“Look! Over there! Freedom of speech under attack!”
That’s the shouting you can hear from Australia’s right as they desperately try to divert attention from the failed insurrection by their Trumpian allies over the Pacific.
It’s part distraction, part bullying and part trolling. And apparently it’s a smart ploy, as plenty of traditional media have fallen for it. The Nine mastheads front-paged the concerns all week, perhaps over-excited about finding unlikely allies in their continued war against the big tech platforms.
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Big tech still has many, many problems but the current deep cleanse promises a better, more human, social media. It looks like the platforms have been waiting for an opportunity as Trump fades. They’ve got it, and they’re not going to waste it.
Australia’s right (in parliament and in the media) has been actively complicit in normalising Trump and injecting his white supremacist populism into Australian politics. Now, in the US backlash to the Trump-inspired revolt, they’ve been found out.
The recent social media bans directly confront that normalisation: it’s too much for Twitter, but it’s OK for the Liberal Party? That’s a hard card to play.
For all the carry on about Trump, he’s just one of about 70,000 Twitter accounts, mainly linked to QAnon, that have been cancelled this past week. According to Bot Sentinel, which tracks and identifies inauthentic bots, about 40% of what it calls “problematic” Twitter accounts have now been suspended.
That definitely explains why right-wing commentators are complaining about losing followers.
Meanwhile, Facebook is ramping up efforts to block damaging fake news that was used to mobilise the attack on the US Capitol. It’s behaving better than those that spent the past two months promoting the talking point. Here in Australia, that included Sky News and even some government MPs.
The distraction is both about minimising discussion about the Washington revolt (and, in particular, the Trumpian right’s role in it) while finding a renewed enemy for focussed outrage. It plays to the Trumpian right-wing conspiracy schtick of an elite hiding the “truth”.
In signalling pushback, the right encourages its supporters and warns its opponents — particularly within the Liberal and National Parties. Within the Coalition parties, lip service to the freedom of speech crusade has morphed into a declaration of loyalty (or of submission) to the right. Even a moderate like Dave Sharma has had to top his hat.
The rhetoric lacks the power it once had to bully social media, to keep them from doing what they’ve done this past week. It worked so well through the Trump years, it’s become the right’s default tic. With the shift of power to the Democrats in the US, Australia’s governing right seem eager to take on the mantle.
The right also knows that Australia’s media cannot resist a freedom-of-speech trolling. But journalism has never been based on the idea that anyone can say anything anywhere they like.
Despite what former journo-turned-acting PM Michael McCormack said last week, journalism explicitly repudiates the idea that facts are contentious. The core principles, according to Australia’s own code of ethics? Respect for truth. Respect for the public’s right to information. There’s no license for lies or bullshit, even from elected politicians.
In banning Trump, the platforms are belatedly recognising the journalistic idea that public figures should draw more review, not less. Social media platforms they should be welcomed when they catch up, not attacked.
Sure, even a busted Liberal Party faction can be right once or maybe twice a parliamentary term. But this isn’t one of those times.
Those most eager for regulation are keen to have the platforms treated as publishers, with responsibility for the content published on their site. (That idea, as I wrote last month, is “neat, plausible and wrong”.)
But there’s a fundamental divide: long-term critics want the platforms to be better gatekeepers, to block abuse and fake news, and to respect privacy. They want more moderating. The right (like Trump) are complaining that the platforms are doing too much gatekeeping. They want more freedom to abuse and less fact-checking of their claims.
Embracing the latter will result in a worse internet. The last thing Australia needs is government regulation that gets in the way of the social media platforms cleaning house.