The US conspiracy network Infowars has been banned from most social media platforms, but Alex Jones, its presenter, is still delivering his incendiary broadcasts on the internet, pumping out his message that the election of Joe Biden as president is part of a plot by globalists and the deep state to bring about “the takedown of America”.
And that’s the mild version.
In recent months, one of Jones’s favoured sources to back up his claims is Australia’s Sky News.
Jones uses segments from Sky News Australia in his program, particularly those from Sky’s Outsiders program, as “evidence” from mainstream media organisations to support his conspiracy theories.
Simultaneously Sky in Australia is lurching further to the right, producing more segments and specials designed to pique the interest of the conspiracy-minded, including the far-right media in the US.
And it’s paying off handsomely for Sky.
The traditional orthodoxy in Australia is that Sky is a news channel with a relatively modest audience. During the day it delivers high-quality real-time news that is essential viewing for the political class. At night, a new crowd comes on air and it morphs into a US Fox News-style lineup of commentators with a conservative bent, known as Sky After Dark, again with limited reach.
Sky’s CEO, Paul Whittaker, described Sky’s mission to Mediaweek last December as: “When Australians needed reliable, trustworthy and comprehensive news coverage, they turned to us in record numbers. When they wanted context, commentary and analysis of events, they turned to the nation’s best commentators on Sky News.”
What he doesn’t mention is that over the past 12 months, the News Corp-owned channel has gone down what appears to be a deliberate path of pandering to the conspiracy-minded to drive its digital strategy.
Helmed by former Daily Telegraph journalist Jack Houghton, the digital offerings of Sky, particularly from the After Dark commentators, are being pushed out on Facebook, YouTube and on News Corp-owned websites.
The bite-sized videos carry advertising – and Sky shares the revenue with platforms like YouTube.
What clearly is doing best on these channels is material that takes on the language of conspiracy thinking to dog-whistle to the conspiracy-minded, using the buzzwords of QAnon and other rightwing groups. Some recent reports are arguably fully down the rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking.
Not so niche
Most politicians see Sky as a niche broadcaster with a relatively small audience.
Via Foxtel, Sky News attracts audiences of just 50,000-80,000 to its most popular commentators such as Alan Jones – just a tenth of the audience of a program like the ABC’s 7.30.
But this ignores the viewership and influence that Sky is winning via digital platforms.
Last November, tech journalist Cam Wilson revealed in Business Insider that Sky News Australia had successfully built a Fox News-like online operation in Australia that dwarfs its terrestrial audience numbers. On YouTube, their videos have been viewed more than 500m times, more than any other Australian media organisation.
Wilson also reported that Sky’s Facebook posts had more total interactions in October than the ABC News, SBS News, 7News Australia, 9 News and 10 News First pages, and more shares than all of them combined.
As well, data obtained by the Guardian from inside Sky shows that the company got an average of 5.2m views of its videos via its skynews.com.au site each month between October 2020 and February this year.
Much of the growth in traffic is believed to be coming from the US – and the sharp spikes for particular videos are almost certainly from overseas viewers.
The internal data on skynews.com.au shows that around 30% of total views are coming from overseas, mainly from the US.
The themes of the top-rating videos on Sky’s YouTube channel – some of which have had as many as 8m views – appear to be deliberately designed to trigger the international conspiracy crowd.
Simon Copland, a PhD researcher at the Australian National University who is studying extremist and far-right content online, said certain types of programs appear to be going well: conspiracy theories on Covid-19 with particular emphasis on it being developed in a Chinese lab; the “stolen” US election; Hunter Biden’s email and laptop scandal and Joe Biden’s mental capacity.
“The views on YouTube would be making them money. You would expect it would be a driving force in producing content,” he said
Copland is looking into where Sky’s videos are being shared through Facebook and the extent to which they are being picked up by far-right groups, like Infowars.
The Sky After Dark team also regularly interviews far-right figures who have big social media followings in own their countries.
Recent interviews have included the Reform UK party’s Nigel Farage; Katie Hopkins, the UK commentator who was banned from Twitter for hate speech; and US political commentator and YouTube personality Dave Rubin.
Sometimes it’s just out-and-out conspiracy material, drawn from the QAnon playbook, like Rowan Dean’s multiple reports on the supposed secret agenda of the World Economic Forum’s “the Great Reset”, some of which have featured on Infowars.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who is leading calls for a royal commission into News Corp’s influence, has warned that Fox News is a “legitimising echo chamber for this increasingly far-right, extremist worldview” and is the model for Sky News Australia.
