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Falsehoods in focus as legal storm brews over Voice debate

Peter Dutton says Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price's comments on colonialisation were brave.

Peter Dutton says Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price's comments on colonialisation were brave. Photo: AAP/TND

An Indigenous academic is threatening to sue Opposition Leader Peter Dutton over what she alleges is a defamatory social media post as debate about the role of misinformation in the referendum reaches new heights.

Professor Marcia Langton claims to have been misrepresented by Dutton in a post on his Instagram account that claims she branded No voters racist and stupid.

Langton says she has instructed her lawyer to request that the post be taken down because it misconstrues comments she made in a recent speech about the No campaign, not individual voters.

Dutton has been contacted for comment.

The episode is the latest flashpoint over misinformation (unintentional falsehoods) and disinformation (intentional falsehoods) in the campaign leading up to the October 14 referendum vote.

‘Severe damage’

“I think the No case has caused severe damage to our social fabric and our democracy,” Langton said.

“It will take a long time for Australians to recover from the viciousness of this campaign.”

The issue has dominated debate in question time for the past parliamentary fortnight.

This week The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the No campaign had briefed volunteers to sow fear and doubt in voters’ minds and bank on emotion trumping reason.

But the official website of Fair Australia, the leading No campaign group, has been openly making such claims for some time.

“If Labor and the Greens get their way on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, say goodbye to Australia Day,” wrote Matthew Sheahan, the mysterious director of the group.

Sheahan runs Advance Australia, its parent company, which is registered to a crowded Canberra office block which also runs campaigns against reducing carbon emissions.

It has been outspoken in its support of Gina Rinehart but has attacked her rival, the green hydrogen proponent Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest.

No group links

Dr Jeremy Walker, a lecturer of political studies at the University of Technology Sydney, alleges No campaign disinformation is linked to the Atlas Network, a global network of right-wing think tanks and lobby groups that was partly funded by the billionaires Charles and David Koch.

The multibillionaire brothers were (David is now deceased) co-owners of Koch Industries, a conglomerate with interests in petroleum and chemicals, and have been credited with dragging American politics to the right by funding anti-union politicians.

Atlas was described this week by the New Republic as a “shadowy global network” with “powerful allies in the oil, gas, and extractive industries”.

The global network of organisations has previously been funded by the tobacco industry and includes LibertyWorks, an Australian activist group chaired by No campaign frontman Warren Mundine.

LibertyWorks reportedly owed the government more than $170,000 for failed legal cases brought against COVID-19 restrictions.

Advance Australia was contacted for comment.

Voters this week received text messages from Fair Australia’s other lead spokesperson, NT Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price calling the Voice “risky, unknown and divisive” and containing a link to a Liberal Party-run website for casting postal votes on the referendum.

Senator Price’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Postal voting websites are legal and are used by political parties to collect voters’ personal information.

Experts cited by international newswire Reuters last week said false information about the Voice was being pushed by campaigners who first grew audiences opposing COVID-19 lockdowns.

Consultancy Reset.Tech found only 4 per cent of Facebook posts containing misinformation about the referendum were taken down within three weeks.

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