By Rebekah Barnett
A Freedom of Information request by Senator Alex Antic has revealed that the Australian Department of Home Affairs made over 4,000 requests to digital platforms to take down content related to Covid.
The FOI documents show that from the start of the pandemic up to 15 Dec 2022, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) referred 4,213 social media posts that they believed to be in breach of big tech platforms’ community guidelines. This comes as a surprise, given that the Department’s purview includes border security, counter-terrorism and immigration, but not public health.
Covid social media posts were reported to platforms under the Online Content Incident Arrangement (OCIA). A copy of the OCIA was provided in the FOI response, however every page but the cover was redacted.
In Senate Hearings today, 22 May 2023, DHA representatives told Senator Antic that the OCIA was initially set up in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch shootings as a counter-terrorism effort to monitor and report Terrorism & Violent Extremist Content (TVEC). However, under the Scott Morrison Government, the Department was given the directive to, “lean in on Covid dis- and misinformation.”
“What you’re describing, effectively there is a censorship industrial complex that arises out of the Department of Health, presumably ATAGI and the Therapeutic Goods Association (sic) directing traffic through the Department of Home Affairs to enforce that?”
SENATOR ALEX ANTIC
Secretary of the Department, Michael Pezzullo AO, did not accept this characterisation, however he told Senator Antic that the DHA did receive funding to monitor social media posts related to Covid on behalf of the Department of Health (DOH). The funding is set to end on 30 June 2023.
Assistant Secretary Catherine Hawkins stressed that the DHA is, “not the arbiter of truth and we have no coercive powers,” when it comes to determining what constitutes Covid dis- and misinformation and enforcing content take-downs. DHA’s role is more like a social media hall monitor, reporting posts to social media platforms based on what violates their own community guidelines. Except that the DHA doesn’t actually do the hall monitoring themselves – they outsource the task to a service provider.
This is one of a series of troubling revelations that hint at the possibility of a Censorship Industrial Complex at work in Australia.
Earlier this year, another release of FOI documents
3 revealed that the DOH had emailed Facebook to flag a group that was sharing, “vaccine reactions that are not substantiated.” Facebook responded that it had taken down the group.
The documents show that the DOH also emailed Twitter and Instagram to flag social media posts, including one that directly quoted the TGA’s Covid vaccine safety report. Twitter emailed back asking the DOH if there were any other Tweets that they would like the Twitter team to assess.
The DOH and Twitter also emailed about using Moments as a tool to push Covid vaccine information to users from “reputable sites” such as the DOH, the TGA, the Australian Academy of Science, the NCRIS, and the WHO. The DOH also asked for assistance in managing paid dark posts on Twitter. Dark posts are targeted ads that show only in the feeds of targeted users.
All in all, from March 2020 to September 2022, the DOH spent almost $10 million on social media related to Covid.
In March of this year, American journalists Michael Shellenberger and Matt Taibi testified in US Congress about their discovery of a Censorship Industrial Complex in their investigation of Twitter’s internal files.
Shellenberger and Taibi described a web of cosy collusion of government agencies, private sector think tanks and academic institutions working together with big tech to spy on and censor ordinary citizens.
In their reporting, which has become known as the Twitter Files, Shellenberger and Taibi, along with other notable independent journalists, documented a list of activities that people in free and democratic nations would probably associate with authoritarian regimes in places such as China or Russia. Activities including:
- Elaborate disinformation campaigns instigated by government agencies and think tanks in order to influence elections (eg: Hunter Biden laptop coverup, fake Russian bot disinfo used to tie Trump to Russia);
- Censorship of true information that was inconvenient to government policy (called ‘malinformation’);
- Censorship of true Covid/vaccine related information;
- Twitter’s secret use of blacklists and visibility filters to suppress certain accounts, opinions and even entire topics, and so much more.
Find a complete list of the Twitter File instalments here.
Why this matters should be obvious, but in case it’s not, the collusion of government with big tech, industry (eg: pharma), academia and think tanks to steer public conversation and suppress inconvenient truths veers sharply away from the democratic ideals that our societies were founded on. In a world where the Experts were always right, this would only be a violation of our freedom of expression and thought. But as we know from the Covid era, the Experts get it wrong, a lot, which makes the Censorship Industrial Complex a violation of truth itself.
The extent of the Censorship Industrial Complex in Australia is as yet unknown, but there are enough breadcrumbs to cause alarm.
“What I’m troubled by is the interjection of unelected bureaucrats into the realm of freedom of speech and into the realm of publishing, and of government departments generally.”
SENATOR ALEX ANTIC
Senator Antic is hardly alone on this, in Australia or around the world. Senator Antic has requested a full, unredacted copy of the Online Content Incident Arrangement and more detail about the 4,213 social media posts that the Australian Government sought to have taken down.
Rebekah Barnett writes for Dystopian Down Under. She holds a BA (Hons First Class) in Communications.