EXCLUSIVE: New research raises questions about government engagement with multicultural Australians after one department used fabricated tweets in simplified Chinese.
The NSW government has been accused of fabricating social media activity as new research shows problems in how Australia is communicating vital COVID-19 information to culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
The research found that official pandemic material in languages other than English (LOTE) has not been disseminated effectively, meaning uptake and engagement was limited.
Research author Dr Alexandra Grey of The University of Sydney Law School told SBS News the NSW and federal governments have "really been letting themselves down" in this area over recent months.
A key part of Dr Grey's research was examining the uptake of downloadable signage about COVID-19 produced by NSW Health and the federal Department of Health in different languages, such as posters about hygiene and social distancing.
Dr Grey surveyed four "target suburbs" that have more than double the national rate of households in which a language other than English is spoken.
"When I did my fieldwork - so going out into appropriate communities to see what official posters were on display - I found almost no trace of those posters officially produced in languages other than English," she said.
"For instance, I did fieldwork in Burwood in Sydney where we have triple the national rate of households speaking LOTE, but I found almost no public official government health signage that is freely available on their websites."
Dr Grey said this was likely because these resources are so hard to find on government websites.
"It is buried within English-medium websites, difficult to search for, and given opaque and inconsistent labels," her research said.
Dr Grey said as a result, there was an array of unofficial COVID-19 information in other languages being used on shopfronts and in public spaces in the communities she surveyed.
"Instead, what people are doing is having to produce their own signage in LOTE for local communities, which may be reliable, but may not be. And we know that information reliability is a really crucial thing during this emergency."
Dr Grey has collated her findings in a submission to a Senate inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic.
Dr Grey also examined how the NSW and federal governments were using official Twitter accounts to communicate to Australians who speak a language other than English during the pandemic.
The NSW and federal departments of health, and specialist government agency, the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service (NSW MHCS), use mainly English in their Twitter feeds.
"(These governments) did not, in advance of this crisis or during this crisis, actually foster a strong rapport or an ongoing communication channel with Australia's many non-English speaking, or non-English dominant people," Dr Grey said.
Even when important changes were made to NSW's COVID-19 restrictions in April and May, there was no increase in multilingual tweeting from either @mhcsnsw or @NSWHealth.
Dr Grey also found that "in an apparent effort to increase the engagement of a LOTE readership", NSW Health and the NSW MHCS had been using tweets about COVID-19 in a foreign language that "appear to be fabricated".
She cited an official NSW Health reply to a tweeted question in simplified Chinese apparently from a "Harry Lee" with the handle @RecentTraveller2011. However, the questioner's handle does not exist.
The tweet is one of a series of posts responding to questions in English and in other languages about coronavirus in February and March.
NSW Health did not respond to specific questions about the tweets, but it is common practice in marketing campaigns to use made-up profiles.
But Dr Grey said the practice runs the risk of reducing the credibility of official public health communications.
"Because these replies to fake tweet questions are one of the main forms of multilingual communication in both the @NSWHealth and @mhcsnsw Twitter feeds, neither NSW Health nor the NSW MHCS are engaging with an actual LOTE readership as much as they appear to be," her research said.
Government defends strategy
A spokesperson for NSW Health told SBS News, "from the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, NSW Health has made every effort to ensure rapid and comprehensive information was provided to multicultural communities".
The spokesperson listed a number of outreach efforts to culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including meeting with local Chinese media and community leaders, the Find the Facts advertising campaign and the Help Us Save Lives campaign.
"NSW Health has translated posters, factsheets, frequently asked questions and videos into more than 40 languages. We continue to engage with multicultural media outlets across all channels including print, radio, online and foreign social media platforms."
The spokesperson said in-language resources have also been disseminated through health professionals, local councils, community organisations, community networks and through community members themselves.
A statement from the federal Department of Health said it is "committed to making COVID-19 public health information available to all Australians, inclusive of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds".
"Communication activities continue to be implemented through stakeholders at multiple levels (both directly and indirectly) as well as through targeted broadcast mediums as part of the media placement and public relations activities (translated editorial and downloadable resources)."
Translated posters available
In a bid to make it easier for businesses to access resources, SBS has translated the government's COVIDSafe materials into a number of languages including Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish and Vietnamese.
These posters and resources can be downloaded for use in shops and offices.
The SBS Multilingual Coronavirus Portal has also been used to distribute in-language material throughout the pandemic.
Dr Grey said it was imperative that the state and federal governments urgently improve efforts at communicating with culturally and linguistically diverse Australians during the pandemic.
"We're not out of the woods, so we'd better get it right now ... This pandemic is ongoing, there could be another spike and scientists are saying there may be another pandemic in years to come," she said.
"And so this is, if you like, a clarion call for Australia to engage better with its very significant number of people who cannot rely on English and particularly cannot rely on reading official English texts to get the health information they need."
She said the areas where governments can improve were; better monitoring of CALD communication problems and successes; redesigning online communications; and setting standards to guide government organisations in this area.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus