12 Nov 2022 By theguardian
On Sunday, just hours after News Corp's exclusive picture of a set of stairs hit the stands, a telling reaction came from a small but persistently conspiratorial account on Twitter.
The account, minuscule in its following, has routinely pushed wild and false theories about Daniel Andrews' 2021 fall at a Sorrento beach house rental and the source of his injuries.
"I don't think I've ever purchased a mainstream newspaper," the tweet read, accompanied by a picture of the Herald Sun's front page. "I did today."
The tweet was representative of how News Corp's reporting has been embraced by the fringes of social media.
The Herald Sun's decision to publish pictures of the scene of Andrews' fall in March 2021 - while explicitly canvassing "alternative theories" - quickly revived conspiracies about the cause of the Victorian premier's serious injuries which left the state temporarily leaderless during the pandemic.
Those conspiracies had largely been dormant for more than a year, after first being driven by posts on the far right's favoured encrypted messaging app, Telegram, and posts on a fringe "news" website promoting QAnon and the Port Arthur massacre conspiracies.
The Herald Sun itself noted of the alternative theories "none have been proven and the premier has dismissed them all". But, if nothing else, the story confirmed what academics have known for some time. There is a direct and obvious relationship between mainstream coverage and the amplification and legitimisation of conspiratorial content on social media, including on more conventional platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit.
One of the world's leading experts on the amplification of conspiracies, University of Oregon Assistant Prof Whitney Phillips, says mainstream coverage like the Herald Sun's presented a "huge turning point" for any conspiracy.
"When the story is suddenly splashed across the front page of a major newspaper, it shifts from something that people have to actively seek out to something that is brought directly to them," she tells the Guardian.
"That is a huge turning point for any conspiracy theory; it makes more people more likely to engage with the story, even if they don't believe the underlying claims, weren't aware of the previous wave of accusations, or think the whole thing is funny because of all the fuss people are making.
"The more sharing that happens - whether credulous or curious or mocking - the further it travels, making it something that other news organisations arguably can't ignore, because suddenly it's something everyone is talking about."
An examination using Crowdtangle, a social media analysis tool, shows the News Corp story quickly reignited discussion on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - much of it conspiratorial.
Engagement with posts on unverified Facebook and Instagram accounts mentioning Dan or Daniel Andrews and the keywords "fall, steps or stairs" shot up from zero interactions on 3 November to 4,600 on 5 November, the day the Herald Sun's piece was published online.
The interactions continued over the next two days, with more than 6,000 interactions on Facebook alone on 6 November (the print publication date) and 7 November.
Groups that fuel anti-Andrews sentiment - including DonttrustDan, Dump Dan Andrews, and Danmustgo - leapt on the story and shared it with tens of thousands of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram followers.
In doing so, they triggered a renewed wave of conspiratorial discussion about the cause of Andrews' injuries.
Real Rukshan, a frequent critic of the premier and Covid lockdowns, used the Herald Sun's picture of the stairs in a video mocking Andrews' explanation for the fall, sharing it with his 31,000 Facebook and 94,000 Instagram followers. The comments, predictably, canvassed the usual conspiracies about the incident.
An account named Aussie Values shared a Sky News video on the Andrews' fall - which included the picture of the stairs - with its 15,381 Facebook followers, while the network of far-right groups named Stand up for Australia linked to the story and said: "Nothing suss here, move along you conspiracy theorist."
On Reddit, anti-lockdown threads shared the story and used it to repeat conspiracies about the true source of his injuries to their thousands of followers.
University of Sydney digital platforms expert Dr Joanne Gray says there is a direct relationship between mainstream media coverage and the distribution and discussion of conspiracies.
Even in cases where media coverage does not overtly raise or discuss a conspiracy, it can be used as one of a disparate range of sources to construct a narrative.
"When it is overt like this, it can be weaponised easily by people seeking to prove some sort of conspiracy theory," she says. "It has the effect of associating the conspiracy theory with a reputable, authoritative source."
