13 Jan 2021
In the wake of the US Capitol attack, Australian politics is consumed by a reactionary free speech debate
By Ariel Bogle
For many Australians, the US Capitol riot was experienced in almost real time. On Twitter, they could see harrowing videos of a lone policeman facing down a mob. Photos of a noose installed by the crowd on Washington DC’s National Mall were only a scroll away on Facebook.
In the days since, our news media has been dominated by Americans confronting the violent consequences of lies spread by President Donald Trump and his followers. But rather than use this opportunity to examine our own vulnerability to similar forces, Australian politics has become consumed by a largely reactionary debate over free speech online.
After Trump was suspended from the major social media platforms for inciting violence, various Coalition figures expressed their discomfort with those decisions, including acting prime minister Michael McCormack, who criticised Twitter for “censorship”.
Social media platforms do exercise immense control over public discourse – the type of power that requires transparency and unrelenting examination. Yet Australia risks skating past difficult questions of rightwing extremism and radicalisation in favour of embarking solely on a haphazard fight over who can say what on the internet. We must look honestly at all the forces that erode trust and confidence in our system and institutions, and not just who gets to tweet.
Because in many ways, Australia is exposed to the kind of misinformation soup that pushed a significant portion of the US population to believe an election was stolen from them, and an incensed mob to react with violence. We have politicians and public figures who regularly traffic in conspiracies and dog whistles for attention. There are media outlets that are willing to indulge them. And all this processed and amplified by the social media platforms that support an international conspiracy information ecosystem.
Consider that despite Asio reporting extreme rightwing individuals made up around one-third of its counter-terrorism investigative subjects in 2019-20, we’re yet to have a significant public reckoning over the Christchurch terrorist’s Australian origins nor his activities in local alt-right social media groups, as was well documented by New Zealand’s royal commission report on the attack.
We cannot assume Australians are immune to the lure of conspiracy theories whether they arrive via Facebook or in a news report, even as we should take care not to overstate their influence. The country has seen conspiracies translate into protests in our major cities, and studies have found varying levels of conspiratorial thinking among Australians. The 2020 YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, for example, found 32% of their sample of Australian adults thought it was definitely or probably true coronavirus was deliberately created and spread by the Chinese government despite the lack of evidence for such a claim.
And while various politicians jumped into discussions about social media regulation this week after an attack that left five dead, they’ve so far been largely unwilling to confront misinformation vectors in their own ranks, whether about the legitimacy of the US election or the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19, at least publicly.
When asked recently about George Christensen’s social media posts that echoed unproven allegations of electoral fraud in the United States, Scott Morrison defended his MPs’ right to “freedom of speech”. In response to similar questions, McCormack said that Christensen “also supports” the Mackay Ring Road.
It’s also a missed opportunity that this week’s discussions of free speech and censorship seem to bear little relationship to the homegrown model of online content removal the Australian government is currently developing, and which demands close attention for many of the same concerns MPs have expressed about accountability, consistency and tensions with free speech. Our legal system currently places a multitude of limitations on speech, including those that make incitement to violence largely illegal. Do we think the system is fit for purpose and appropriately balanced with free expression?
After the video of the Christchurch attack was livestreamed on Facebook, for example, Australia created largely unprecedented new offences for platforms that failed to quickly remove “abhorrent violent material”. The government is currently consulting on an Online Safety Act, which will create further takedown requirements for cyber abuse and harmful online content, among other limitations including ISP-level website blocking. Yet an inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism, including Islamist and far-right groups in Australia, is only now under way.
To be clear, there are many questions we should now be asking of the major social media platforms and how their moderation policies are applied: why suspend the US president, and as not, as others have pointed out, figures like Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte who has also been accused of using his platform to encourage harassment and violence? Can we expect the removal of key figures only in the wake of violence done in their name, and under immense public pressure? To name just a few.
But we’ll squander a vital opportunity if we focus on questions of speech on the technology platforms alone. If we allow censorship “hot takes” to distract us from examining the robustness of our own institutions, we’ll miss another important chance to examine Australia’s own susceptibility to the chaotic forces of disinformation – online and off – that fed the riot in America’s capital.