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Home Affairs’ propaganda machine

Aug 29, 2019 • 15m21s

When a communications agency started contacting Muslim Australians for social media training, no one realised they were being pulled into Home Affairs’ propaganda machine.

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Home Affairs’ propaganda machine

68 • Aug 29, 2019

Home Affairs’ propaganda machine

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

When a communications agency started contacting members of the Muslim community for social media training, it seemed like their intentions were to elevate new voices. But the program was funded by Home Affairs, and the messages positioned came from the government. Shakira Hussein on what it’s like to be pulled into a propaganda machine.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Shakira, when were you first contacted by Breakthrough Media?

SHAKIRA:

So last year I received a very friendly, chirpy email from a young man who introduced himself as Mustafa from Breakthrough Media, which opened with Salaam Aleikum, a signifier of a shared Muslim identity. He didn't use the word brother like, I'm your brother, but that carries that tone, you know, I am a trustworthy person, we belong to the same tribe. And he told me that he was the influence manager at Breakthrough which he described as a communications agency that prides itself on telling great stories to help address complex social issues. Basically, the tone was we're just a bunch of guys who want to make the world a better place.

ELIZABETH:

Shakira Hussein is an author and academic. She also writes for The Saturday Paper.

SHAKIRA:

Initially, it didn't seem any cause for alarm. I get a lot of emails like that all the time. It just looked like another one, another community event. And there are quite regular little getting-togethers of Muslims attempting to address issues of Islamophobia and extremism within Muslim communities and societies as well.

ELIZABETH:

So it wasn't unusual that someone reached out to you like that?

SHAKIRA:

No no, at that stage it seemed routine. Boringly routine, really.

ELIZABETH:

OK. And how did Breakthrough Media present itself online?

SHAKIRA:

Well their online presence is a Facebook page called RAPT, spelt RAPT, which posts a lot of videos online.

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #1:

“As-Salaam Aleikum. Peace be upon you. My name is Saleh. I work for one of the biggest food manufacturers in Australia. And we’re here in the Camperdown/Newtown area where we do a lot of Daweh… So street Daweh pretty much means, give the opportunity for people to ask questions about Islam and if they would like to know more. But this time I thought I’d turn the tables around and ask the people questions. Every question they get right, they get a biccie. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? What is the name of the holy book in Islam?”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #2:

“Quran.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #1:

“Quran?”

[Ding sound effect]

SHAKIRA:

And once I looked at the Facebook page, I realised that I'd seen several of those videos already that family and friends had shared on Facebook - they go quite viral.

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #2:

“How did people go today?”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #1:

“They blew me away. Some people actually got 10/10. Lots of smiles. Addressing stereotypes is never easy. But I know if I can at least clear one misconception, makes my whole day worth it. Yeah, very very good day.”

SHAKIRA:

And Mustafa told me that as part of their work Breakthrough was also planning to hold a Twitter training initiative in Sydney for a diverse group of Australians, in particular Australian Muslims, and he asked if I would like to attend.

ELIZABETH:

So he basically says to you, we’re hosting this workshop in Sydney. What did he say, it's for Twitter influences?

SHAKIRA:

Well it’s to create Twitter influences, it’s for Twitter influences to be, and I was already, had a good start but it would help me just to strengthen that.

ELIZABETH:

Did you decide there and then you'd go?

SHAKIRA:

I'm always after a free trip to Sydney.

ELIZABETH:

You and me both.

SHAKIRA:

As shallow as it sounds.

ELIZABETH:

So you decided to attend the conference. What was it like?

SHAKIRA:

When I first received the invitation, I assumed that it would be a kind of a community initiative, that it would be on a bit of a shoestring budget, that it would be at a community centre somewhere, that the catering would probably be done by somebody’s Aunty.

But that wasn't the case. It was at a Harbourside conference venue in Woolloomooloo - very plush. The 30 or so participants were seated at designated tables of four or five people, more formal than I would have expected at a community type event. And Mustafa who emailed me introduced himself as the MC; young man, very smartly dressed in a suit and tie. And he told us that others in the room included Muslim and non-Muslim sports people, academics and people who worked in the business and tech sectors from around the country. All of them potential positive influences. Mustafa said he was a bit of an influencer himself, having built up a large Twitter following posting about his favourite football team. He loved football, pasta, curry and sunsets on the beach.

