January 24, 2018








SUBJECT: Fake news.


CHRIS ILSLEY, INTERVIEWER: Thanks very much for joining us Anne.

ANNE ALY, MEMBER FOR COWAN: My pleasure, thank you.

INTERVIEWER: Listen, you don’t realise it sister, we are kindred spirits in this regard. The one thing that drives me insane is the amount of stuff that’s posted on social media that just plain and simply isn’t true, but worse still is the kind of stuff that – for the sake of 60 seconds of your own time, if you look at something and go ‘that’s outrageous I wonder if it’s true’ – for most of those stories if you spent a maximum of 60 seconds you’d be able to work out one way or another if it’s true or most likely not true. And the thing that really bothers me is that so many people, even adults, just seem to blindly accept something because it’s a nice piece of confirmation bias – in other words it just says exactly what they want to believe in anyway – but they don’t bother to fact check it. Which means we are actually, unfortunately in some respects on social media, creating a very misinformed society. Now it can be in a multiple set of different ways, because the moment you see anything regardless of what it is, and you accept that it must be true because I’m reading it, straight away we’re setting ourselves up for a problem. And I guess one of the issues we’re going to have to tackle going forward – how do we address what is truly fake news?

ALY: Yeah, this is a really good question and I think this issue of social media and creating fake news – social media makes your news easy for you. It packages it up all nicely, and it gives you these algorithms that they use to give you what you want to hear. And that was my point about it – it becomes this kind of echo chamber that you could spend your life only looking at news on social media and all it’ll do is tell you and regurgitate and perpetuate everything that you want to hear and you’ll never have to face or read a differing  or confronting or opposite opinion. How do we know what is fake news? You know, in the UK at the moment it’s really going to be interesting to watch because they are developing laws at the moment around fake news. And I’m going to be watching this with real interest to see exactly what they come up with, because it’s one thing to have a law that stops this kind of blatant fake news, but how much of it is actual fake news and how far do we go in terms of propaganda and opinion shaping? Is there a line there that needs to be drawn: yes or no? These are the questions that I think they’re going to be asking in the UK and it’ll be very interesting to see what they come up with.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I guess one of the problems that we have is that we’ll have to differentiate between opinions – and you and I can have a different opinion on something, that doesn’t make you wrong and it doesn’t necessarily make me wrong – but then again we have something that is fact. Now in the case of what you had, the story said that you had refused to lay a wreath at an ANZAC Day ceremony. Which wasn’t true. So what we’re talking about there is not opinion – it’s fact. And it’s something I’ve tried to explain to people and the way I explain it is like this: red is a better colour than blue. That’s an opinion. Nobody can make it demonstrably true, it just happens to be an opinion. You agree with that, you disagree with that. Nobody is right, nobody is wrong. If someone holds your head underwater for ten minutes without oxygen, you will drown. Now that’s not an opinion, that’s a demonstrably true fact. And I think the problem is that in the social media world too many people now have forgotten the difference between ‘this is my opinion’, ‘this is fact’. And until we – look I think we really have to get down to an education process, and I don’t think it only applies with younger people it applies with older people. The echo chamber is the big problem here.

ALY: Absolutely, and I am so glad that you mentioned education because this is where you and I are kindred spirits. Because we do not teach young people – and I’ll get to the adults in a minute – but we do not teach young people about how to spot fake news. We do not teach them, we do not prepare them for the social media world in which they are going to be bombarded with all of this information. To understand that this kind of echo chamber where you can just socialise online and get all your information online in ways that only ever fit in to your bubble, right, this doesn’t promote democracy. Because democracy is about having those different opinions and being able to talk about those difference opinions. And being able to hear different opinions and gauging your own opinions against them. When the only opinions you hear are the opinions that agree with you, that’s not democracy. That’s not being able to participate fully in democracy. So I totally agree with you about education, and not just educating young people. But, you know, we often talk about ‘oh young people, young people, young people’, but we’re the adults who are modelling that behaviour for them. We’re the ones that they are modelling. So what are we doing, in terms of adults, what are we doing in terms of how we approach social media, how we approach the news on the media. Doing that stuff like fact checking, being discerning in our news consumption, checking on news items, ensuring that we don’t get all our news just through our social media feed. Like some people get all their news only through their social media feed. And understanding also, that what’s on your social media isn’t a true reflection of the world.

