As Donald Trump launches his own social media platform and Clive Palmer splashes tens of millions on political advertising – before an election has even been called – what are the implications for public health and democracy?
Jennifer Doggett asks some health and media leaders for their views, and also canvasses some potential solutions.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
Media outlets this week reported that businessman and political candidate Clive Palmer has spent over $31 million since last August on political advertising for his United Australia Party (UAP), around one hundred times more than the amount spent by the major parties.
Palmer says the United Australia Party will run the most expensive political campaign in Australian history at the next federal election, “exceeding the $80 million it mostly spent damaging Labor’s chances at government in 2019”.
His advertising campaign involves mainstream print, outdoor and broadcast media, along with a substantial social media presence. The Guardian estimates Palmer’s spend on YouTube at $472,625 each week for the past six weeks and a total of $2.83 million to date this year.
The UAP campaign has re-ignited calls from public health advocates and political commentators for limits on election spending and other measures to support fair and democratic elections. As Croakey has previously reported, Palmer has a history of spreading misinformation about vaccination, and his claims on various health issues have kept media fact checkers busy (for example, here and here).
The Chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, the Hon Anthony Whealy QC, has described the advertising blitz in the lead-up to an expected May election as “obscene” and “dangerous for democracy”.
“We’re reaching a crisis point where money in politics is undermining the integrity of our democracy. We need to stop the flows of secret donations and set caps on donations and spending so billionaires can’t influence our elections,” he said.
Health sector alarm
Health experts have told Croakey about their concerns about the impact of Palmer’s electioneering on public health and on our democracy more generally.
GP and public health advocate, Dr Peter Tait, identifies three levels of inter-related health impacts that can result from campaigns such as the one being mounted by Clive Palmer.
Firstly, there are the direct health impacts of spreading mis- and dis-information – such as people believing false information about the risks of vaccines or downplaying the seriousness of COVID.
This can lead them to ignore public health and medical advice, resulting in higher rates of infection and preventable illnesses and death. It can also have a long-term health impact due to the resulting higher rates of long COVID, he says.
These health impacts are felt across all sectors of society but are particularly damaging to communities already experiencing disadvantage and marginalism due to poverty, racism and other social determinants.
An Australian Bureau of Statistics report released last week showed that people who died of COVID-19 who had been born overseas had an age-standardised death rate close to three times that of people who were born in Australia (6.8 deaths per 100,000 people versus 2.3 deaths).
This highlights one pathway by which the direct health impacts from mis- and dis-information campaigns widen existing health inequities and compound the disadvantage experienced by these groups.
There are also indirect impacts from the increased demands placed on the health system, such as staff burnout and delays in treating people with non-COVID conditions, for example, due to cancellations in elective surgery. This health system stress has an impact on mental health, both on people working within the system and those seeking care.
Tait describes how these consequences can intersect, leading to long-term impacts on our health and well-being. For example, campaigns that cast doubt on the validity of public health messages could compromise our ability to combat future health threats.
While there are other causes of a lack of trust in public health authorities (such as the Government’s ineptitude in communicating effectively), misinformation campaigns such as those run by Palmer contribute to an overall sense of mistrust in government.
When these campaigns are perceived as influencing election outcomes, as was the case in 2019, this can feed into the loss of control and isolation people are already experiencing due to the pandemic, with significant mental health impacts, such as a greater prevalence of anxiety and depression.
These mental health impacts are themselves likely to result in increased long term physical health effects, such as higher rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity, which in turn will increase the risks associated with COVID.
“The worst public health outcome will occur if people withdraw from politics because they don’t see the point. That means we will end up with the ultimate threat to public health – bad government,” Tait says.
Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at the University of Queensland, shared her concerns about the influence of money on electoral processes.
“There is presently a conflict in that the Government passed the Electoral Amendment (Foreign Influences) Bill 2022 last week, and yet the Government has not addressed the monies that get utilised to influence political agendas, and personal influences,” she said.
“Without some forms of control and limits on individual and corporate donations to electoral campaigns we run the risk of Australia moving down the path of election processes we see overseas where monies in a campaign count, and where monies influence the outcome.
“This flies in the face of the public speak of Australia being a place where everyone, and anyone can have a ‘go, or a fair go’.
“While I can understand the concern about foreign influence, I have to say I am more worried about the influence of people within our midst with the ability to influence through their ability to mobilise money.”
Deep pockets and loud voices
Dr Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney suggested Palmer’s campaign would have impact.
