Make no mistake about it, Craig Kelly and George Christensen are not important. Not to the Morrison Government, and certainly not to the country writ large. But thanks to their love of spreading conspiracy, dangerous misinformation, and outright lie through their social media presences, both currently stand as extremely credible threats.
And yet Morrison Government leadership seems at best unwilling, and at worst allergic, to pulling these two buffoons into line.
Through their massive social media reach, Kelly and Christensen have made habitual the kind-of misinformation and inflammatory conspiracy peddling that fuelled the troubling alt-right rise. Last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead, showed in graphic detail what happens when such conspiracies and inflammatory posts are allowed to spread.
In the past week, both Craig Kelly and George Christensen have leapt all over the fallout of the US Capitol invasion, posting repeated ill-informed and fanciful rants and links to their Facebook pages, which command hefty audiences.
The response from party leadership has been blunt: Ignore it, deflect, talk about something else.
When asked about Christensen’s online activity and statements last Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated “Australia is a free country, there is such a thing as freedom of speech in this country and that will continue.” An assertion that is, it should be stressed, deeply untrue.
This morning, sitting in the big boy chair temporarily, Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack was asked point-blank about Craig Kelly’s online activity. He offered a meek response: “Facts are sometimes contentious and what you might think is right, somebody else might think is completely untrue. That is part of living in a democratic country.”
In Kelly’s case, he spread the frequently disproved claim that any violent action committed by right-wing conservatives is secretly being conducted by clandestine Antifa operatives. Kelly also leapt on the line of argument that Twitter, a private company, banning Donald Trump is somehow worse than a mob of right-wing lunatics physically invading the US Capitol building in a bid to subvert American democracy.
Scalding hot take pic.twitter.com/nOaKuk48kb— Matt Bevan ???? (@MatthewBevan) January 7, 2021
Similarly, Christensen echoed the ‘Antifa Actors’ line of misinformation, sharing a link from conservative rag The Washington Times that made the thoroughly baseless claim that “facial recognition” identified Antifa personalities amongst the Trump mob (a claim the publication later retracted).
Really disheartening looking at the comments underneath George Christensen's ridiculous post today suggesting antifa infiltrated the Trump mob. A good reason for the PM to call out misinformation, you'd think. pic.twitter.com/vWHIDDM0vr— Luke Henriques-Gomes (@lukehgomes) January 7, 2021
Dispelling this baseless – and extremely harmful – rhetoric should be job number one for an Australian Federal Government. Particularly when the rhetoric is coming from within its ranks. Though their political influence on home soil is small, Kelly and Christensen each have massive online followings that cut through to impressionable social media users. And it’s a reach that extends far beyond Australia’s borders.
Our country is already playing a leading role in the unchecked spread of harmful and inflammatory disinformation. Sky News Australia’s digital presence has seen its online videos viewed in excess of 500 million times across the globe, according to Business Insider Australia reporter Cam Wilson, whose extraordinary deep dive into Sky AU’s online propaganda factory demands reading.
Craig Kelly’s Facebook page, where he regularly spouts unproven pseudoscience and baseless rhetoric on a range of right-wing issues, sports just over 86,700 followers. George Christensen’s page has 71,100. Both, however, routinely achieve far more reach and engagement on social media than Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
In the past week Christensen and Kelly, according to data gathered by CrowdTangle and first published by The Guardian, had four of the top 25 posts among Australian MPs.
Their individual presence in Parliament is not crucial to legislative success. Their political careers, by all accounts, serve as little more than number fodder for coal lobbies and conservative factions. In the grand scheme of Government, they are as backbench as backbench gets, and in any other generation would command careers barely noted by the public record. And yet the closed-rank protection being afforded by Morrison and McCormack rival that of high-ranking Ministers.
The reasoning is patently obvious, as the tone of this Government has long been set. Obfuscation and misdirection is the trademark of Scott Morrison’s tenure as a public official, and as leader he is as guilty of lying and misleading the public as any prominent public figure in recent memory. And when lies are permitted at the top, bigger ones grow at the bottom.
Pulling Kelly or Christensen into line publicly opens the door for greater scrutiny on any Coalition MP, and in that regard the rot runs deep.
Morrison and co have made it perfectly clear that there is no room in their administration for introspect or nuance: Whatever is defined as the party line must be toed, and no regard for truth or harm will be paid if it threatens political or private interests.
In a nation through which prejudice flows freely, it’s the cowards who prosper.