“For those concerned about the cumulative impact of Fox News in America on the radicalisation of US politics, the same template is being followed with Sky News in Australia,” Rudd told the Senate in a written submission to its inquiry into media diversity. “We will see its full impact in a decade’s time.”
Rudd appeared at a parliamentary inquiry last week to repeat his warnings about Sky.
The “Fox News-isation” of the Australian media was well underway thanks to Sky News Australia breeding climate change denialism and encouraging far-right political extremism, Rudd said.
News Corp CEO Michael Miller denied that News had “racism as a business model” or that it was running campaigns of “character assassination”.
On air, former political staffer Peta Credlin said Rudd’s News Corp “conspiracy theories” were a “narcissistic sideshow”.
In a statement to the Guardian, Sky News Australia said its content “resonates with millions of Australians with the network operating the most engaging Australian media pages on Facebook and YouTube and the #1 channel on Foxtel”.
“Our record viewership numbers in 2020 prove our news, opinion and investigative content is valued by our audience,” the statement said.
“We encourage broad discussion and debate, which is important to a healthy democracy and will continue doing so in a way that meets editorial, journalistic and community expectations.”
The Great Reset
With QAnon followers grappling with the departure of former US president Donald Trump and the collapse of their narrative that he would rescue the country from a plot by the “deep state” and a paedophile cabal of Democrats, the Great Reset has become a new focus for QAnon supporters and their mistrust of governments.
The World Economic Forum is an annual event held in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, attended by some of the richest people on the planet.
It’s been co-chaired in the past by the likes of Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox and Sky News), along with some of the biggest names in business, banking and technology.
To date, the main criticism (from the left) has been centred on its elitism and that those who attend are out of touch with the lived experience of capitalism, whether it be low wages, poor working conditions or environmental degradation.
The Great Reset, the theme of the 2021 conference, was advanced by Britain’s Prince Charles last June. He wants the Davos participants and world leaders to look at using the recovery from the pandemic to create a more sustainable, kinder capitalism that harnesses science and technology to tackle the world’s problems, notably climate change.
Perhaps it was the somewhat unfortunate title, which has echoes of China’s Mao Zedong.
Perhaps it was a WEF advertisement for its 2021 theme that included the line, “In the future you will own nothing”, a headline-grabbing way to talk about futurists’ views that we will be computing in the cloud and sharing driverless vehicles rather than owning our own.
But with the help of Sky News, Alex Jones and a myriad conspiracy sites, the World Economic Forum has become further “proof” of a global plot by a cabal of elites and the deep state to undermine the US.
And it’s paying off for Sky News. Dean’s 13 December rant on the topic has been viewed 1.043m times via YouTube.
“This Great Reset is as serious and dangerous a threat to our prosperity – to your prosperity and your freedom – as we have faced in decades,” according to Dean, who is also a satirical columnist in the Australian Financial Review.
He goes on to name a conspiracy between the “WEF, the United Nations, big tech and leftwing totalitarians”, mocking the accent of the WEF’s Swiss executive chairman, Prof Klaus Schwab.
On the Adelaide Advertiser site, Dean’s videos on the Great Reset appeared in its national news section.
“Sky News host Rowan Dean says the next World Economic Forum in Davos has morphed from a ‘jet-setter climate gabfest’ into a sinister ‘anti-democratic enterprise designed to destroy your job, steal your prosperity and rob your kids of a future’,” the Advertiser announced.
Brisbane’s the Courier-Mail did the same.
Sky also has a syndication deal with WIN News in regional areas including the Illawarra and Newcastle. Sky After Dark programming, including Outsiders, is shown on a free-to-air channel in 30 markets in six states and the ACT.
Asked about the use of Sky News content by far-right sites in the US, Sky said: “As your readers would be aware, media outlets regularly quote Sky News Australia content and use the network’s video under fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act (or equivalents in their own jurisdiction), which the Guardian Australia frequently deploys to publish Sky News Australia content on Guardian digital platforms without our permission.”
Voter ‘fraud’ and China’s ‘cover-up’
Meanwhile Sky appears to have shifted the focus of its long-form documentary output.
In 2019 Sky News produced documentaries on the disappearance of MH370, the rise and fall of Malcolm Turnbull and the case of Lawyer X, drawing on the Gold Walkley-winning work of News Corp’s Herald Sun.
