The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Twitter account defending Australian democracy

Evan Ekin-Smyth, head of digital engagement for the Australian Electoral Commission. (Courtesy of the Australian Electoral Commission)
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SYDNEY — The cartoon appeared online early one Friday morning. Created by a far-right Australian party in the style of “South Park,” it lit up social media with its crude jokes and bogus claims about stolen elections.

In a Canberra office covered in computer screens, the alerts began pouring in.

“This needs a #FactCheck,” one person tweeted.

“Is this not illegal?” another asked.

Tagged in the torrent of tweets was the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Within minutes, the federal agency responded, calling the video “false” and “disappointing.” The agency’s actions quickly led Twitter to label the cartoon as “misleading,” and Facebook and TikTok took it down completely.

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The incident last month reflects the rising tide of misinformation Australia faces as it prepares to go to the polls on Saturday. But it also shows the benefit of a single agency overseeing a country’s electoral process.

“We’re really standing on the front lines of protecting Australia’s democracy,” said Evan Ekin-Smyth, the AEC’s head of digital engagement. “If we’re not in the conversations, arguing for elections, defending people’s perceptions of democracy, well, who is?”

In the United States, elections are overseen by a patchwork of partisan state and local officials. Add in the Electoral College and the system can sometimes seem chaotic or even susceptible to undue influence, as Americans learned in 2020.

“There are a myriad of major and minor differences in how electoral laws and regulations are administered across America,” said Pippa Norris, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “This violates basic principles of equality and consistency in electoral processes and voting rights, leads to excessively partisan considerations gaming the system, and encourages numerous malpractices.”

Australia’s electoral system, in contrast, is praised by analysts around the world.

Steven J. Mulroy, a professor at the University of Memphis and the author of a book on American election law, called it the “gold standard in election administration.”

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Ariadne Vromen, a political scientist at the Australian National University, noted that few other countries have independent electoral commissions.

“That is one of our good innovations, as well as compulsory voting,” she said. “People in Australia trust those processes. They might not feel particularly warmly or trusting about the political actors, about politicians themselves and about political parties, but they do trust the institutions.”

That trust is now being tested.

The flood of misinformation that fueled the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol hasn’t spared Australia. Since the country’s last federal election in 2019, Ekin-Smyth said, false claims about Australian elections have skyrocketed. Some appear imported from the United States.

“There have been claims around the use of Dominion voting machines,” he said, citing a baseless claim pushed by former president Donald Trump and some of his advisers. “We don’t use Dominion voting machines. We never have, and yet people are claiming that we are going to use them and that the election is rigged off the back of it.”

As the challenges have changed, so, too, has the AEC.

When Ekin-Smyth joined in 2011, the AEC didn’t even have a Twitter account. A decade later, half a dozen people now help him tweet at a blistering pace: up to two dozen times per hour. It also has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, has partnered with TikTok on an election guide, and has held an “Ask me Anything” on Reddit.

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The aim is to counter bogus claims before they have a chance to spread.

“We’re not blind to the fact that social media moves incredibly swiftly,” Ekin-Smyth said. “And the action that social media organizations can take is brilliant. But the action we can take even quicker by responding on our channels is perhaps going to be even more effective.”

That action is sometimes serious, as when the AEC recently referred an allegedly doubly registered candidate to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.

Yet the AEC also has a sense of humor, mixing in posts about Crumpet the election cat and jokes and GIFs.

“Their meme game is pretty strong,” Vromen said. “And the informal language is really important. It’s personalized. It’s using everyday norms of engagement. And that is the kind of thing that people will notice and will share.”

The snappy tweets do occasionally draw pushback from critics who think the AEC should be more staid, or even silent. But Ekin-Smyth said it was important to talk to people on their terms.

“We’re a bunch of public servants,” he said. “But most of Australia isn’t, and they don’t talk like them, so why should we?”

With the election approaching, the AEC has received scores of complaints about false or misleading statements by candidates, parties or influence groups. It polices only information about the political process, not political speech.

“A party or candidate talking about another party, their policies, their history — we cannot be the regulators of truth for that,” Ekin-Smyth said. “We don’t have legislation that allows it. But also there would be some practical problems and some perception problems if we were making decisions on those things.”

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In March, for example, a conservative lobbying group created a mobile billboard with a cartoon depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping casting a vote for Australia’s center-left Labor Party. The AEC directed the group to change the billboard — not for its message, but because it showed Xi’s ballot with a check on it. Australians are required to rank candidates or parties.

In the case of misinformation online, the agency has to be careful not to respond in ways that could amplify it.

When the far-right One Nation party posted its video April 29 falsely suggesting illegal votes had decided the 2010 Australian federal election, Ekin-Smyth consulted with the AEC’s legal and executive teams before crafting a response.

“This commentary about the electoral system is very disappointing,” he tweeted from the AEC’s account. “Registered parties are aware of electoral integrity measures in place including information received/roll objection action taken for deceased Australians, and outbound & inbound postal vote verification steps.”

Some Twitter users complained he hadn’t been more strident, and Ekin-Smyth did use stronger language in subsequent tweets. But he also didn’t want to fuel a controversy that would spread the video even more widely.

Colleagues, meanwhile, were contacting social media companies, which labeled the video misleading or took it down.

“It was probably one of the more egregious examples we’ve seen,” Ekin-Smyth said. “Some of the claims in there are just incorrect, and they clearly have the ability to undermine people’s confidence in the system.”

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He shrugged off suggestions the AEC was unfair to One Nation. The commission had taken no issue with previous cartoons that, though crass, didn’t mislead people about the electoral system. One actually explained preferential voting well, he said.

With social media stoking tribalism, the AEC requires all its employees — including its 100,000 temporary election workers — to sign a declaration of political neutrality.

“There is a lot of responsibility to it,” Ekin-Smyth said, “because a failed election — real or perceived — as we’ve seen in other jurisdictions, is potentially devastating.”