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Aussie MPs unite to go after internet 'idiots and conspiracists'

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 21 January 2021, 10:11 am

Today President Biden's inauguration ends four years of US leadership that many consider the most toxic era of American politics in living memory.

President Trump's de-platforming from Twitter and Facebook earlier this month, in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riots, prematurely snatched away the bullhorn that helped spread that toxicity.

Now politicians around the world are grappling with how to facilitate more sustainable solutions to the spread of disinformation, hate speech and violence on social media platforms.

Across the Tasman, over 50 MPs from across the political spectrum have formed the Parliamentary Friends of Making Social Media Safe, which is a non-partisan group that will look at ways social media platforms can be held more responsible for the content that they publish and disseminate.

Parliamentary friendship groups are nothing new in Australian politics - they have existed for everything from basketball to gun control. But they serve to focus politicians on discussing issues that may lead to policy outcomes. As such, the forum is a step ahead of anything New Zealand politicians have done to consider the many issues recent events on the largest social media platforms have thrown up. 

The permanent suspension of Trump was a trigger point for the group's formation, but so too was an event closer to home - a tweet sent out by China's foreign ministry spokesman that showed a doctored image of an Australian SAS soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child draped in an Australian flag.

A lack of consistency, transparency

The parliamentary friendship group is led by Labor MP Sharon Clayton and Nationals MP Anne Webster. One of the MP's joining the group is Australia's science minister Karen Andrews, who has spoken out against the use of social media platforms to spread pseudoscience about the Covid-19 pandemic.

"There have been many instances of comments that have been taken down from various platforms, but yet in some instances, these platforms are very quick to act when it seems as if the subject content is something that they don't personally agree with," she said last week. 

"That is unfair, it is inconsistent, and it lacks the transparency that we are looking for."

Webster for her part has been on the sharp end of a targeted online campaign. She won a defamation case against a conspiracy theorist who accused her of being "a member of a secretive paedophile network".

Former Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the internet had become a magnet for "idiots and conspiracists" allowing lies and disinformation to spread.

Others in the group are noted advocates of free speech, so getting agreement on policy measures that serve to make social media a safer environment while preserving existing rights will be easier said than done. 

But moves are already afoot in Australia to change the regulatory landscape governing social media. Just before Christmas, Australia's communications minister, cyber safety and the arts, Paul Fletcher, released a draft online safety bill proposing to give the e-safety commissioner powers to order the take-down of harmful content.

Blocks and fines

It would require Australian internet service providers, social media companies and other online platforms to remove severely harmful, abusive or bullying content within 24 hours or risk being blocked and fined A$555,000. The Australian Government is taking submissions on that draft bill through to February 14.

Defining what exactly is severely harmful, abusive or bullying content and how exactly the eSafety Commissioner would step in to force the likes of Twitter and Facebook to remove content or block accounts is still to be worked through.

But one thing is for sure, Australia goes into 2021 with a far more proactive approach to cleaning up the social media space than New Zealand does. 


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Russell Clarke 22 January 2021, 9:49 pm

Sigh, once again who is going to define "harm"? To some of the blue-haired idiots out there it simply means having their opinions challenged. Should this definition get into legislation on that basis? There is a very real danger that it will, given the piss-poor debate around the topic thus far.

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