“Flood the zone with shit”

Yes that’s a quote from Steve Bannon, erstwhile advisor to Donald Trump, and it’s a campaign strategy that the two men followed to get Trump elected to the USA Presidency, that now we are increasingly seeing being adopted here in Australia.

Adopted by campaigns run by conservative activist group Advance for example, recently campaigning in the Dunkley federal by-election and in the referendum NO campaign.

Put simply: you make outrageous populist pronouncements and then wait for mainstream media to report them. From there, the claims move into social media, whose algorithms elevate conflict, and out through “all these disinformation networks, whose job it is spread those messages .. far and wide” says Ed Coper, CEO of communications outfit Populares. “It’s a complete mirror of what the Trump ecosystem does in the US. They really just rip the playbook straight off.”

So, what is Advance, and what has it been doing?

Formed as a right-wing campaign vehicle, GetUp competitor, in the aftermath of the marriage equality postal survey, Advance has played a major role in Australian conservative movements over the past five years.

Claiming to “restore the balance on Australian freedom, security and prosperity”, Advance has run campaigns against transgender athletes, net-zero emissions targets, anti-misinformation laws, and more recently front lined the successful ‘NO’ campaign against The Voice (after Advance began its campaign, the YES vote fell from 60% to 40%), although many of the claims made during that Advance campaign have been found to be false.

Advance’s Campaign Director Mathew Sheahan, says “We’re an independent grassroots movement, and we’re not affiliated or connected to any political party.”

Many sources disagree with that statement, and point to the campaigns Advance runs, the people connected to it (Ex-PM Tony Abbott, Senator Jacinta Price, SkyNews columnist Liz Storer, ex-Liberal for 20 years Vicki Dunne), its US-headquartered public relations firm RJ Dunham and Co, and its main targets - the ABC, Climate Change, the Greens.

Independent MP Zali Steggall describes Advance as “a thinly disguised arm of the Liberal Party”. Advance campaigned against Steggall, and for Tony Abbott, in 2019. Advance tried to position Steggall as a puppet of GetUp and a “fake independent”, which was untrue and subject to complaints to the AEC.

In 2022 election Steggall, along with fellow independent David Pocock, was depicted by Advance as a Greens candidate – again untrue, and the AEC ruled the ads misleading, and they were taken down.

Other “flooding the zone with shit” works by Advance in 2022 included using images of female Olympic swimmers without permission (they had to be withdrawn after outraged complaints from Seebohm and Fraser), and billboards showing a manipulated image of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping appearing to drop his vote for the ALP into a ballot box, with the caption “CCP says vote Labor” – clearly a lie.
The thing about this style of campaigning, says Josh Roose, Associate Professor of politics at Deakin University, is that it only really works in the negative. He notes that when you look at the 15 or so issues Advance champions, almost all relate to things it opposes.

Roose also sees Advance’s tactics as having been borrowed from the US, as was the idea of Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as a networking opportunity for the political right. “It’s an effort to shape Australian politics along the lines of the American polarised divisive approach that we’ve seen over the last decade in particular. I think it’s a significant concern in the context of Australian democracy.”

Nina Jankowicz, who worked for the Biden administration advising how to combat disinformation, agrees. “what we’re seeing, whether we talk about Australia, the States, the EU, or the UK, [is] a lot of these fringe voices using the very same tactics that Russia was using … flooding the zone with shit and making it impossible for people to tell truth from fiction.”

Advance’s mis-, or dis-, information was spread throughout the Dunkley by election recently, and we look forward to sophisticated analysis of its impact. Early signs are that their impact, fortunately, was minor on this occasion. But they are not going away, and we at ABC Friends need to be ready to counter their “shit” messages about the ABC.

Some of the material in this story was sourced from an article jn the Saturday Paper