, our meeting was disrupted by a diverse group of around 100-plus people who objected to a motion being put to declare a climate emergency. During my mayoral campaign there was online abuse suggesting paedophilia, child pornography and grooming practices. This continued when I started as Mayor, reading stories and singing songs to pre-schoolers in our local libraries.

For the record I am not grooming children, and this is fake news. I also had a series of claims and death threats and accusations of witchcraft and although I do use a broom, it is rarely for flight!

I find having a sense of humour one of the most useful tools in dealing with disinformation. My own mental health, and those of the people around me that love me, and my safety is real though, and on the advice of the police we have put in place a number of protective measures.

In the public health domain this translates to practices that are needed to promote healthy and public discourse that is civil and safe for all parties.

At the Council chambers we have put in a “pool fence” to enable councillors to have some protection from any unruly members of the public, while still enabling visibility. In other tiers of government, elected officials are a good distance from the public.

The night our council chamber was stormed, there were people of all ages present, including children, members of service clubs, and staff, who were ill equipped and frightened of the ambush that occurred.

Extra security continues more than a year later. I consider this an inoculation strategy as we never know when disinformation can tip over into disruption and distraction.

Resources needed

It is critical that local governments are provided with the knowledge, tools and resources to tackle the growing threats of misinformation and disinformation, including through efforts to promote social cohesion.

Under the South Australian Public Health Act 2011, councils are required to prepare and maintain plans that demonstrate what is being delivering in relation to public health at the local level and to be consistent with the state-wide plan for public health.

Public health promotion, protection, prevention and progress are the four P’s driving action.

In the disinformation age, these come up against three P’s of post-truth, populism and polarisation.

Can the public health P’s inoculate us in the disinformation age?

Healthy democracy

The need for proactive action to keep our democracy healthy came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many public health officials and elected representatives became targets of the disinformation pandemic.

I feel like democracy might be suffering from long COVID. Our social cohesion has been undermined by the months and years of lost connections, lack of practising our community connection muscles, and many of us living more intentionally inside our bubbles.

Social cohesion is the bedrock of democracy.

Findings from the 2023 Mapping Social Cohesion Report from The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute speak to our growing fragility.  Australian’s sense of belonging declined four points from 2022 to 2023, representing the lowest figure since the report launched in 2007.

In 2007, 78 percent of Australians felt a ‘great sense of belonging’. By 2023, that dropped to 46 percent.

Generational and gender divides are shaping our future democracy. Gen Z (20- to 29-year-olds) make up 13.3 percent of the Australian population. Recent research by The Financial Times chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch found the gender democracy divide has young women sitting to the left of centre with young men moving further towards, or remaining conservative.

Public health plans need to factor in how to reach out to these populations to help them navigate the potential radicalisation threats, and also to the rest of the population to identify and understand them. This falls into the protect and prevent pillars of public health strategies.

Lessons from public health strategies

Techniques from public health campaigns, for smoking, obesity and immunisation, need to be applied in this setting as well. We need messages that help people decipher and detect disinformation, protect themselves and most importantly prevent these societal divides getting bigger.

Gallup data from the United States shows women aged 18 to 30 are now 30 percentage points more liberal than men of the same age. This is probably comparable in Australia.

Dr Alice Evans, Visiting Fellow at Stanford University in What Prevents & What Drives Gendered Ideological Polarisation research, shows that greater gendered ideological polarisation is encouraged by feminised public cultures, economic resentment, social media filter bubbles and cultural entrepreneurs.

With these conditions, in which misinformation can thrive, it is incumbent on local government and other sectors with the interest of the public at heart to have plans that factor in the potential health hazards of misinformation. Housing stress, domestic violence and homelessness are on the rise and may be adding to the toxic mix.

With the rise of disinformation and the rapidity of vectors of fear in online spaces, we are having to work out how to best prepare ourselves in leadership, our staff and communities, to go beyond managing these times to use them as a way to strengthen our resilience.

Applying the experience of public health strategies to address disinformation is an inoculation strategy in the same vein as any other public health risk like sanitation or disease control.

Lessons from immunisation tell us we need to have the strength of our response to match the situation and status of the person; for instance, a baby doesn’t have the same dose as a teenager, or a person who is immune compromised or someone who has a kidney disease – they all need different doses.

This is true for how we need to manage disinformation as well. Those who are new to the phenomenon and get caught in a first wave may need a little education; those with years on the clock and who have been exposed often may need a stronger dose.

Personal is political

I know as a leader in local government, I need to be ready for all kinds of outbursts of disinformation and the protection I need to put around myself is both physical and psychological.

I have taken advice from the professionals and set up systems to help myself. I am also actively learning, campaigning, developing and sharing knowledge about how we manage acute situations, and build community resilience, social cohesion and solid gold circles of support.

What happens at the personal, micro level, is what we are also doing at scale in our local government.

While we can put in place physical barriers and tools, like checking in to meetings, we also need training programs for staff, elected representatives, and community leaders to understand how to detect and decode disinformation and be prepared for critical incidents.

Public health principles of promotion, protection and prevention are antidotes to the other 3 P’s of post-truth, populism and polarisation.

In practice we are building community resilience by bringing people together who would not normally connect and finding ways to minimise the silos and echo chambers.

For example, when preparing our next ten-year Community Plan, we went above and beyond the usual online survey. We attended community events where children could contribute, held street corner and shopping centre conversations, visited neighbourhood centres.

We then brought together a cross section of the community from sporting clubs, youth groups, First Nations businesses, members of service clubs and interest groups. It was a potpourri of the community who had a chance to interrogate the same data decisionmakers and staff had. They saw the same charts, same financial figures, were provided with a rich picture graphic of the city and identified what was strong, what was missing.

The diversity of the room, the processes over two weekends were not to drive consensus, they were methods to enable complexity to be visible, for quieter voices to be heard and for differences to be held together in the one frame of the one conversation about what it means to “love where you live”.

Nothing makes up for the personal face-to-face contact and during COVID there was some de-skilling that now needs to be recovered. It is the community fitness required for public health strategies.

My advice to others – whether you are working in local government, or other sectors – is that a good place to start is reviewing your Public Health Plan and seeing how you might strengthen democratic processes to inoculate our communities from the health hazard of disinformation.

This is vital for the health of communities, as well as democracy.

Mayor Moira Were AM stresses the importance of face-to-face connections. Photo supplied.

• Moira Were AM is Mayor, City of Onkaparinga, South Australia


Declaration from Croakey: Editor-in-Chief Dr Melissa Sweet is also a participant in this research project.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on misinformation and disinformation