In a year featuring a bruising federal election campaign and an ongoing global pandemic, and amid an increasingly turbulent social media landscape, combating misinformation was always going to be a tough assignment in 2022.
From the potential risks posed by Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover to the many falsehoods that followed the death of the Queen, RMIT ABC Fact Check (together with our partner, RMIT FactLab) has worked to correct the record and sort fact from fiction.
With the festive season upon us, here’s some of what we rounded up this year.
Oh, and if you’re lucky enough to be jetting off for a holiday soon, don’t worry: that’s not duct tape holding your plane together.
Vaccines remain a major breeding ground for misinformation
In the third year of the pandemic, much of the misinformation coming across our desk involved the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
While some people argued without evidence that vaccines were causing miscarriage and fertility problems, others relied on flawed interpretations of data to claim that vaccines were behind falling birth rates.
Then, as monkeypox arrived, social media users baselessly claimed the disease — along with HIV/AIDS and Japanese encephalitis — was a side effect of COVID-19 jabs.
Others maintained, wrongly, that the vaccines altered recipients’ DNA, increased the chances of catching COVID-19 or simply failed to work.
The swirl of misinformation ultimately coalesced in the film “Died Suddenly”, which CheckMate picked apart to discover a dizzying array of misappropriated case studies involving people — and, bizarrely, in one case a gaming platform — who had supposedly died suddenly after being vaccinated.
This followed two earlier instances of anti-vaxxers using the tragic deaths of Australian children to make their case, and a baseless claim by one federal parliamentarian that Australia was forcing people to be “opportunistically” vaccinated while sedated.
Along the way, CheckMate found no evidence to support claims of a surge in cases of “sudden adult death syndrome”, of serious heart conditions linked to the jab or of additional deaths due to vaccination — of either people or cattle.
2022 has been a year in which vaccine misinformation has collided with other themes, including the war in Ukraine.
For example, Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, a prominent contributor to Australia’s pandemic response, was dragged into the spotlight by conspiracists who claimed it had received blood samples from a Ukrainian “biological weapons research facility”.
But that claim, which relied on unsubstantiated suggestions that such facilities even existed, originated from the Russian Ministry of Defence and appeared to misrepresent the institute’s work on global measles preparedness.
Freedom, and beyond …
Those peddling misinformation didn’t stop there.
The year kicked off with trucker protests in Canada — initially sparked by a vaccine mandate for border crossings — which were accompanied by exaggerated claims that 50,000 trucks were converging on the nation’s capital, Ottawa.
In Australia, the “Convoy to Canberra” rally against vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions brought with it a suggestion that police had deployed sonic weapons as a form of crowd control.
The protest and its offshoots became a hotbed for conspiracy theories, supported by parliamentarians who claimed the World Health Organisation had sought to impose lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations on Australians.
A common denominator in many such theories were “global elites”, including US billionaire Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab, blamed for an array of nefarious but unproven plans, from depopulating the planet to forcing people to eat insects and brainwashing them into owning “nothing”.
Meanwhile, a highly anticipated federal election threatened to bring with it imported “fraud” narratives and conspiracy theories of the US variety that led to the January 2021 Capitol uprising.
But while FactLab, through CheckMate and its election misinformation monitoring project Mosaic, did debunk a slew of election-related furphies before and after the May 2022 poll, the Australian Electoral Commission declared in June that such mis- and disinformation had occurred only at “very low levels”.
Holding the politicians to account
May’s federal election (and, more recently, the Victorian state poll) did, however, provide ample opportunity for fact checking.
As the Coalition sought to fight off challenges from climate-minded teal independents in the federal contest, a furphy thrown out by then prime minister Scott Morrison and members of his cabinet about Australia’s emissions reductions proved pervasive.
As Fact Check found, various iterations of the claim — which suggested Australia had reduced emissions by 20 per cent, putting it ahead of a number of other comparable nations — were seriously flawed.
Staying with climate-related claims, Greens leader Adam Bandt’s assertion that the fossil fuel industry had received $10 billion a year in federal subsidies was found to be overblown.
Labor politicians, meanwhile, were incorrect on a number of occasions when they repeatedly claimed to have inherited the highest levels of debt and deficit in Australia’s history — a claim that was incorrect back when Coalition leaders levelled a similar criticism against their predecessors in 2015.
The federal election also saw Fact Check add a string to its bow in the form of Election Scare Alerts, which identified and debunked party-initiated scare campaigns.
From Labor, scare campaigns involved fear-mongering about the now-abolished cashless debit card as well as a revamped “Mediscare” campaign, while the Coalition baselessly suggested Labor would introduce a “sneaky carbon tax” and a “death tax” if elected.
In Victoria, Fact Check labelled a claim by re-elected premier Daniel Andrews about ambulance response times as “spin”, while a Labor television ad accusing Matthew Guy and the Liberal Party of cutting $1 billion from health — a repeat of a claim made before the previous Victorian election — was found to be still wrong.
Speaking of the former Liberal leader, Mr Guy’s suggestion that Melbourne was the world’s “most locked down city” — another claim put to rest in the archives — was not clear cut.
Shadow Treasurer David Davis, meanwhile, earned Fact Check’s inaugural “gilding the lily” verdict for his claim about Victoria’s debt versus that of other states.
And in a fact-checking rarity, a politician was found to have understated a claim, when Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam’s alleged that Victorians had lost $66 billion at the pokies since they were introduced in the early 90s. Fact Check found the real figure to be $89.7 billion when inflation is taken into account.
The flaw in Katter’s plan to arm children
Perhaps the strangest claim debunked this year was that of veteran federal politician Bob Katter, who asserted that during his youth “every kid in Australia had a rifle” that had been kept “in the school armoury”.
The claim came during a media appearance in which Mr Katter put forward his plan to arm 13-year-olds in a bid to protect Australia from foreign threats.
“As a kid at 12, I was handed a giant .303 rifle as big as I was at the time,” Mr Katter, who was born in 1945, told Sky News.
As CheckMate found, however, while Mr Katter may well have been handed a very large gun, he wasn’t able to claim the same was true for every child.
It’s not the first time Mr Katter has provided some, ahem, interesting fodder for a debunk: in 2017, his claim that people were being “torn to pieces” by crocodiles in Queensland at an alarming rate was the basis for a fact check that earned the award for “Most Absurd Fact Checked” at an international fact-checking conference.
Fact Check’s promise tracker to launch in 2023
Looking ahead to 2023, Fact Check is pleased to announce the return of its election promise tracker, which will be launched early next year.
In an exercise last undertaken by Fact Check following Tony Abbott’s election win in 2013, the promise tracker will monitor dozens of key commitments made by federal Labor prior to the 2022 election.
For months, Fact Check’s researchers have been working to bring the tracker to life and provide readers with an easy-to-access platform to track the government’s progress towards delivering on its election pledges.
Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org