After Twitter and Facebook removed swathes of pro-Trump conspiratorial content in the wake of the deadly US Capitol riots, several Morrison government MPs came out to defend “free speech.”
Although Australia’s constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression, it is widely accepted that all Australians should be free to voice their ideas and criticize governments without fear of persecution.
Of course, freedom of expression deserves to be protected – it is a fundamental pillar of democracy.
But in this case, it’s worth reading between the lines.
That’s because Conservative MPs like George Christensen and Craig Kelly, who are outraged by Facebook and Twitter’s crackdown on right-wing extremists, don’t seem genuinely concerned about maintaining democracy.
If they were, they might consider using their free speech to publicly condemn last week’s insurgency by Trump supporters seeking to overturn a fair election.
And Mr. Christensen, as a defender of freedom of expression, would not have called for the dismissal of Yassmin Abdel-Magied in 2017 following the infamous Facebook post of the ex-TBEN presenter on Anzac Day : “Let’s not forget: (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)”.
“Yasmin should no longer be on the public broadcaster’s tax-funded payroll,” Christensen said on Twitter at the time.
“Self-eviction should also be considered.”
Instead, Mr Christensen and Mr Kelly appear more worried about defending their perceived right to post whatever they want on social media, which includes questionable studies touting unproven COVID-19 treatments and theories of the pro-Trump plot alleging electoral fraud.
In this way, their calls for “free speech” can also function as a dog whistle to right-wing groups and other Trump supporters.
Hissing dog at work in australian politics
The term “dog whistle” refers to high-pitched dog training whistles that can be heard by dogs, but not by most humans.
In politics, it’s a shorthand for a phrase that may seem harmless to some people, but communicates something more insidious to a group of the public.
And this is not the first time that politicians have used them.
When One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson brought forward a motion in 2018 saying ‘It’s okay to be white’ we all knew exactly what she was really saying.
At first glance, the phrase doesn’t sound harmful – obviously it’s “OK to be white”.
The controversial senator, known for her openly racial views, was trying to appeal to her electoral base by suggesting that white Australians were becoming victims of Métis immigration.
Other examples of dog whistles include Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s statement on Tuesday that “all lives matter” when defending previous comments comparing the Capitol Hill siege to the Black Lives Matter protests.
“I appreciate that there are a lot of people out there who are bleeding a little bit about this and causing outrage, but they should know that those lives matter too,” McCormack told reporters.
“All lives matter.”
Once again, the phrase “all lives matter” sounds trivial.
But the term has been criticized as a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement and its genuine calls for racial justice.
Similarly, in October, Queensland Senator Matt Canavan was criticized for posting a photo of a ute stamped with the phrase “Coal Lives Matter” in what appeared to be an attempt to co-opt the Black movement slogan. Lives Matter.
– Josh Butler (@JoshButler) October 5, 2020
Freedom of expression against big technologies
Axel Bruns, a digital media researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, said it was “problematic” for Australian politicians like Mr Christensen to cry out for “free speech” after big tech companies had cracked down on pro-Trump conspiracy groups.
“It is disturbing that an Australian MP is essentially making common cause with a president who has clearly been involved in leading an insurgency against state organs in the United States,” Professor Bruns said. TND.
“The other question is whether Facebook and other platforms will take action against George Christensen? The fact that they haven’t really done so is a sign that the application of their own rules tends to be quite uneven.
“They’ve acted against Donald Trump and a lot of supporters in the United States, but there are still a lot of people like George Christensen here who are very strongly supporting Trump on these mainstream platforms.
Prof Bruns added that the free speech argument would not stand up to big tech companies, which are allowed to control content on their platforms.
“You can stand around the corner and shout in the wind if you want to, but there is nothing in the US Constitution that says a newspaper or TV station must carry what you say,” did he declare.
“Facebook and Twitter have no obligation to distribute their content the same way I can’t go to Fox News and demand to read a love letter to Joe Biden. It won’t happen because they can choose what to wear. “