Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Online censorship law obscures real issues behind Christchurch

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Christchurch terrorist attack on March 15 has cast a spotlight on the role of social media, which was used by the perpetrator to livestream video of the massacre and share his white supremacist manifesto. Online platforms have also faced scrutiny for fostering right-wing extremist groups that act as “breeding grounds” for terrorism.

The Morrison government’s response has been to rush through new legislation to apply to social media companies, hosting services and internet service providers. They face huge fines and imprisonment for failing to quickly remove violent content.

Socialists stand fully against the spread of online material promoting terrorism, including videos like the Christchurch massacre livestream. However, this law is not a real solution to the issues at hand, and can be used to silence people working to uncover state violence.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act makes it a criminal offence for tech companies not to ensure the “expeditious removal” of “abhorrent violent material”, This includes material depicting terrorist acts, murders, attempted murders, torture, rape or kidnapping.

This sweeping definition encompasses not only acts of terrorism, but could include videos filmed by whistleblowers. Dashcam footage of police violence or abuse in places like the Northern Territory’s Don Dale juvenile detention centre could be censored from public scrutiny.

The Act has limited provisions to allow sharing of such material by reporters acting in the public interest, but these do not apply to non-journalist whistleblowers. Social media companies may also over-zealously censor users to avoid risking fines.

Scott Morrison’s claim that the new law is aimed at stopping social media platforms from “being weaponised by terrorists” is disingenuous. It does nothing to address the hate speech that these companies routinely allow to remain on their platforms.

Facebook, YouTube and Google all host thousands of pages, groups and videos – some with a significant mass following – displaying openly hateful content. This is the main “weapon” that right-wing extremists like the Christchurch killer use to spread their violent ideology and encourage copycats.

The main motivation behind the new law is actually to divert attention from the government’s own culpability. Scott Morrison himself was grilled in an interview on The Project over reports that he argued within the Liberal Party for a strategy to win votes by stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in 2011.

More recently, the government tried to run a cynical scare campaign against asylum seekers. They claimed that medical evacuation from offshore detention centres to Australia would lead to “people that have been charged with child sex offences” coming here.

Talking points like these are not so different to the rhetoric spewed by the Christchurch terrorist. The entire capitalist establishment has been complicit in nurturing racism, creating the environment in which these killings took place.

Facebook has responded to community outrage by adjusting its policies and reluctantly beginning to remove some of the most flagrant white nationalist content. While socialists think far right extremism has no place on social media, simply banning these pages will not prevent their growth. A worsening economy and a political class fanning the flames of racism ensure that the danger of a growing far right is ever present.

Moreover, it is clear that profit-hungry tech giants cannot be trusted any more than the government to regulate what content is shown online. They have a history of tolerating hate speech and removing left-wing material critical of corporate interests. Just this year, Facebook censored School Strike 4 Climate event pages ahead of the March 15 rally! They were restored only after numerous complaints.

We need to take all major social media companies into public hands and run them as non-profit public utilities. The public should have full democratic control over how the “Community Standards” policies used by companies like Facebook are decided on and applied. Sorting algorithms, which determine what is shown to users in news feeds, search results and suggested videos should also be subject to public oversight.

Events like the Christchurch massacre underline the urgent need to fight the racist narrative of the mainstream. The establishment uses racism to divide us and cover over the failures of the capitalist system. We must highlight the common interests of all workers, and the potential for socialist policies to meet the needs of everyone. This kind of approach will cut off oxygen to the far right, and channel anger toward the capitalism system, where it belongs.

By Jeremy Trott


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