“I don’t think there is anything in Australian law to stop him, as an individual, spending squillions on advertising around political issues. I suspect the Australian electoral law has something to say about spending by/on behalf of the UAP,” she said.
“However, when these ads step over the line in terms of claims (from being the rightful successor to Menzies to vaccination issues) then he and his cronies should be subject to the full weight of the law and public censure.
“We know from public health issues, such as tobacco and alcohol, that those with the deepest pockets and the loudest voices get noticed. Sadly, it seems now that we are so used to those big yellow billboards everywhere that they no longer scream at us and our level of outrage has dropped.
“Which individual or business or organisation out there is willing and able to shirt front Palmer et al on this? Clearly not the Liberal and National Parties and arguably the inadequacies of the Morrison Government have made more room for Palmer to take the stage and make it more likely that he is being heard, at least in some quarters.”
Alexandra Wake, Associate Professor in journalism at RMIT, also raised concerns.
“It’s shocking that anyone can use their personal or business wealth to influence public health, particularly when they have no expertise in the area, and are clearly peddling misinformation,” she said.
“I’m not sure how it can possibly be allowed to continue. It’s one thing to allow free speech, it’s quite another for those without expertise to peddle snake oil to scared populations. I am not sure why or if it is allowed under the Electoral Act.”
Dr Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor at the Sydney School of Public Health, warned that it could be “catastrophic” if the UAP won Senate seats.
“If Mike Cannon-Brookes, Australia’s fourth richest person, were to spend millions warning of the threat to the world from coal and the importance of renewables, it’s hard to imagine any sensible person not rejoicing,” he said.
“But when you have a Trump-like egomaniacal wrecker wall-papering the nation with grunt-level vacuity, we might fear a seat or two in the Senate, which could be catastrophic.”
Writing at John Menadue’s site, science author Julian Cribb warned that the future of civilisation is at stake.
“Perhaps the deadliest pandemic ever to strike humanity is the plague of deliberate misinformation, mass delusion and unfounded beliefs which is engulfing 21st Century society,” he said.
“Whether generated by the fossil fuels lobby, certain media or other corporate interests, the anti-vaccine lobby, religious fanatics, political cynics, ideological extremists, well-meaning simpletons or nutcase conspiracists, a global deluge of utter nonsense is rapidly inundating the human species.
“In the short run it may seem irritating, even occasionally amusing. In the long run, it lays the ground for the collapse of civilization and the failure of governments to arrest it, in the face of spreading public ignorance of the risks we face and what must be done to overcome them.”
Public health advocacy needed
Earlier this week, Croakey reported on a presentation by Professor Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, at a webinar hosted by The World Federation of Public Health Associations.
In his presentation McKee urged public health leadership to be much more outspoken and vocal in “speaking truth to power”.
Tait agrees with the need for increased advocacy in the current Australian political environment.
“The public health community definitely needs to act on misinformation in the public domain,” he said. “This includes both publicly calling it out and also working behind the scenes to put pressure on advertisers not to accept money for promoting messages which undermine public health.
“We also need to a conversation about what this sort of information is doing in the public domain. We need to question media reporting that presents false information as a valid point of view. We need to point out the self-interest of misinformation campaigns from people who seek to benefit financially from the removal of public health restrictions.
“The challenge of course is that public health does not have the capacity of financial resources to match the spending of Clive Palmer and other wealthy individuals and industries promoting misleading health information,” he says.
Four specific areas in which the public health community could focus its advocacy activities are outlined below.
1. Advertising restrictions
Australia does not allow the advertising of tobacco products and there are restrictions on the promotion of other products and services with public health implications, such as alcohol, gambling and therapeutic goods.
However, there are no specific restrictions on the promotion of mis- and dis-information on other health issues, other than overarching legislation and regulations governing advertising more generally and/or specific regulations for the promotion of therapeutic goods.
This means that there is often no simple mechanism for addressing false and misleading information in political advertising, such as that propagated by UAP.
Despite the significant public health implications of misleading people about the COVID-19 pandemic, the only recourse the Therapeutic Goods Administration could take was to write to both Palmer and the CEO of the Grant Broadcasters Radio network to “remind them of their responsibility” to be factual and to not to undermine the health of the community.
A potential advocacy goal for the public health community could be specific legislation banning advertising and promotions with negative public health implications.
With appropriate consultation and safeguards, a mechanism such as this could prevent the Palmers of the future from using their considerable resources to undermine Australia’s response to public health threats.
