The other cost of Robodebt: distrust in technology, media & Government

Dishonest politicians and the failure to act on mounting evidence of Robodebt’s inaccuracies has led to a major distrust in technology, media and essential services for our country’s most vulnerable people. Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship recipient Terry Flew FAHA explains how his mediated trust research can help us better understand questions of trust as they relate to news media, digital platforms, corporations, and global institutions.

The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme was released on Friday 7 July 2023. In the report, Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes recounts evidence of the lives of welfare recipients ruined, suicides among those adversely affected, dishonesty in the face of questions about the legality of the scheme, and the failure to address growing problems with the scheme in the face of mounting evidence of its inaccuracies and its human cost.

The report is damning of both politicians and government departments and found in its investigations startling evidence of the “myriad … ways in which it failed the public interest” (p. iii). It found that the Robodebt scheme “undermined trust in government and confidence in the social security system” (p. 373).

Lack of transparency, refusal to engage relevant stakeholders in the welfare sector, collusion among key decision-makers, and the easy populism of anti-welfare rhetoric all contributed to a toxic environment where vulnerable people came to fear government welfare agencies which they should be able to look to as providing support.

Creating a counter-narrative

While Robodebt evidenced high levels of distrust of welfare recipients, and a punitive culture towards them, it also demonstrated a high level of trust in technological solutions. The methodology of income averaging used to make determinations about alleged overpayment of clients was based upon automated decision-making and processes of data based on data exchanges between the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and the Department of Human Services (DHS).

The processes involved were in clear breach of both privacy and secrecy laws, the Australian Artificial Intelligence Ethics Framework, and best practice guidelines on the use of automated expert systems in administrative decision-making. The report finds repeated failures of governance in the implementation of the scheme, particularly around the refusal to countenance the need for human interventions into these automated systems.

The report also refers to “employment of the media in a form of counter-attack against criticism, which included singling out recipients who complained” (p. 178). Under the then-Minister for Social Services Alan Tudge, “friendly media” were identified, which included The Australian newspaper, radio station 2GB, and TV program A Current Affair, who differed from what were termed the “left-leaning media” criticising the scheme. These media outlets were engaged in what the report terms a Ministerial “counter narrative”, that focused on “cracking down” on welfare cheats using “cutting-edge technology”, to ensure the welfare system was sustainable.

Robodebt’s legacy of distrust

The legacies of Robodebt are profound and will take time to redress. One notable consequence is the adverse impact upon trust. Trust in government, trust in AI and automation, and trust in the media have all been damaged by the Robodebt scheme, particularly among those most vulnerable and most dependent upon government welfare and related services.

Robodebt provides us with a case study in what I have termed mediated trust. Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Kenneth Arrow and Oliver Williamson have identified trust as an ‘invisible institution’ that is central to economic development, social inclusion, civic engagement, and the effective operation of public institutions. Yet there is evidence worldwide of declining trust in political, social and economic institutions and in the media. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described that as a “trust deficit disorder” that is as great a threat to human civilisation as climate change and global pandemics such as COVID-19.

Declining trust in terms of ideas, interests & institutions

One way of thinking about case studies of declining trust such as Robodebt is through what can be termed the ‘Three I’s of ideas, interests and institutions’:

  • The previous Coalition government had an interest in reducing welfare spending from the Budget and could rely upon suspicion of welfare recipients in the media to give support to measures to crack down on welfare fraud.
  • The idea that technologies enabling automated decision-making would provide better outcomes than those reliant upon the work of public servants gave new instruments through which such perceived fraud could be identified and decisions enforced.
  • Institutions and decision-makers involved in the scheme came to discount their own laws and regulatory guidelines and to circle the wagons in defence of the scheme in the face of mounting criticism.

Rebuilding trust in the age of digital platforms & AI

Over the next five years, I will be employing the concept of mediated trust to better understand questions of trust as they relate to news media, digital platforms, corporations, and global institutions. This work will be undertaken with the support of the Australian Research Council through an ARC Laureate Fellowship that I have recently been awarded.

By evaluating the relationship of communications to trust, I aim to identify a new direction for communication and media studies in the age of digital platforms and artificial intelligence. It is intended that this work will be of benefit to policymakers, businesses and opinion leaders in evaluating the effectiveness of regulation and governance in a digital age. It will assist in ensuring that the damage and the mistakes that occurred with Robodebt are not repeated as we are increasingly reliant upon digital technologies for public decision-making.

About the author

Terry Flew FAHA is Professor of Digital Communication and Culture in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The University of Sydney. He is the author of several books, including Regulating Platforms (Polity, 2021), SAGE Handbook of the Digital Media Economy (SAGE, 2022) and Digital Platform Regulation: Global Perspectives on Internet Governance (Palgrave, 2022). In July 2023, he was awarded an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship to research Mediated Trust: Ideas, Interests, Institutions, Futures.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.