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The Home Affairs Department is behind a clandestine scheme to recruit ‘Good Muslims’ to promote a uniform government line within their communities. By Shakira Hussein.

Dutton’s secret propaganda unit

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

The email from Mustafa was friendly, cheerful and littered with signifiers of our shared Muslim identity.

Opening with “Salam Alukum Shakira”, Mustafa introduced himself as the influence manager at Breakthrough Media, “a communications agency that prides itself on telling great stories to help address complex social issues”. Breakthrough, he told me, was planning to hold a Twitter training initiative in Sydney for “a diverse group of Australians, in particular Australian Muslims”.

This event was “based on requests from members of the Australian Muslim community, who have advised us that a program that builds up the capacity of emerging and established leaders, especially on a platform such as Twitter, is a necessity in today’s political climate”. Given my “excellent academic background” and Twitter profile – “I’m one of your many Twitter followers hehe” – I was regarded as a “perfect fit” for this initiative. And not to worry, Breakthrough would pay for my flights from Melbourne.

At first glance, Mustafa’s invitation sounded routine enough. However, Breakthrough Media is far from a routine presence on the landscape of Muslim community politics in Australia. The communications company’s relationship with the British Home Office has been the subject of lengthy investigative reports in The Guardian and by the advocacy organisation Cage, but its Australian branch has attracted little scrutiny since it was established in 2016.

In Britain, The Guardian’s 2016 report noted that the Home Office used Breakthrough Media to “promote a reconciled British Muslim identity” while keeping its involvement hidden, as “any content or messaging attributed to the state are highly unlikely to have any credibility among these audiences”. The work was described as a series of “clandestine propaganda campaigns”. Young Muslims were commissioned to run a government line, without ever knowing it was the government commissioning them.

My invitation to Breakthrough Media’s Twitter training event did not disclose any similar relationship with the Australian government. However, concealed in the eight-page registration survey Mustafa asked me to fill in, among the questions about dietary requirements and social media use, was a line saying the project was “a partnership between State and Federal governments, the Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs and the Office of the eSafety Commissioner”. Deep in the forms, it noted that the Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee, under the Australian New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, “funds this project”.

The survey asked respondents to confirm we were prepared to meet a list of expectations for participants in the “Voice Accelerator Workshop”, including that we were willing to be active on Twitter and attend the workshop, that we were “willing to assess opportunities, supported by Breakthrough, to participate in online discussions that align with your interests”, and that we share “the values of the project, which are: Courage, Participation, Diversity, Respect, Connection, Expression, Accuracy”. It asked that we “respect Breakthrough’s need to be politically neutral, while we respect everyone’s right to express their political opinion”. Wondering whether anyone would actually self-identify as being opposed to motherhood values such as courage and respect, I ticked “yes”.

A few weeks later, I arrived at a harbour-side conference venue in Woolloomooloo. The 30-odd participants were seated at designated tables of four or five as Mustafa – a young man, smartly dressed in a suit and tie – introduced himself as our MC. He told us that others in the room included Muslim and non-Muslim sportspeople, academics and people who worked in the business and tech sectors, from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – all potential positive influencers. Mustafa was “a bit of an influencer” having built up a large Twitter following, posting about his favourite football team. He loved football, pasta, curry and sunsets on the beach. All food served on the day would of course be halal and prayer space was available.

The overall theme of the day was that “divisive commentators” were having a negative effect on Australian society, that Muslims were bearing the brunt of this, and that it was important for voices like “ours” to be heard. With no mention of the fact the government funded this program, we were informed: “We know that Muslim communities are often the most overlooked or misrepresented in the online space. Governments alone cannot redirect these narratives, but they can support those who do so.”

I recognised several familiar faces among the participants – Muslim academics, postgraduate students and community leaders. I was seated at a table with a middle-aged male Muslim academic and a young Muslim man wearing a football jersey. We had been told that we might be photographed or filmed at the workshop, and photographers and camera crews were discreetly visible in the background.

In itself, most of the content presented at the workshop would not have been contentious for most Muslims living in Australia. Aside from a session from the adviser to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, the various presentations were led by external private providers and were probably similar to those provided to their corporate clients on media diversity, Twitter training, and resilience training. Yet I was left feeling deeply concerned by the workshop and by Breakthrough’s shadowy role in Australian public discourse.

