A move by social media giants to ban US President Donald Trump has sparked renewed debate among politicians in Australia over whether the suspensions amount to problematic censorship.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have both criticised the platforms’ censorship of the president after he was accused of inciting a riot at the US Capitol.
The US president was removed from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram after posting messages the technology giants deemed could invoke further violence.
Mr McCormack – who is acting prime minister this week – said it should not be up to Big Tech to decide whose voices were heard.
“I’m not in favour of censorship – I think if people don’t like what they see on Twitter – well don’t go onto that social media platform,” he told reporters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr McCormack have both resisted criticising Mr Trump over his role in stoking the demonstrations at the Capitol.
This is despite other world leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson directly laying blame on the US president for his rhetoric of a “stolen election” and misinformation.
Mr McCormack had earlier called the scenes at the Capitol “unfortunate” and also likened it to Black Lives Matter protests last year, which he described as “race riots”.
He said the Twitter ban on Mr Trump amounted to a double standard, pointing to its decision not to remove a doctored image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.
“Now that has not been taken down and that is wrong,” Mr McCormack said.
“If you’re going to take down Donald Trump’s Twitter feed then think very carefully and closely about also taking down that photo, which should have been taken down weeks ago.”
The censorship measures have divided the opinion of politicians in Australia.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he was “uncomfortable” with Mr Trump’s exclusion from the social media platform.
“Freedom of speech is fundamental to our society … those decisions were taken by commercial companies – but personally I felt uncomfortable with what they did,” he told reporters.
In contrast, opposition leader Anthony Albanese backed the decision and has criticised Mr Morrison for not condemning government MPs accused of spreading pro-Trump misinformation.
“It’s about time that people weren’t given a platform to spread hatred, to spread lies, which has had consequences for people,” he said.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma over the weekend voiced his support for Twitter’s move, saying it was the “right decision on the facts” but said he was “deeply uncomfortable” with the precedent it sets.
Labor’s Tim Watts also said he supported the decision.
“Social media platforms have a responsibility to stop people from using their platforms to incite violence, engage in hate speech or spread dangerous medical misinformation during a pandemic,” he said.
Twitter ban prompts push to protect ‘free speech’
The measure has also prompted Liberal National MP George Christensen to start a petition for support to introduce laws to stop social media platforms from censoring lawful speech in Australia.
Mr Christensen says Twitter and Facebook were wrong to suspend Mr Trump, claiming he had urged peace in the aftermath of the riot at the Capitol.
His petition says it is a “matter of urgency” that legislation is introduced to ensure Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms can no longer ban, censor or “fact-check” users for posting content that is lawful.
Cyber Analyst Tom Sear from UNSW Canberra said the fallout of the decision to ban Mr Trump’s Twitter account was indicative of the political influence of the social media giant.
“It is indicative of the strength of platforms today and how rapidly they’ve come to redesign our entire political system and their power globally,” he told SBS News.
Twitter has also faced backlash for making the decision to suspend Mr Trump’s account after the Capitol riots and not in the wake of other controversial tweets.
Mr Sear said it could be difficult to introduce legislation controlling what social media are permitted to remove or suspend from their accounts.
“The businesses themselves, although they operate on a planetary scale, they are located elsewhere,” he said.
“I’m not sure how you would bring in legislation that would ensure freedom of speech.”
Mr Christensen and fellow Liberal MP Craig Kelly have repeatedly been accused of spreading misleading claims about the US election since November.
Labor’s Treasury spokesperson Jim Chalmers asked the government to call out the behaviour of the MPs and stop hiding behind the defence of free speech.
“We need action from the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the treasurer and others to make sure these dangerous views aren’t continued to be pushed around,” he told reporters.