Less than a week after Donald Trump encouraged a mob of supporters to storm the US Capitol, some Coalition politicians here in Australia are concerned that Twitter’s decision to ban him is an example of big tech overreach.
Social media platforms started suspending the president following last Wednesday’s chaos, with Twitter on Friday announcing it was permanently suspending Trump “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.
But among Scott Morrison’s Trump-curious party room, there appears to have been far more hand-wringing over what Twitter did than what the president’s supporters did.
A broad church?
Hours after Twitter removed Trump, Liberal backbencher Dave Sharma wrote in a tweet that he was “deeply uncomfortable” with big tech companies “making decisions about whose speech, and which remarks, are censored and suppressed”.
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“Such decisions should be taken by a publicly accountable body, on basis of transparent reasoning & principles,” Sharma wrote.
Sharma, the member for Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth, bills himself as a relatively progressive “modern Liberal”. But his concerns about social media companies brought him together with the party’s hard-right fringe.
Over the weekend, Coalition MP George Christensen called for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to introduce laws stopping social media platforms “censoring lawful speech” following Trump’s ban. He has a website and is running a “campaign” to influence his own party.
An outspoken supporter of Trump who has consistently promoted disinformation about the US election, Christensen recently shared articles falsely attributing Wednesday’s riots to left-wing agitators.
But sympathy for Trump and anger at tech companies wasn’t the only response from Coalition MPs.
Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce told Crikey while Twitter was right in banning President Trump, nobody should mistake the platform for a “benevolent force”.
“[I think] it’s the right call, it shouldn’t just stop with Trump,” Joyce said.
“The result of Trump’s statements was an incident where five people were killed. You can’t say that’s OK. That’s garbage.”
The former deputy prime minister did not buy in to calls from his colleagues to compel tech platforms to stop removing material.
“I think they’ve confounded their philosophical beliefs,” Joyce said.
Queensland LNP Senator Gerard Rennick told Crikey while he thought tech platforms should be able to remove content in some instances, Trump’s actions did not warrant a suspension.
“Given that he came back on and there was a pretty conciliatory couple of tweets, I didn’t think that in itself warranted it. It was definitely unfair what they did with Trump,” Rennick said.
But Rennick also said Twitter had failed by not taking down Chinese official Zhao Lijian’s tweet attacking Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
“We should’ve laid the boot into Twitter over that.”
Left hits back
The Coalition’s Trump problem could shape up to be a rare political gift for Labor. They’ve gone hard on Christensen and Craig Kelly’s support for conspiracy theories, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to take action on.
Speaking on 2SM radio this morning, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese hit out at the Coalition’s conspiracy corner: “I can’t understand how someone like Craig Kelly can be allowed to promote these theories, along with George Christensen and others, and remain a part of mainstream society.”
Albanese agreed that the decision by tech platforms to ban Trump was the correct one. Meanwhile, Labor’s acting communications spokesperson Tim Watts said social media companies had “self-regulatory policies that align pretty well with norms in democratic societies”.
“Social media platforms have a responsibility to stop people from using their platforms to incite violence, engage in hate speech or spread dangerous medical misinformation during a pandemic,” Watts said.
Regulator wades in
Regardless of whether it was the right call, the decision to essentially deplatform the president speaks to the incredible power social media companies have in shaping the discourse. And the calls for greater scrutiny of that power haven’t just come from the embittered George Christensens of the world.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims told the Nine papers he favoured rules which could bring greater clarity to when social media companies could close accounts.
And while the Trump ban has emboldened progressives in the United States, many on the left have long been concerned about the destructive power of these platforms.
Greens communications spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young told Crikey while the decision to ban Trump was the right one, there still needed to be a conversation about regulating tech platforms.
“What the events of the past week have shown is proper regulation of social media is needed so these decisions are made transparently and with regulated appeals processes,” Hanson-Young said.
“The time for tech giants to operate unregulated needs to end.”