More recent offerings have been focused on overseas events that appeal to the conspiracy-minded: a documentary on the “deep state” narrated by Peter Stefanovic, two programs on Hunter Biden’s laptop (based on allegations that were aired in the Murdoch-owned New York Post but disputed by other media organisations because the origin of the laptop was unclear); the rise of Chinese influence and a program about the “growing evidence” that Covid-19 came from a lab in Wuhan.
The Sky documentaries on Hunter Biden went further than even Fox News was initially prepared to go. There have been concerns among other media groups about the veracity of the hard drive and how it made its way to the New York Post via Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Sky said Facebook and Twitter had “censored” the news and only News Corp outlets were prepared to publish the story.
The Sky News report on Hunter Biden had 5m views on YouTube, but was dwarfed by the 8m who watched “China’s deadly coronavirus cover-up”.
This program was followed by multiple reports and a special saying there was “growing evidence” that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, based on a document obtained by the Daily Telegraph. Many of the reports attracted millions of views, despite immediate questions about the dossier that underpinned the reports.
The World Health Organization has now completed its investigation in Wuhan and said it was “extremely unlikely” it came from the city’s institute of virology. It said there was no evidence that any labs studied Sars-CoV-2. The team concluded the most likely hypothesis is that the virus started in a bat, jumped into an intermediate host, like a pangolin or a mink, and then into humans.
Sky is also using far-right sites as its sources of clips to set the stage for Dean’s opinion pieces.
For example, Dean’s 29 November segment entitled “Host of election oddities point to large scale coup” about the US election count, drew on material from the Geller Report (a far-right anti-Muslim site), the Duran (a far-right Russia-linked pro-Assad site) and the National File, run by Tom Pappert, who used to run a pro-Trump Facebook fan page.
Dean’s report included Facebook posts alleging voter fraud that were presented as evidence of misdeeds. Almost all of these allegations of vote tampering collapsed when tested in the US courts.
Sky’s newest star, former radio broadcaster Alan Jones, also jumped on the voter fraud bandwagon after the election, pointing to Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell’s unfounded allegations regarding widespread vote rigging using the the Dominion voting machine.
Miranda Devine, a News Corp columnist, was forced to set him straight.“What Sidney Powell has done, unfortunately, I’m a great fan of hers … she has gone down a rabbit hole in this conspiracy theory about the Dominion voting machines where there is no evidence to back it up,” she said.
Despite the Trump team’s legal failures, reviews and recounts by multiple states that revealed no substantial irregularities and a joint statement by the federal agencies debunking claims of widespread fraud, Alan Jones continues to prosecute the case of widespread voter fraud in the US.
“The argument about voter fraud is not a conspiracy,” he told Sky listeners on 1 February, before advancing an unfounded theory about why the US courts dismissed Trump’s lawsuits.
“Was the fear by the courts of a militant, violent, destructive, anti-Trump leftwing cabal of haters such that the courts were unprepared to enter that ring?” he asked.
The Guardian could not find any public statements by any US judges expressing concerns about their safety from leftwing groups.
Jones went on to say that Trump’s removal from Twitter and Facebook was a far greater threat to democracy than the storming of the Capitol, which he described as looking more like “people on an unscheduled tour taking selfies and sitting on the speaker’s chair”.
Six people died as a result of the violent break-in at the Capitol in Washington on 6 January, including one police officer.
The new code of conduct
The Digital Industry Group this week released a voluntary code for social media to deal with disinformation and misinformation. It has been adopted by Twitter, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Redbubble and TikTok.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) welcomed the move. In a previous paper about the need for a code of conduct on misinformation it cited research from 2020 that found 48% of Australians rely on online news or social media as their main source of news, but 64% of Australians remain concerned about what is real or fake on the internet.
The voluntary DIGI code requiressocial media platforms to develop clear policies about disinformation that disrupt its spread, and to publish regular transparency reports.
Subscription television services and free-to-air broadcasters are already subject to codes that require accuracy in news.
While the codes recognise that commentary should not be restricted, they require the factual matter surrounding the commentary to be factual and not to be based on misinformation.
Sky said in a statement: “Sky News Australia operates within the same legal framework as the Guardian Australia and, in addition, its broadcasts are subject to the commercial television industry code of practice and the subscription broadcast television codes of practice.”
Acma said it was not currently investigating any complaints about Sky News Australia content.
From anti-vaxxers to 5G conspiracists, the Web of lies series explores the growth and spread of misinformation and conspiracy thinking in Australia.