The Age of “Diss-information”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announces “The Voice” referendum. Source: SBS NITV

In May 2023, Aboriginal-Australian journalist, Stan Grant, resigned from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation after receiving racial abuse for his comments leading up to King Charles’ III coronation, during which he spoke out about the legacy of colonialism in Australia.

In his resignation, he said: “the media framing, debate and discussion around conflict is a cancer on our society. And we have to accept that while we, the media, are part of the problem, we have an obligation to be part of the solution.

His resignation took place in the build-up to a nationwide referendum to vote on whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians should be granted an advisory group to Parliament, known asThe Voice.” The proposal outlined that, if passed, “The Voice” would be enshrined into the constitution. 

However, despite initially leading in the polls, the debate surrounding the referendum quickly became toxic, with public discourse on the left and right of the political spectrum engaging in fiery debates, often involving grandstanding ahead of substance. 

An interesting aspect of the debate surrounding “The Voice” was the role of the media. In many ways, the media seemed to play a role in heightening the animosity found within public discourse, eventually leading to a nationwide exhaustion.

While there has been much discussion of misinformation and disinformation when relating to the media and public discourse, this article would like to introduce a new term into the lexicon: “diss-information” – weaponizing information in order to diss or criticize an opponent or adversary.  

“The Voice” is an excellent case study to explore the phenomenon of “diss-information” since throughout the debate the trading of insults, moral gesticulations, and character slights was a form of currency at every turn. A referendum that got off to a promising start, was quickly derailed.

Why did this happen? Forget misinformation. Forget disinformation. I blame “diss-information.”

Introducing ‘Diss-information’

We all know that when passionately making a case for a cause we care about, it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying what feels most satisfying, rather than what might legitimately be constructive. It feels good to call someone else out, to label them morally bankrupt, or to mock them. Yet to answer the call of satisfaction can be tantamount to doing good things in bad ways. Great intentions, awful outcomes.

For our US readers, let’s look to American discourse surrounding guns and split these topics between the left and the right (please forgive my crude caricatures).


The Left: “Do you believe in the Second Amendment? How does it feel to be in the pocket of the NRA, you corrupt scumbag? Congratulations on being singularly responsible for all 327 school shootings this past year.”

The Right: “You wanna know who actually signed a Gun Control Act? Hitler. Yeah, that’s right – look it up— the 1938 Gun Control Act. How does it feel to be an aspirational Nazi?”

It doesn’t matter if the topic is abortion, elections, climate change, or almost anything else. Read an op-ed, look at the comments section, and you’ll find the same phenomenon: “diss-information.”

‘Diss-information’: A case study from Australia

To look at “diss-information” further, and see the toxic impact it can have, let’s deep dive into the recent debate surrounding “The Voice” referendum in Australia.

The first question we must ask is— what is (or was) “The Voice”? “The Voice” was a proposed alteration of the Australian Constitution that would have recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians by allowing for an advisory group that would have made “presentations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth” on matters that related to their community.” 

At its core, the left, who were in favour of “The Voice” (known as the “Yes” campaign) argued that this was Australia’s chance to reconcile with their past, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders land was taken forcibly by European settlers without a treaty, followed by decades and centuries of mistreatment and discrimination.

The right (the “No” campaign) argued that the proposition of The Voice was vague and that its powers went beyond what the Australian Federal Government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, had initially promised. For the sake of argument, I am alluding to overall trends.

In mid-October, Australia voted against the referendum, with every state and territory, with the exception of Canberra, voting no. The issue of how to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian community has now become a topic that large portions of the Australian population have become fatigued about. This fatigue has the capacity to set back any issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, whether that be social welfare, policy, or additional government investment, back by decades. Cynicism is widespread.

Separate from the consequences of the referendum, the debate surrounding it became less about what both sides stood for and more about what they were against and how horrible the “other” side was. This is a phenomenon that can be seen time and time again in politics, public discourse, and social commentary—“diss-information.” Over time, a debate in the public sphere can become more about exposing the other person’s perceived biases and moral shortcomings rather than being a genuine exchange of ideas or making one’s view known.

When a public discourse plays out in this manner of mud-slinging, then opposing views will often become further entrenched, becoming more extreme and shrill, as seen in the debate surrounding The Voice.

Stan Grant quit the ABC after working as a journalist for four decades. Source: The Age

At the start of this article, I mentioned Stan Grant, who spent four decades working in media and resigned from his role of hosting the ABC show called “Q+A” as a result of the level of abuse he was receiving on social media. 

