A coward’s crackdown
What is driving the Coalition’s sudden interest in reining in misinformation?
The government that tacitly endorses its backbenchers’ online ramblings, and happily encourages a news channel that was temporarily banned by YouTube over COVID-19 misinformation, is now up in arms about social media giants’ “lack of accountability”. Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce kicked things off on RN Breakfast yesterday, telling the ABC that he would be looking to crack down on tech giants for their poor handling of misinformation, in the wake of malicious rumours involving his daughter circulating online. But he was closely followed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who backed his deputy in an afternoon press conference that appeared to be about nothing in particular (but plenty of “hope” and “freedom”). “Social media has become a coward’s palace,” the PM said. “People can just go on there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things to people, and do so with impunity.” The crusade continued today with an op-ed from Joyce in the Nine papers, demanding the “unaccountable” tech giants be held… accountable. “The public has to stop falling for the fable that it should just keep lending the car to people who run over pedestrians, while screaming obscenities and medical advice from the window,” he wrote, in a typically puzzling Joycean manner. It’s great that the Coalition is suddenly concerned about online disinformation, which many have been particularly worried about in the lead-up to the federal election. Labor wrote to Google about it last month. But where was the outrage in February, when people were begging the government to call out then Liberal MP Craig Kelly for his online COVID conspiracies? Or in August, when the government had to be dragged into censuring outgoing LNP MP George Christensen over his anti-mask tirades? Or indeed in the wake of the disinformation-fuelled protests that rocked Melbourne last month?
Some have linked this latest round of social media bluster to the attorney-general’s plans to reform defamation laws in the wake of the Dylan Voller case. Michaelia Cash yesterday wrote to her state and territory counterparts urging a national approach to reduce liability for publishers, and there are suggestions that the government may try to make platforms liable instead. Morrison himself is no stranger to rants against social media, telling a Christian conference earlier this year that the “evil one” resides there. But evidently a great deal of this current push is driven by Joyce’s deep outrage over the rumours about his daughter, which he chose to air and deny on ABC Radio yesterday, making him the first to bring the story into the mainstream media. (Hasn’t he ever of the Streisand effect?) In his op-ed, the deputy PM made his stance clear, saying that when lies hit your family, “the time of any person to act has arrived”. Joyce’s anger is understandable, although no doubt additionally embarrassing for his daughter, while Morrison’s echoes appear designed to appease his deputy on an issue they can both agree on. If only the time to act on this issue had arrived before it was affecting Joyce personally.
Misinformation has been hurting families throughout the pandemic, with conspiracies and lies sending people down dark rabbit holes. (We only have to look to Four Corner’s infamous QAnon episode to be reminded of the ways such conspiracies can damage relationships.) Some of the most prominent and dangerous voices in this space have come from within the government’s own ranks. Figures such as Kelly and Christensen have essentially built their popularity off the back of misinformation. But, time and again, the government has failed to pull them into line, or to publicly censure them until forced to do so. Despite Joyce’s newfound desire to see tech companies take accountability for what people say on their platforms, he’s repeatedly refused to take any accountability for what his MPs say on them. This is the man who told reporters that he couldn’t possibly control Christensen, alternatively a “free individual” or a “bear” that should not be prodded. (Joyce, of course, has his own interesting history when it comes to posting.)
The nation (and indeed the world) has a huge problem when it comes to social media misinformation, and that’s especially the case during a crisis like the pandemic. But it’s something that should have been properly addressed by the government long ago – ideally before its own backbenchers started using their very large platforms to peddle lies. Most of the population wouldn’t have seen the fringe rumours about Joyce’s daughter if it were not for Joyce himself giving them a platform. The government is far too worried about what anonymous trolls are posting this week, and not nearly worried enough about what public figures have been inciting for months.
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The government that tacitly endorses its backbenchers’ online ramblings, and happily encourages a news channel that was temporarily banned by YouTube over COVID-19 misinformation, is now up in arms about social media giants’ “lack of accountability”. Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce kicked things off on RN Breakfast yesterday, telling the ABC that he would be looking to crack down on tech giants for their poor handling of misinformation, in the wake of malicious rumours involving his daughter circulating online. But he was closely followed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who backed his deputy in an afternoon...
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