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Free speech at stake in new public service social media guidelines

By Danielle Cave

While working for the Australian Public Service several years ago, an online 'friend' left a series of disparaging comments about the then-Australian Prime Minister on my Facebook wall. Awkwardly dangling under a newspaper article I'd posted, I wondered how many of my work colleagues in Canberra had scrolled past the comments. A small handful of upper case expletives made them hard to miss.

The views expressed by this friend made me feel uncomfortable and I didn't share them. I weighed up the pros and cons of deleting the article – the source of my friend's anger – that I'd so casually posted. But I quickly realised this response was an overreaction. I was about to censor a newspaper article, someone else's opinion and the views of a half-a-dozen Facebookers caught in-between. It felt wrong. Online discussions can be messy and I knew I had no right to erase his opinions. The Prime Minister at the time was a vocal and staunch advocate for free speech. So, I took a steer from him. I responded in disagreement and the comments stayed. Within 24 hours I'd forgotten about the minor social media drama, my Facebook feed back to its usual fusion of toddlers, cat videos and overly-curated holiday snaps.

But today's public servants won't be able to forget and move on so easily, even though today's Prime Minister also champions free speech. A new social media 'guide' produced by the Australian Public Service Commission contains some worrying advice for our 150,000-plus public servants. The APS, of course, needs crystal clear guidelines about social media use. So producing a guide is a good idea and much of the advice is very sensible. And it's advice that will need to be continuously assessed and updated as online behaviour evolves and internet users jump to different platforms and new mobile apps.

But the way in which this guide framed a number of potential online scenarios is concerning for three reasons. First, it exhibited a misunderstanding of how information flows online. For example, it equated many aspects of online engagement – liking, sharing and re-posting – as an endorsement of the content. Such an assumption may have held weight a few years ago but online behaviour has changed. A 'like' can mean that you are simply noting that you read another person's comments. This is especially common when they are responding to you. Facebook users often 'share' or repost an article just to expose it to their friends. This simple action has become important, especially since the US Presidential election, in helping break down Facebook filter bubbles. I value the efforts of a number of my Facebook friends – bureaucrats included - who open themselves up to and share diverse perspectives.

Second, Australia needs an APS that provides 'frank, fearless and apolitical advice'. These aren't my words, they are Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's. But numerous reviews of the public service over the last few years have found many departments are held back by risk-averse cultures and that our officials in Canberra struggle with long-term and strategic thinking – the type of thinking that tends to inform good policy-making. This isn't a surprising finding given the pressures of a 24-hour media cycle and ministerial emphasis on talking points, colossal briefing packs and the never-ending search for 'annouceables'. But unnecessarily restrictive social media guidelines will only encourage self-censorship and further foster the very same risk-averse culture we need the APS to leave behind.

Third and most importantly, some parts of the advice conflict directly with the Australian government's view of the world. The current government doesn't just advocate free speech, it is also specifically committed 'to actively promote an open, free and secure cyberspace based on our values of free speech, privacy and the rule of law.' This line is straight out of the government's new international cyber strategy. But the new social media guide advises the APS that 'it may be sensible to delete' the comments of others it described as 'nasty.' It also said that leaving such material on your social media pages could be seen as an endorsement of that material.

The guide never discussed hate speech; rather it was advice on how to deal with what was described as 'anti-government' content. What the threshold would be for nasty anti-government content is anyone's guess. But I assume my friend's expletive-laden comments on our former Prime Minister would get the chop. If I were in the APS today I'd probably also delete the whole thread just to err on the side of caution. Frankly, I'd probably self-censor and stay clear from most social media debates altogether; I wouldn't want anything to get back to my colleagues or to interfere with my chances in the next promotion round.

Originally published by: The Canberra Times on 05 Sep 2017