The Gaza Crisis Reveals Why Our Government Wants More Laws to Police Truth on the Net

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Disinformation Gaza

US president Joe Biden stood before the global press last week and said he’d “confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children”. These comments were in regard to reports claiming that Hamas troops had beheaded 40 kids during the incursions it made into Israeli territory on 7 October.

Yet, the White House later that day stated that the president hadn’t seen photos of beheaded Israeli kids or had them confirmed, rather he’d based his comments on those of a spokesperson for Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, which were made after Israeli forces couldn’t confirm the claim either.

The broader inference is that these lies about beheaded children, which the military didn’t rule out, but the PM’s spokesperson confirmed, and Biden spoke of in a manner that conveyed he’d seen the evidence, were convenient in providing further justification for Tel Aviv’s brutal response in Gaza.

Concurrently, there were media reports circulating that were warning of the potential for mis- and disinformation to be spread via nonmainstream media over the internet, which were concerns that seem to somewhat pale in comparison, when “the leader of the free world” is blatantly lying on cue.

Indeed, for years now, the public has been warned about the threat of mis- and disinformation being posted to the web. And as the line goes, what appears on the internet could be false information, and therefore, governments need more control over it to protect the public from itself.

But as the ongoing extralegal prosecution of Australian journalist Julian Assange clearly displays, governments globally aren’t concerned about the lies, as they just don’t want the truth to get out, and following from that, the freedom of the net is stymieing their ability to control what is true.

Losing control of the public mind

Prior to the internet, governments and ever-compliant mainstream media outlets controlled the official narrative. Back then, the plight of the Palestinians purposefully remained hidden on the nightly news, as they were rather cast as the aggressors against their oppressors: the Israelis.

The 7 October Hamas attacks would have been exaggerated in regard to their brutality, as they were now. But without the broader watch of the internet, independent news outlets and actual social media accounts reporting on the ground, president Biden’s lie might have remained a truth.

Pre-internet the televised news would have beamed imagery that justified the genocidal assault that’s taking place in Gaza right now, yet instead, in this globalised media world, which also connects mainstream news of a different perspective from foreign lands, this narrative cannot be controlled.

The Palestine-Israel conflict of the moment is a prime example of why governments want to rein in the reach of the internet, as even as western governments lit up significant landmarks with Israeli flags, their civilian populations mobilised beneath Palestinian flags as they marched in the streets.

And so now, rather than relying on the mainstream news propaganda to keep the public in line, governments, the Global North over, had to deploy police forces to deal with nonviolent protesters in an attempt to criminalise their support for Palestine.

France, in fact, actually banned pro-Palestinian rallies.

Codes of practice

The European Commission sent a 12 October request to Elon Musk’s X social media platform, formally known as Twitter, to ensure that it is complying with measures to prevent mis- and dis-information in line with the provisions of its Digital Services Act (DSA) that was passed last year.

The DSA took effect in August, and the X investigation will be the first conducted under its provisions.

The enhanced rules to police the internet contained in the DSA pertain to sites that have over 45 million users, which is 10 percent of the European Union’s population.

But the scope of monitoring the net to find those spreading mis- and disinformation seems muddied when the US president and Israeli prime minister are actively stating lies to stoke negative public sentiment against a specific group of people.

And at what point is Elon Musk liable for hosting such content, when heads of state are involved?

In this country, the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation (the DIGI Code) has been operating since February 2021. It’s a set of standards developed by the Australian government that big tech companies can voluntarily comply with.

Eight major companies have signed on to the DIGI Code, which include Adobe, Apple, Meta, Google, Microsoft, Redbubble, TikTok and X. And part of their compliance involves producing transparency reports outlining the measures the companies are taking against false information and hate speech.

But even with the major companies willingly partaking in the DIGI Code, and after laws governing comments sections on social media sites and payments by digital platforms to mainstream media outlets for running their content, both Labor and the Liberals want more control over the net.

The freedom to keep mum

The Albanese government released the draft exposure of the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023 in June. It provides the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) with a set of powers to monitor the media.

As the bills title explains, it’s designed to combat the threat the spread of mis- and disinformation poses the Australian public. And it’s likely these laws will sail through parliament, as it was the Coalition that first spruiked them in March last year.

The draft legislation defines misinformation as “false, misleading or deceptive” online content, which wasn’t intentionally meant to deceive people but could contribute to serious harm, while disinformation is false content that was designed with the intent to mislead.

According to the bill, the harm this information can cause is discrimination or hatred towards a group, disruption of public order, the hinderance of the integrity of the democratic process at all levels of government, and it can be hazardous to health, the environment and the economy.

If ACMA finds a digital platform is not complying, it can order it to follow a code of practice that would be designed by representatives of the industry sector the transgressor is a part of. But if the platform continues to fail in compliance, ACMA can subject it to a stricter set of rules it develops.

However, while these laws carry steep monetary penalties for noncompliance, these rules don’t apply to professional news content, that which is authorised by federal, state or local governments, as well as any information produced by or for an accredited education provider.

So, it would seem that just as state governments in this country tried to shut down pro-Palestinian protests they didn’t agree with, both federal Labor and the Liberals want the power to silence independent outlets on the net that are circulating content that they don’t want exposed.

And as we’ve seen in the past, governments don’t necessarily want to protect the citizenry from dis- or misinformation, but rather those in power want to silence those who speak truth to it.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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