Where do you stop?

posted in: Life and things | 4

George Orwell’s book, ‘1984‘, a dystopian science fiction novel published in 1949, has often been cited when discussing issues such as privacy in our twenty-first century society. In the latest move towards Orwellian reality, we have the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combating Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023.

The legislation’s stated purpose is to protect Australians from misinformation and disinformation that is likely to cause “serious harm” – that is, “harm that affects a significant portion of the Australian population, economy or environment, or undermines the integrity of an Australian democratic process” – where misinformation is “online content that is false, misleading or deceptive, that is shared or created without an intent to deceive”, while disinformation is misinformation that is “intentionally disseminated with the intent to deceive or cause serious harm”. [source] The bill will extend the powers of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to administer the regulations.

Read it quickly and you might nod your head and say it sounds fair enough. But what it comes down to is very broad censorship. This doesn’t just apply to Google, Meta, Twitter and the like. It also applies to tiny websites like mine. If the ACMA doesn’t like an opinion I express in my blog, I might incur a substantial fine. Bear in mind there are already regulations against hate speech, vilification, and incitement to violence without this all-encompassing, fuzzy attempt to shield us from what the ACMA determines we shouldn’t see. Shades of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Until the 1970s Australians were shielded from outrageous publications like Portnoy’s Complaint, The Kama Sutra, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Somebody in a government office decided what everyone in the country was allowed to read based on some government official’s interpretation of the ‘rules’. Here’s a great example from the Commonwealth Archives.

‘First published in 1951, JD Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye about adolescent angst had been freely circulating in Australia for some years when a clerk of the Customs Literature Censorship Section seized an imported copy for review. Describing it as ‘extremely readable … and punctuated with humour, pathos and wise commentaries on our society’, the clerk felt the novel contained enough indecent references to be considered a prohibited import. Without referring it to the Literature Censorship Board, the Customs Department added the novel to the list of banned books on 21 August 1956. In September 1957 it was revealed that a copy of the novel donated by the United States Ambassador as an example of his country’s literature had been removed from the Parliamentary Library. Widespread protest in the press declared the ban a national embarrassment and criticised the censorship regime. The Literature Censorship Board reviewed the novel in October and had ‘no hesitation’ in recommending release.’ [source]

That’s just one listing in what is a fascinating website – BANNED – the Secret History of Australian Censorship.

The trouble with censorship is who makes the rules? Who says what adult Australians are allowed to read? Who says what is misinformation or disinformation? Who establishes what the facts are – since, after all, if someone is reporting facts then it isn’t mis/disinformation. And what does one do about opinion? If I’m a climate-change sceptic is that an offence? The organisation Global Witness thinks it is.

“Our investigation found that despite the platform’s promises to mitigate climate disinformation, Facebook’s algorithm continues to recommend pages with content promoting theories that:

  • The climate crisis is a hoax
  • Rising temperatures are part of natural cycles
  • Environmentalists are alarmists
  • Climate scientists are biased
  • Warming models are inaccurate
  • Mitigation solutions won’t work or are otherwise bad for society

This disinformation has consequences. 

Research shows that climate disinformation is a primary contributor to public polarization over the climate crisis and that it shapes public attitudes toward climate science. Individuals who are exposed to this kind of disinformation are less likely to support mitigation policies, hindering the ability of policymakers to take meaningful climate action.

To summon the swift and decisive measures needed to protect against the worst effects of climate change, it is imperative that the unity and shared understanding exhibited by the 99.9% consensus extends beyond the scientific community. We need agreement on the facts, politicians who are moveable on the issue, citizens that are informed by accessible and reliable climate information, and solidarity within and between countries.”

The intent is to steer readers towards ‘truth’ and discourage dissenting voices. I imagine the Ministry of Truth would have approved.

I wonder if Global Witness would censor facts such as the consequences of trying to rely on renewable power to support modern society? Or the real environmental cost of electric vehicles and wind farms? Surely even people who obtain their information from social media should be allowed to weigh up the arguments and make up their own minds?

Censorship is not limited to the written word. It might make sense to many to ban anything to do with Nazism – any Nazi symbols and paraphernalia such as the swastika, even the Nazi salute. The swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol appropriated by the Nazis and the band KISS had to amend its iconic name graphic in some countries because of the resemblance to the Nazi Schutzstaffel’s emblem.

And then, should we invoke the same rules to suppress the hammer and sickle of the communists? Or some other group that has incurred widespread disapproval? Where do you stop?

Free speech is probably the most important right we have in Western society. French philosopher Voltaire famously said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it“. I couldn’t agree more.

And now for something completely different, here are some images I made with the leading art AI, Midjourney.

4 Responses

  1. Malcolm

    This appears to be another example of interference in the individual’s right to decide one’s own opinion. I’m increasingly troubled by these stealthy methods to shackle our minds and impose a very dangerous orthodoxy. We should become more vocal. Excellent post G. Thanks.

  2. Mike

    There is little doubt that misinformation is a tool used both in war, international relationships and political arenas. I have no doubt that all businesses and governments use it or a derivative which massages and limits truth/fact to suit their current purposes.
    Legislation won’t help and as you suggest may make matters worse. We have to understand there is no real guarantee the information we are given is both accurate and complete – and decide for ourselves what we discard and what we believe.

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