On the misinformation superhighway, good political leadership matters more than ever

If the Trump era tells us one thing, it’s that the dangers of misinformation and – more disturbingly – disinformation can have a severe impact on public discourse. Although Joe Biden’s victory is a win for democracy, “Trumpism”, America’s deep polarisation and its morass of misinformation remains.

It is critical that our important institutions in Australia remain watchful against such anti-democratic forces, and encourage facts, truth and evidence-based decision-making.

Donald Trump’s faith in his disinformation machine is demonstrated by his confident assertions of electoral fraud. Even though his refusal to accept defeat undermines a democratic system for which hundreds of thousands of Americans have died over the decades, senior Republicans and representatives in Congress are unwilling to publicly contradict him, such is his ability to lead his base in a manner akin to a cult leader.

While Trump’s legal challenges will likely come to nothing, they send a signal of grievance to his base and supercharge conspiracy theories – and due to his attacks on mainstream media and the powerful diet of disinformation that has been fed to his supporters over the past five years, they are simply no longer living in the same reality as the rest of us.

This is a powerful lesson for Australia. We may seem far from the chaos of the US, but the leading indicators of these trends are present here. In particular, the lowering quality of news and analysis that people are consuming, which in turn lowers the quality and tone of our political discourse.

An Ipsos poll of 1026 Australians commissioned by the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership shows that only 66.3 per cent of Australians consume news from traditional sources. The other third either take no news or do so via social media, much of it designed to confirm biases or drive “enragement”.

In a democracy, this is dangerous. We must do more to ensure reporting, whatever its form, is balanced and based on fact. If public discourse is constantly distorted, it gives incentive for political leaders to distort and polarise. And the US election has shown us just how polarising this can be.

Australians do respect leadership that is based on evidence, and we still reward leaders who have argued for and introduced tough decisions based on medical evidence to protect public health. Of the Australians who named a politician who has had a positive impact this year, 92 per cent named leaders who have aligned themselves with our health and scientific experts.

This shows, when it comes to trust in leaders, that facts and truth still matter. Science still matters. Experts still matter. And if political leaders can put forward a clear vision which is grounded in evidence and facts, this will drive greater trust in our systems and in our democracy.

While it has been encouraging to see media outlets acknowledging that Trump’s tweets are problematic and social media muting his lies, I don’t think we can rely on executives in social media corporations to support democracy. Every Australian has a responsibility to play a role.

Whether we are consuming traditional or non-traditional media, or if we are members of the media, it is critical that we all do our part to interrogate the information being presented to us, consider the source, hold our leaders accountable and insist on high-quality information.

The McKinnon Prize, an independent, non-partisan initiative of the University of Melbourne and the Susan McKinnon Foundation, advocates for our democracy by encouraging and celebrating good political leadership at all levels of government.

Shining a light on good leadership helps spark a national conversation about expectations on political leadership and communicates clearly what we should be looking for in our leaders in a time of mass misinformation.

And right now, more than ever, we should be asking our leaders and our information gatekeepers to use evidence when making decisions to help shape public discourse and restore trust in our democracy.

The stakes have never been higher.