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A post-fact world

Weekly column from Council Courier e-newsletter by CEO Greg Hallam on Friday, 9 December 2016.

What did the US presidential election and our own March 2016 polls have in common? No, it's not a lame Hallam joke. The answer is lots, and the reason can be explained in two words: social media.

Image: the US, post-election media reports revealed that the Trump campaign spent $160,000 (and, no, I haven’t left off a couple of zeroes) to reach 74 million Americans via social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the like. That is a very cheap way of getting a message out directly to voters.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, employed some mathematical geniuses in Silicon Valley to write you-beaut mathematical algorithms to boost their positioning in all forms of social media. A simple tactic that worked.

The Clinton campaign outspent them four-to-one with the traditional media (TV, radio and newspaper) buy. They won the election bypassing the traditional media with all its filters, both good and bad.

That's very much like our last council elections, many of which were fought below-the-radar and out of sight of the mainstream. We have entered an era of asymmetrical political campaigning where money no longer guarantees success.

Street smarts and communication reach are key. It also helps to have a good algorithm writer!

In a lot of remote Queensland communities, with the important exception of ABC radio, all media is now social media. The last election was fought in that arena. In other, more populated parts of the State, political communication uses a shandy of traditional and social media.

But make no mistake: Facebook pages, websites and blogs run by vigilantes and with council as their theme are springing up everywhere.

The beauty of traditional media is respect for fact checking and journalistic standards, editorial biases aside. None of that applies to social media - anything goes, and does.

Image: were some truly atrocious posts during the run up to our March poll accusing elected members of bestiality, drug peddling, corruption, you name it. When the LGAQ intervened through our lawyers and tried to close some of those sites down we failed. Facebook said they did not offend their community standards as they were a form of political satire.

Hence, the LGAQ’s decision to explore the feasibility of an independent Electoral Monitor for the 2020 council elections.

Add the fact that campaigning is now 24/7, 365 days of the year.

But back to President-elect Trump’s campaign. In response to blatant falsehoods being peddled online, even alleging interference and manipulation by foreign powers, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and You Tube announced this week they will combine forces to try to stop or at least try to limit 'fake news' stories and extremist content.

One of the features of a post-modern world is that it follows scientific principle and is evidence based, not healthy for witch doctors and soothsayers. Moreover, society has fashioned a set of rules and laws passed through sovereign parliaments that govern political expression.

Law of the jungle communication, encouraging not just the occasional porky but blatant falsehoods, has largely been eschewed in the 20th and 21st centuries. But the advent of social media has turned that on its head. Any individual fruit loop or crazy group can now peddle fiction as fact.

All of us are living through a time of great change in public discourse and new rules to govern political speech and conduct online have yet to be fashioned. It is a post-fact world.

My guess is that all political actors will game this 'freedom' for a while until democratic society, through its parliaments, introduces new laws.

The alternative is to allow the heads of those tech giants I have mentioned to hold the political fortunes of all levels of government in their hands by turning a blind eye to mischievous fact peddling.

Image: the Chinese Government did not do so badly after all in banning the big techs from operating their products carte blanche in its country. What is worse, total control of political discourse or no control at all? There is one for the conversation on the verandah over Christmas.

On something not totally unrelated to the above, I want to put on record the LGAQ’s support for the Palaszczuk Government’s move to introduce real-time online disclosures of electoral donations for local government, a development we mentioned in last week’s edition of Council Courier. That sort of commitment to openness can only be good for encouraging trust between voters and the people claiming to represent their interests.

Two things to look out for next week: an important survey from the LGAQ to mayors and chief financial officers on how your council is managing the challenge of long-term financial sustainability and, of course, my last rant of the year in what will be the final edition of Council Courier for 2016.

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