While tensions were running high regarding The Voice, Grant spoke on the ABC about the impact colonialism had on his life. Grant, who is an Aboriginal Australian, raised a topic that is deeply connected to The Voice debate. However, as a result of his views, Grant was caught in the crosshairs of the toxicity surrounding The Voice. 


Grant’s resignation was awful to watch and, for Grant, seemed exhausting to be a part of. Yet, Grant is correct—one key actor in the “diss-information” game is the media (sorry to cast such a typical villain, but it has to be done). A key reason that “diss-information” thrives is because the media tends to report on “both sides” in the name of “objectivity.” As it continues to do this, a sort of “he said, she said” publication game snowballs, often failing to contextualize or verify the claims made by both parties.

Too often journalists seem to report and opine in a performative and masturbatory fashion, using “diss-information” to satisfy and fulfill themselves, as opposed to serving a constructive cause. To highlight this point, let’s take a quick look at two articles from The Voice debate, which are seemingly in opposition to one another.

Comparing two articles: United in their Division

Leading up to the October referendum, Janet Albrechtsen, a prominent political commentator in Australia, published an article entitled “Equality is still strongest argument against an Indigenous voice to parliament.”

In her article, Albrechtsen, who is against The Voice, contends that the core principle of an egalitarian democracy is treating everyone equally in the Constitution, regardless of factors such as race or ethnicity. She is critical of the idea of the proposed body because, in her view, it would divide citizens into two classes based on access to special rights. Albrechtsen questions the assertion that The Voice does not involve racial division and criticizes the use of the term “racist” against those opposing the proposal. Put another way, Albrechtsen is making the case that The Voice would have the effect of dividing Australians and also have the potential to provide separate treatment for different people based upon race. In her own words:

“…it divides people into two different classes. Those who get access to special rights from this body called The Voice. And the rest of the country who don’t. It really is that simple.”

These views are perfectly valid but the problem is that Albrechtsen can’t resist throwing a few jabs in her article. While she says that she “‘would never question their [“Yes” voters] moral convictions” she nonetheless labels their views “demented” and refers to their claims as vitriolic and filled with “derision,” relying on emotion and lies. This is classic diss-information, which can have the effect of doing more harm than good, and inspiring a reaction from those in opposition such as Rachel Withers from the left-leaning publication, The Monthly.

It’s worth noting that Withers’ article is not a direct response to Alberchtsten, but, as you will see, they are both uncannily similar in their argument despite being in opposition. Withers offers an alternative take by applying the same view in the opposition direction. 

In Withers’ view, it is the “No” camp that is guilty of employing divisive tactics. She says that the “No” campaign is guilty of “flooding the zone with misinformation,” akin to Steve Bannon’s infamous (or famous, depending on who you talk to) strategy. The article criticizes recent anti-Voice rallies involving conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis, citing them as examples of the “No” campaign contaminating the information ecosystem. 

Withers labels the “No” camp as hypocrites for accusing the “Yes” side of division while also engaging in divisive behaviour themselves. The article suggests that, regardless of the referendum outcome, the “No” campaign has already achieved its goal: a divided Australia. Withers refers to the “No” campaign hosting rallies attended by neo-Nazis, and engaging in conspiracy theories. 

When considering these two articles, the irony is that they are essentially accusing each other of the same thing: dividing the Australian people. I wouldn’t go so far as to entirely dismiss what Albrechsten or Withers state in their article. However, what I think is important, especially within the framing of “diss-information”, is how both writers cherry-pick the absolute worst of their oppositional views. No doubt the “No” campaign has some neo-Nazis in it, but I would wager that the overwhelming majority are not. No doubt the “Yes” campaign has people who have lied, but I would also argue that the overwhelming majority were not setting out with the agenda to lie.

The Aboriginal Australian flag is full flourish. Source: ABC

As seen throughout “The Voice” debate, “diss-information” can often be due to political views or even official sources being given platforms. The problem is that verifying these claims has become secondary to getting clicks and banking on sensationalism, at a fast pace. As politicians or journalists wage war on each other, they gain attention, and the media profits from it. 

The trick to “diss-information” is the ease by which the worst aspects of an oppositional view can be cherry-picked (liars, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists, demented folk etc) in order to cast aspersions that delegitimize the Other. The problem with this is the spiraling effect that takes place as a result; with insults and slurs increasing, and reason and plausibility decreasing. 

Sadly, though, this phenomenon of “diss-information” can be found almost everywhere, even in this article that you’re currently reading. In various passages, I myself have engaged in “diss-information” by throwing shade or casting caricatures at the left and the right. 

What can I say? “Diss-information” is just so hard to resist, like kicking an addiction. But I suppose the first step to recovery is acknowledging its existence to begin with.



Shirley Knott is a NOVAsia Contributor.

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