A call for media outlets and digital platforms to refuse to accept advertisements which run counter to official health advice could also be effective in reducing the level of misleading and false messaging bombarding the community.
2. Regulation of digital platforms
Croakey has published extensively on the need for greater regulation of digital platforms to reduce the risks they post to public health and democracy.
Evidence shows that digital platforms have played a crucial role in spreading mis- and dis- information about COVID but efforts to regulate this content have been minimal.
Voluntary codes and poorly enforced protocols have not been successful in stemming the flow of mis- and dis-information.
Importantly, they have not addressed the fact that the success of digital platforms is based on a business model that uses engagement algorithms that actively encourage and profit from disinformation.
The public health community could advocate for meaningful penalties for online platforms when breaching relevant codes and for a digital tax to ensure Big Tech companies pay their dues.
Also important is to call for increased support for public interest journalism in combatting mis- and dis-information and providing accurate, scientific and credible information.
Online platforms benefit from public interest journalism and news media organisations, including not-for-profit media organisations, to legitimise their platforms while at the same time undermining the core businesses of those publishers.
Recent agreements, such as the News Media Bargaining Code, have gone some way to forcing platforms to compensate registered news organisations, but more needs to be done to support public interest journalists and media organisations.
This should include more stable funding and multiple policy levers, both short and long term, to support not-for-profit media and community media.
3. Political donations reform
Reform of the current system of political donations, particularly at the federal level, is another potential goal for public health advocacy.
This issue has been raised repeatedly by political commentors and public interest advocates as a crucial strategy to reduce the influence of powerful vested interests over the Federal Government.
Yesterday, The Centre for Public Integrity, added to these calls and released a Blueprint to Rein in Money in Politics, setting out the following four priority reforms:
- Require real time disclosure of donations over $1000
- Implement spending caps
- Implement donations caps
- Strengthen enforcement and compliance through the Australian Electoral Commission and a National Integrity Commission.
Announcing the Blueprint, the organisation stated that urgent reform of political donations laws is needed to stop the flows of hidden money in politics, and rein in record campaign spending and millionaire donors.
It also pointed out that the Commonwealth has the weakest laws in the country with no expenditure caps, unlike the ACT, NSW, Queensland and South Australia.
The Grattan Institute has also advocated for strengthening the requirements of the reporting of political donations, stating that:
Despite consistent calls for donations reform from many minor parties and independents over more than a decade, the major parties continue to resist greater transparency.”
It identifies the upcoming federal election as an opportunity to advance calls for reform, as many independents and minor parties will be campaigning on integrity – which could force pre-election commitments from the major parties.
An election outcome that gives crossbenchers and minor parties the balance of power could also lead to demands for greater transparency from the next government./
4. Election advertising regulation
The regulation of political advertising in election campaigns is another area on which the public health community could advocate.
This issue was addressed by Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its inquiry into the conduct of the last federal election.
The Committee reported that several participants raised concerns about the volume, amount spent and rules surround advertising and potentially deceptive and misleading conduct during the campaign.
It made a number of recommendations, including that the current political advertising blackout for traditional media be extended to social media and other online platforms “in order to mitigate the influence on voting of some of the risk of online ‘scare campaigns’ and unverified news in the final hours of the campaign, and to go some way to protecting more vulnerable members of the community.”
However, the Committee also acknowledged that this recommendation could have the unintended consequence of enabling offshore actors to play a greater role in the closing days of an Australian election, which could open our elections to influence by foreign powers, at the very time when foreign interference in democratic elections is an emerging global problem.
A broad reform agenda which the public health community could consider has been developed by Reset Australia, a not-for-profit initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy across the world.
In its submission to the Inquiry into the 2019 election, Reset Australia raised concerns about the impact of digital platforms on Australia’s democracy stating:
The architecture of these digital platforms combined with our personal information leaves us vulnerable to different forms of manipulation that threaten our democratic process and Australian society at large.”
The submission recommended a number of measures to reduce the threat of these platforms interfering in our democracy, including:
- Extending political advertising blackout laws to social media platforms and digital streaming services
- Ensuring greater transparency of political advertising on social media
- Initiate an Inquiry into the potential harm that advertisers could cause to individuals, society and/or the democratic process in Australia, through the use of the digital platforms
- Empower an independent regulator to proactively audit the type and magnitude of amplified content these algorithms are serving to Australian audiences – focusing particularly on divisive and/or disinformation that has the potential to influence political outcomes.
See Croakey’s archive of stories on misinformation.