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From the Capitol to Australian Skies, Misinformation Finds Supporters

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Yan Zhuang and Damien Cave from the Australia bureau.

What happens when a country’s politicians can’t agree on the color of the sky?

In the midst of all that’s been happening in the United States, Australia’s acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack — filling in for Prime Minister Scott Morrison who is on holiday — recently defended the right of parliamentarian colleagues to spread misinformation on social media about the coronavirus and the American election by making this comparison:

“You might look out there and say the sky is blue and I can see from here that it’s gray,” he told local journalists. “If we go out from under this rotunda there are probably blue patches.”

Clearly, as the fallout to last week’s White House siege last week continues in the United States with Donald Trump making history as the first American president to be impeached twice, its effects are also being felt overseas.

And in Australia, where the conservative government has been cozying up to President Trump for years and stopped short of directly criticizing him over the White House violence, the president’s suspension from social media platforms seems to have led his allies to issue a surprisingly vocal defense of the right to say whatever you want on social media, even if it’s not true or so close to untrue as to be a bit absurd.

Mr. McCormack seemed to be saying that if there is a tiny patch of blue, however fleeting, that gives someone the right to say it was a beautiful, clear and sunny day.

In another interview, he said: “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.”

His comments come as the prime minister and acting prime minister have both refuted calls to censure two party colleagues, Craig Kelly and George Christensen, who have been spreading (mostly on Facebook) debunked claims that far-left extremists were involved in the Capitol siege along with a steady stream of misinformation about the coronavirus.

Mr. Christensen has made Facebook posts alleging voter fraud in the U.S. election, despite all evidence to the contrary, and he has recently started a petition to prevent social media platforms from being able to ban, suspend or fact-check “content which is lawful in Australia.”

Mr. Kelly, meanwhile, without evidence, has claimed that far-left “Antifa” protesters were involved in the storming of the Capitol and recently compared requiring adolescents to wear masks to child abuse. Both have echoed the Mr. Trump’s claim that hydroxychloroquine could cure coronavirus.

Mr. Kelly is also widely-known as a climate change denier, which we’ve written about in the past — during last year’s fires.

And yet, these two lawmakers are not being censured or publicly critiqued by their party colleagues. They are also two of the country’s most popular parliamentarians on Facebook. Since the start of the month, one or more of their posts have been in the top 5 posts made by any Australian politicians on the platform on every day expect for January 1, according to social media data sourced by a journalist from Australia’s national broadcaster.

What does it all say about Australian politics?

The opposing Labor Party has slammed the government’s refusal to censure them, with opposition leader Anthony Albanese saying: “It’s about time that people weren’t given a platform to spread hatred, to spread lies.”

But more broadly, perhaps the politics of Australia and the United States both show that once a political party commits to allowing disinformation, and its constituents like what they read and see, it’s very hard to reverse course.

What do you make of Australia’s response to the continuing conflict over President Trump in the United States?

Email us at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

And now for this week’s stories:


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