INTERVIEWER: That’s something people have a lot of trouble understanding, that it’s not a true reflection of the world. And the odd thing is that I know and I’ve seen this before, you see some people have a fairly robust exchange on social media and all of a sudden someone will announce “I’ve just blocked this person”. And what that means is that ‘this person has disagreed with me to the point that I’ve blocked them’. And some people think, ‘well I didn’t like that person. They were a bigot or they were an idiot’ whatever the case may be, and let’s just accept that for the purposes of our discussion that’s true. What we forget, the moment we do that, what we’re doing is forcing the situation whereby eventually that person is – simply by the fact that those who disagree with him or her continually block them or continually cut them off or unfriend them and stuff like that – eventually those individuals end up only being friends and only interacting on social media with people, ala the echo chamber, who agree with their position or point of view on everything. Now that to me is very, very dangerous. The last thing I want to see is anyone with opposing points of view silenced. You know, because if somebody says something that’s wrong, that’s ignorant, that is factually not true – I mean, I’m certainly quite happy to do this to say “well hang on a second, this is not true” – now if you have nobody that says “well hang on a second, this is not true”, well what’s going to happen is people are going to start to assume that it is true. And we’re running the risk that a whole generation of people who are not going to subject themselves – and regardless of what people say about media outlets like this, we are obliged by law, we are obliged by codes of ethics, one of the things we’re obliged to do is make information as fair and balanced as we possibly can. Sure we present opinions, but we also invite people with contrary opinions to come on and debate those issues. If you wipe all of that out and we end up with whole generations of people who regardless of what their opinions are on anything, who simply sit in an echo chamber that confirms everything they and their close circle of friends believe. We are not only going to breed a bunch of people who are going to be ignorant and are going to lack a lot of general knowledge in a lot of areas, we’re also going to create a bunch of people who are dangerous because all they’re going to hear is the same point of view reflected back at them. And they’re going to think that’s how everybody thinks.

ALY: Exactly, and I completely agree with you on all of that. And I’ve been in that situation where I’ve been blocked by a girl I went to school with, I grew up with, and she put something on her Facebook and I said “well that’s not actually true” and she blocked be because she didn’t want to hear – what I was saying to her was a contradiction of what it is she wanted to believe. So you’re absolutely right that what it creates is these echo chambers. The other thing is – and I guess if you’re going to be on social media and if you’re on there because all your friends bake and it’s a social thing where you all bake or you all ride bikes together or something like that – it’s very different if you’re on there discussing political issues or social issues or news. Right? So it’s okay if you all have the same kinds of interests – is what I want to say – if all your friends are on Facebook are your friends because you have the same kinds of interests, that’s okay. But if you’re blocking people because they are presenting you with facts that contradict or confront your opinion, and that matters in terms of democracy, in terms of political participation, in terms of social participation, then that’s where I think we run in to trouble. The other side of it, also, and I speak now as a politician, and I come back to this idea that we can’t take everything that happens on our Facebook as being ‘the news’ and representative of all of Australia. If I was to take every comment on my Facebook as representative of all of Australia, I’d be the most popular politician in the world! You know? Because the people who comment on my Facebook, comment on my Facebook because they got nice things to say. And because they agree with me. But that doesn’t mean that that’s reflective of all of Australia. So I think there’s also something to be said for how we also interpret that echo chamber, and recognise that it is an echo chamber and we’re talking to like-minded people. But we have to, and if we’re only talking to like-minded people on Facebook, if we’re only talking to like-minded people on social media, then what are we doing to make sure we’re also engaging with those ideas that maybe don’t agree with ours. That maybe challenge us to think differently.

INTERVIEWER: That’s the whole point, and look we should be encouraging that. I’ve always thought that’s healthy. If someone puts to me a point of view I have no issue with that. When I have an issue is when somebody says something that’s not true. And I do get frustrated because you look at something and think to yourself ‘you know something, inside a minute you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of whether or not this is true’ and I think part of the problem is that over the years people have grown up – regardless of what some people say about the media – that you had a system whereby there was a degree of checking of facts, people would ascertain that the information to the best of their knowledge and belief was true, the other thing is there was always this business about presenting both sides of the story. What we have in social media is the ability to only present the side of the story we want people to see. And worse still by the way it operates, we also have a way of eliminating dissent. So maybe going forward the whole education process is going to have to be how do you deal with this, and how is it that you can have an opinion with which I don’t agree, and still be able to express your opinion and then where is the line with something being opinion and something being fact. And I get back once again to my colours analogy and my head under water analogy. And we really have to learn the distinction between fact and opinion.

ALY: Absolutely. Absolutely that distinction is really important and I think coming back also to education, teaching young people that you can resolve conflict in respectful ways. You can have different opinions and resolve that in respectful ways. You don’t have to ignore someone or block someone or completely disregard their opinion. It’s okay to have difference. I think sometimes social media makes it not okay to have difference, you know? It’s not okay for me to be different or think differently, and I think that does damage to society. And particularly to young people, I like to think young people are equipped with the courage to speak their opinions. And with the courage to be different, and with the courage to talk to other about those difference but also with the respect and with the ability to be able to work through differences. And accept that there are different opinions out there.

INTERVIEWER: It’s a healthy thing to do. Anne Aly we’re out of time, but that you so much for your time.

ALY: Thank you so much and have a great evening.