Just as the disclosure about the workshop’s funding had been hidden deep in the pre-workshop survey, we were also fleetingly told that “a representative of the federal government” was attending the workshop, without being told the name of the department concerned. After directly asking Breakthrough staff for more information, I was told that the representative – Fiona Crawford of the Department of Home Affairs – would be happy to answer my questions. Crawford is a former executive producer for ABC News, a former Liberal National Party staffer in Peter Dutton’s home state of Queensland and an unsuccessful LNP Queensland Senate candidate in the 2016 federal election. Her presence at the Voice Accelerator workshop and her background in media made me wonder just how closely Dutton’s Home Affairs department was working with Breakthrough in shaping its “positive social impact through communications”.

Breakthrough’s work in both Australia and Britain forms part of the campaign to “counter violent extremism” – a contentious strategy that seeks to enlist community organisations, educational institutions, service providers and individuals in promoting a model of good citizenship to Muslims and isolating not only those individuals and organisations who are suspected of undertaking a criminal offence, but also those who are regarded as “at risk” of radicalisation and whose ideology is seen as aligning with extremism.

One of Breakthrough’s most visible Australian projects is the social media channel RAPT. RAPT describes itself as “a social news channel that explores, discovers and celebrates the stories of young Australians from mainstream and multicultural communities”. The channel is produced by Breakthrough Media and says it “is built on successful partnerships between the Australian government, communities, civil society groups and individuals, taking a grassroots approach in assisting people to tell their stories, celebrate their achievements, and speak out against violence”.

I realised when researching Breakthrough that several videos and memes from RAPT had appeared in my Facebook feed after being shared by friends who almost certainly were unaware of any connection to the Home Affairs Department. The content is lighthearted and feel-good and does not have any obvious political agenda. And yet in deflecting attention away from critical voices and towards a supposed consensus of contentment, it serves a clear propaganda purpose.

One video features Yassmin Abdel-Magied talking about how to combat unconscious bias and “hustle a job”. It was made shortly before her appearance on ABC TV’s Q&A and the Anzac Day tweet that made her, in her own words, “the most hated Muslim in Australia”. Abdel-Magied confirms that Breakthrough approached her to produce the video but did not disclose its relationship with government.

“They initially emailed and as they’d been given my name through someone I knew, I thought there was no harm in getting involved,” she told me. “I didn’t know that they were funded by government at all actually – they simply said they were ‘a social news channel that celebrates the diversity of the next generations of Australians and has a particular focus on strengthening the ties between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians’.

“I was intrigued, but didn’t ask too many questions … They seemed nice, a bit vague about how they’d started or who they were, but seemed to have good intentions, which gave me some level of comfort. I don’t recall someone from government being there – at least, there was no one introduced like that.”

Mustafa closed the day by telling us we could drop our lanyards into a bucket, to signal that we were willing to accept weekly packages of information in our various areas of interest. These areas were broken down as news and current affairs, sport, arts and culture, science and technology. The idea was that we would share this weekly information on social media and help to push out positive messages. Those messages, I now understand, would be the government line for Muslims. The ’80s power anthem “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” blasted through the speakers as we were sent out into the world to make our voices heard – or rather, to make Breakthrough’s voice heard.

I chose “news and current affairs” as the topic for my information package. The first two weeks of content were remarkably apolitical. The focus of the first package was Ramadan, with a series of tweets from Muslims around the world, followed by a package on the British royal wedding and then a notification of the pending appearance by Randa Abdel-Fattah on that week’s episode of Q&A – which, we were reminded, was an important time of the week for any aspiring “influencers” to be online. The list of likely topics for discussion did not mention the United States embassy’s move to Jerusalem or the killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

The workshop participants were repeatedly assured that our participation was voluntary, that we could withdraw at any point, and that we were under no obligation to share material unless we thought that it was worth endorsing. These reassurances seemed odd. It would not have occurred to me that I was under any obligation to share content from an organisation that was not employing me and with whom I had never had any contractual relationship.

Of course, sharing this content is the point. As in Britain, Peter Dutton’s department is hoping to shape a unified voice for Good Muslims. This unified voice is propaganda.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to The Saturday Paper’s questions about Breakthrough or the risk that concealing this contract poses to relations between the government and the Muslim community. A spokeswoman for the department offered a question rather than an answer: “When’s your absolute deadline?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Dutton’s secret propaganda unit ". Subscribe here.

Shakira Hussein
is a writer and researcher based at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of From Victims to Suspects.

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