ELIZABETH:

He didn't say that to you...

SHAKIRA:

He did. And it was not the tinder profile but it could have been. And he told us that, of course, all the food served on the day would be halal and that prayer space was available at the back.

ELIZABETH:

What kind of sessions did Breakthrough Media run on the day?

SHAKIRA:

Well, they had brought in outside speakers for a great deal of it. And in itself, most of the content that was presented that workshop would not have been contentious for Muslims living in Australia. There was a session run by an advisor for the office of the e-safety commissioner, but most of the others were probably similar to what you'd have at events, corporate clients, sessions on media diversity, Twitter training by somebody from Twitter Australia, and resilience training. But the overall theme of the day was that some commentators were having a negative effect on Australian society and there was no finger pointing as to where these commentators were located, and certainly no particular politicians or columnist named. And that Muslims were bearing the brunt of this. So it's important for voices like ours to be heard.

Quite early in the day, we were told that a federal government representative was attending the conference. We weren't given further details as to who that was, which department, why they were there, what their role was. And I asked a Breakthrough staff member and they said, oh, and pointed out who that was, who identified herself as being from Home Affairs.

ELIZABETH:

But you already knew before you went that there was something suspicious about this workshop?

SHAKIRA:

Yes. After accepting the invitation to attend the conference, I had been sent an eight page pre-registration form which seemed like basically a box ticking exercise; dietary preferences, access requirements and whether we were prepared to endorse some very motherhood values like peace, love and harmony.

And right in the middle of that pre registration survey was a line saying that the project was, quote, “a partnership between state and federal governments and the Australian Government's Department of Home Affairs and office of the safety commissioner and also the Countering Violent Extremism subcommittee which exists under the Australian/New Zealand counter-terrorism committee funds this project.” And so that rang all kinds of alarm bells. It became apparent that this wasn't really a Muslim community event, that this was a government initiative and this was part of the attempt to govern the Muslim community and to encourage it to self-police, which has a wider trend and part of this policy of countering violent extremism, which is deeply problematic on all kinds of levels. It was a renewed level of hyper surveillance.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So, Shakira, a year ago you write an inside account of Home Affairs’ attempt to, in a way, shape propaganda within the Muslim community in Australia by training “influencers” to share particular messages online. What kind of material were you being asked to share?

SHAKIRA:

So the material they wanted us to share arrived in these weekly packages of information that was sent to all the workshop attendees in their areas of interest. And the idea was that we'd share this material on social media and help to push out positive messages which we were told would be on a completely voluntary basis. I found it odd how many times they told us that this was all voluntary, given that we hadn't signed any contracts, we weren't employees.

So the first two weeks of content were remarkably apolitical. It wasn't the kind of propaganda that was telling you who to vote for, but it was a politics of distraction in a way, like, don't get uptight about the ever tightening national security legislation or the hyper surveillance of Muslim youth in particular. Here's a funny meme and Ramadan, what's that about? Let's talk about how hungry we all are and how delicious the food is. You know, it was, shall we say, suspicious in its blandness.

ELIZABETH:

You then write this piece for The Saturday Paper and you reveal that you've been part of this workshop and write about how you realise that the Department of Home Affairs is behind the funding for this workshop. What kind of response do you get to your initial reporting on this?

SHAKIRA:

Well after the piece was published, Father Rod Bower from the Gosford Anglican Church, which is famous for its pithy signs on issues to do with immigration and anti-racism, tweeted, “I was used by Breakthrough Media too. Now I feel dirty”. And then after that, I was contacted by a number of young Muslims who had been similarly approached by Breakthrough Media with invitations to participate in various creative endeavours.

Archival tape — Yassmin Abdel-Magied:

“Hi, I’m Yassmin Abdel-Magied. I’m an author, social advocate, and mechanical engineer. And I’m here to talk to you about something called unconscious bias, and how to get money.”

