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The Australian Government’s role in the Censorship Industrial Complex, and why this is different to necessary moderation of online speech
The Australian Government secretly surveilled and sought to censor online Covid-related speech throughout the pandemic in partnership with Big Tech platforms, newly released documents show.
My new article for Umbrella News synthesises last week’s news drops which included Senator Alex Antic’s FOI release pertaining to the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), a new Australian edition of the Twitter Files, and another FOI document release pertaining to the Department of Health.
Read here, via Umbrella News:
I understand that many of my readers are leery of censorship and moderation and some would even have none. I take a middle-road view.
Free speech is not absolute - it has always had limits. In John Stuart Mill's foundational free speech democratic text, On Liberty, the limit was the point at which your words lead to physical harm being perpetrated. This is called the Harm Principle in academia, and is these days referred to as 'incitement to violence'. For example, this would mean that ordering a mob to attack and murder a person in the street would be considered to have crossed the limits of free speech.
The difficulty now is that the public space has moved largely online, and the definition of harm has become broader and broader, to include anything from hate speech to hurt feelings. At the same time, legislation is expanding to facilitate the policing and censorship of speech that, up until recently, was considered to be legal.
In the grey zone just shy of what is currently defined as illegal speech, governments, including the Australian Government, are testing the boundaries of their legal authority by partnering with private enterprises to suppress speech that they could not otherwise easily restrict using their own lawful powers.
To suggest that an internet without some form of moderation can exist is to accept the publishing, accessibility and proliferation of child porn and abuse content, revenge porn, and violent extremist content. The argument for a ‘no-moderation-nirvana’ is a non-starter in my view. As long as abusive, violent and obscene content are being posted to the internet, moderation will be necessary.
The problem is not moderation in and of itself. The problem is the ever-extending definition of harm leading to censorship of everyday speech, and of information counter to the establishment view.
Those in favour of censorship argue that the Harm Principle includes 'misinformation', upset feelings, or anything that might undermine certain goals (eg: climate action or public health goals).
Those against censorship argue that the Harm Principle should not be extended to cover such grey material, and that when it comes to the battle of ideas, sunlight is the best disinfectant (this was Mill’s view also).
When the Australian Government censors violent extremist content via the Department of Home Affairs, or child abuse content via the eSafety Commissioner, this is entirely appropriate.
But when the Australian Government took it upon itself to censor expert opinions, true information, jokes, and testimonies of vaccine injury on social media, it overstepped.
Covid vaccine-injured Perth woman Karri was censored when she shared her adverse reactions on Facebook in 2021. Her posts were removed and she received timed bans, followed by the deletion of her account, for contravening community guidelines.
Karri told DDU,
“I felt like I was being hushed up, like I wasn’t being allowed to speak. I felt angry, very angry. It’s just wrong.”
When Karri found out that the Department of Health had reported vaccine injury posts to Facebook asking for them to be taken down (and that Facebook complied), she said,
“I had my suspicions, but to be honest I was shocked. I thought it was a conspiracy theory. The Government shutting up their own citizens. Unbelievable.”
A double injury: the reason Karri is vaccine-injured is because she was coerced by the WA State Government into getting the jabs so that she could work (aided by a medical fraternity that refused to grant Karri an exemption from the booster after her adverse reaction from the second shot).
Dr Duncan Syme's expert medical opinion was censored when YouTube determined that a 10-minute presentation that he uploaded to the platform violated their medical misinformation policy. (You can find it on Rumble)
Note that the medical information referenced by Dr Syme in the video is publicly available data and published scientific findings, all verifiable. However, “YouTube doesn’t allow claims about COVID-19 vaccinations that contradict expert consensus from the local health authorities or World Health Organization (WHO).”
As with Karri’s posts, we don’t know if the Australian Government was directly involved in censoring Dr Syme, but we do know, from the Twitter Files, that the Department of Home Affairs moved to censor similar posts from Australian medical experts.
Team Censorship might argue that these posts had to be censored, because what if they were wrong, and faking it, and then people who came into contact with their content might not take life-saving vaccines and would consequently die.
John Stuart Mill thought otherwise. He suggested that the best approach is to have it out in the public sphere. In duelling ideas out, he said, you will find that:
a) The other idea is true, and you are wrong;
b) The other idea is false, and in proving it so, you improve your own argument; or,
c) The other idea is partly true, and you incorporate that true nugget into your own stance.
Karri’s vaccine injury might have been real (it was). Dr Syme’s information might have been verifiable (it was). Team Censorship might have swallowed some medical misinformation online that needed myth-busting, like that Covid vaccines could stop them from transmitting the virus to someone else, or that the vaccines were completely safe. Team Censorship might have been able to incorporate some of this information into their own understanding about Covid vaccines. Alternatively, they may have so effectively argued against Karri and Dr Syme’s ideas that their own arguments became bullet-proof, and they were able to become even more effective at busting myths and misinformation online.
This process, argued Mill, is foundational to a functional and vibrant democracy. It’s not ‘dangerous’ - it’s necessary. We should fear the breakdown of public discourse more than we fear exposure to information.
At the point that moderation, and specifically censorship, stifle the public discourse that forms the bedrock of our enlightened democracy, it is reasonable to ask: are the powers engaged in this censorship angling for a better democracy, or something else altogether?
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To anyone interested in reading further on the difficulties of moderating the vast social media public square, I recommend Custodians of the Internet by Tarlton Gillespie.