It's hard to pinpoint precisely where the Andrews fall conspiracy started.
But it appears to have its roots on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favoured by far-right activists and conspiracy theorists, where wild theories emerged almost immediately after Andrews revealed he had suffered a serious fall on 9 March last year.
Within hours of Andrews' statement, anti-lockdown group Reignite Democracy Australia was telling its followers there was a "strange trend" among politicians that day - Greg Hunt had been hospitalised and Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds had both taken indefinite leave from cabinet.
Reignite posited, without any basis, that all the MPs had suffered adverse reactions to the vaccine. Blair Cottrell, a prominent member of the far right, made the same baseless suggestion.
On 10 March, a day after the fall, theories began circulating on Telegram that Andrews had been drinking with trucking magnate Lindsay Fox and former PricewaterhouseCoopers executive Luke Sayers on the night of the fall. The claim, circulated by the Melbourne Freedom Rally anti-lockdown group, suggested he had fallen at Fox's home. Other users on the channel began suggesting Andrews had been bashed or "taught a lesson" over some perceived slight to a young woman.
The claims have been roundly rubbished by Fox and Sayers, who was at a different location entirely on the night in question, having dinner with his wife.
The conspiracies bubbled away on the internet's fringes, aided by a conspiratorial website that posits itself as a Queensland news source. Aside from the Andrews fall conspiracy, the website has pushed falsehoods about the Port Arthur massacre, claimed that Nazis are running Canada, that federal police used a heat ray on anti-lockdown protesters in Canberra, and that there is a deep-state child trafficking ring operating in Canberra and involving cabinet ministers.
Previous analysis by the Queensland University of Technology's Timothy Graham suggested the website was "very much the originating vectors of this narrative and its sub-narratives".
In June 2021, the theories about Andrews' fall first crept into the mainstream.
The Victorian opposition treasury spokeswoman, Louise Staley, released a series of questions about the accident she wanted Andrews to "clear up". The questions included whether Andrews had been interviewed by police and who had called the ambulance. She urged the premier to answer the questions "if there is no cover-up", words that gave mainstream impetus to the conspiracy.
Victoria Ambulance also released a statement in June confirming the timeline that Andrews had given, while police said it had not been called to the incident and had not interviewed Andrews.
Despite this, former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett said the Herald Sun article this week was "fair play", as there was concern among some about whether Andrews was being "fully transparent".
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, a frequent critic of News Corp, described the Herald Sun's coverage as "dog-whistling to conspiracy theorists".
In a piece for the Guardian, Andrew Dodd, the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, said the coverage not only damaged the Herald Sun's brand but also undermined the public's trust in journalism more broadly.
"The Herald Sun's decision to republish baseless rumours about Andrews' fall looked a little like the approach Fox News might have taken in the US, where the Murdoch-owned cable TV network routinely amplifies the most obscene and absurd conspiracy theories."
Journalists often face a conundrum when reporting on conspiracies.
Once a conspiracy has broken the confines of the usual fringes - Phillips described this as "the tipping point" - is it better to continue to ignore it or engage by providing factual, objective and considered reporting?
In her book, the Oxygen of Amplification, Phillips says ignoring conspiracies after they've reached the tipping point can be problematic. In some cases, it can convince adherents that news organisations are involved in a cover-up.
At the same time, the media's decision to wade in, even in an ethical way, can "still fan the flames". The line, she says, is a fine one.
"It needs to be handled carefully, with more of a focus on the network dynamics of spread and what the boosters of the theory stand to gain: that is, it shouldn't be presented to the public as an amusing shiny object, and definitely shouldn't be mocked by reporters," Phillips says.
"All of it, ultimately, has a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' element - but there are more responsible ways to engage with stories such as these, and that should be the outcome journalists aim for."
News Corp Australia was contacted for comment.