They weren't told where the money was coming from. They certainly weren't told it was coming from home affairs, because these were not people who would have put their hand up for that. It doesn't have a good name in the Muslim community, or the broader community come to that.

Also, people were puzzled as to why, because they approached via personal networks, and why is this person who I haven't spoken to in years suddenly wanting to catch up. And one said, ‘my husband was saying, I haven't seen them in years, why they wanted to make friends again and how do they seem to know so much about us. One, however, said she had backed out because, quote, she could “smell the ASIO on them”.

ELIZABETH:

But the point you make is that a number of media savvy people were approached to be involved and they didn’t make the connection to Home Affairs.

SHAKIRA:

Yes. It may be that just as with that pre-registration survey that I was asked to fill in before the workshop, that somewhere in the fine print there was some information that was waved in front of them that they managed not to notice. But given that they were highly literate, well-educated and savvy people, I don't think they were meant to notice. I think it was done in such a way that they could say that they disclosed, but they disclosed in a way that hadn't been picked up.

ELIZABETH:

So what has happened with Breakthrough Media since your first piece was reported last year?

SHAKIRA:

Well, I see that they've run another one of those workshops similar to the one that I attended, and they were recruiting new staff until recently. But then in a letter which they sent out to their Australian Muslim contacts, they announced that they were going to be closing their office at the end of June to focus on projects in other parts of the world. And CNN reported that their contract with the Home Office in the UK had also been passed on to a different agency. Around the same time, there was a report from the advocacy organisation CAGE about stories that were placed in the media that looked as though they'd come from the Muslim community, but had actually come from this government contractor.

ELIZABETH:

So in Australia, Home Affairs have recently gave this contract to another communications firm, but what’s the impact of the government attempting to shape a narrative for a community without clearly disclosing its involvement?

SHAKIRA:

Oh, it did make me deeply paranoid, and the friends who I spoke to about it, as I said, I get invited to a lot of community forums, a lot of ‘let's get together and improve things’, it made me go back through my head as to who paid for that? Who did the catering at that? Where did those Internet interstate guests come from? What was that about? You know, I thought that was just a group of local uncles but they got the money from somewhere, where? How many times might I have been inadvertently a part of this? And I felt like I could not, with any confidence, deny that I had not been serving a government agenda at some point. And Muslims who are already hyper vigilant because of the atmosphere of surveillance, it just amps it up another notch.

ELIZABETH:

What do think that that the existence of something like that does to the Muslim community?

SHAKIRA:

It heightens the suspicion of outsiders but it also heightens our suspicion of each other.
You might think that you're acting completely independently and you might think that you are not a political proxy but you can't be completely sure. You might have been made a puppet without knowing that you've been made a puppet. It's very disturbing and the fact that they're honing in on our best and brightest, shall we say, is perhaps the scariest of all. I was really shocked.

ELIZABETH:

Shakira, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHAKIRA:

Thanks for having me here.

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

On Tuesday evening, the Victorian parliament voted to allow trans and gender diverse people the option to change the sex recorded on their birth certificate. The bill passed without amendment after securing the support of a majority of independents. This is the second attempt by the Victorian Labor government to change birth certificate legislation, after a similar proposal was rejected by one vote in 2016. Campaigners now say they will turn their attention to getting similar laws passed in NSW, QLD and WA.

And in New Zealand, the unity reached on national gun reform following the Christchurch terror attack could be waning, after a draft proposal outlining a second round of changes was leaked on Wednesday, prompting the opposition leader Simon Bridges to say that it was unlikely his party would support them. That proposal included the creation of a national gun register, new controls on gun sellers and higher penalties for non-compliance. The National Party holds a minority of seats in so isn't likely to be able to oppose the reforms, but the issue could become a focal point of next year's elections.

This is 7am. I'm Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

[Theme ends]

When a communications agency started contacting members of the Muslim community for social media training, it seemed like their intentions were to elevate new voices. But the program was funded by the Department of Home Affairs, and the messages being positioned were from the government. Shakira Hussein on what it’s like to be pulled into a propaganda machine.

Guest: Writer and academic Shakira Hussein.

Background reading:

Strategic communication’ and Muslim communities in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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68: Home Affairs’ propaganda machine