Michael Pascoe: Social media turns ‘free speech’ to poison – look at Voice lies

Misinformation is rife on Elon Musk's X, writes Michael Pascoe.

Misinformation is rife on Elon Musk's X, writes Michael Pascoe. Picture: TND

In 2012 a group of Buddhist ultra-nationalists took to Facebook to target Muslims in Myanmar.

As the internet spread throughout the country, so did Facebook and so did hate speech against the Rohingya.

Facebook quickly became Myanmar’s most popular social media platform and main source of digital news – and the uncensored channel of poison that fanned hatred and steadily increasing violence.

As Barbara F Walter recounts the tragedy in her book, How Civil Wars Start, an Australian documentary student, Aela Callan, sought out Facebook’s vice-president of communications and public policy in 2013, showing him the connection between hate speech and falsehoods and the looming Rohingya genocide. But Facebook turned a blind eye.

“In the years that followed, dozens of journalists, companies, human rights organisations, foreign governments, and even citizens of Myanmar continued to alert Facebook to the unchecked spread of hate speech and misinformation on the platform,” Walter wrote.

“But Facebook remained silent, refusing to acknowledge the problem.”

The military and government officials created thousands of fake accounts that spread disinformation and blamed the Rohingya for violence and crimes.

“The real genocide began in August 2017 when the Myanmar military, along with Buddhist mobs, began mass killings, deportations and rapes,” Walter wrote.

Myanmar is an extreme example of how social media lies and hate speech have disastrous consequences, but it is happening on a smaller scale in Australia now.

‘Racist, sexist and defamatory’

I stumbled on a tweet (if that’s what postings on Elon Musk’s X platform are still called) that managed to be racist, sexist and defamatory about one of the Yes campaign leaders.

I bothered to report the anonymous tweet to X – and whatever sort of people they are who work for Musk replied that the tweet was OK by their standards.

It seems only direct threats of violence might get an anonymous troll sinbinned from X.

It has been a feature of the No campaign that people posting messages supporting the Yes vote are quickly attacked and abused by trolls. If you’re not used to copping abuse, the attacks can be upsetting and intimidating – which is the point of them.

Spreading such poison has another danger. It reinforces and inflames the delusions of people prepared to commit violence.

The 51 people murdered in the 2019 Christchurch massacres were victims of a right-wing terrorist radicalised on YouTube, the algorithms that drive social media reinforcing his hatred.

It has been extraordinary to watch the initial public enthusiasm for the Voice referendum fall away under the barrage of misinformation, fear-mongering and straight lies from the No camp. Generating fear and doubt is the recommended tactic for No volunteers.

The sharpest decline for the Voice started with Peter Dutton’s inevitable political decision to nail the LNP’s colours to the No mast, but the murky role that social media has played and continues to play, has increased divisiveness and fuelled confusion.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane has argued that doesn’t provide an excuse for the referendum’s outcome on October 14. The result will reflect Australia’s values – for better or worse – not the quality of the campaigns.

He’s right, but I’d argue that part of this revelation of Australian character is that a significant proportion of us are easy meat for a disinformation campaign that preys upon existing prejudices and fear.

Unrestrained social media creates and feeds echo chambers. Allowed to spread lies and poison, it reinforces prejudices.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton’s vehement opposition to amending the constitution puts him on one side of a growing divide. Social media is exacerbating it.

That is why Russia deploys an army of social media activists against America. According to a New York Times report, China has now joined that game as well, attempting to sow discord in the US.

Americans have been doing a pretty good job of that without outside help.

For an essay in The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt turned to an Old Testament story to exemplify the communication breakdown in the US:

“The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terrible wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognise the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”

Haidt sees Babel as a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done – their virality tools have algorithmically and irrevocably corroded public life.

‘A billion dart guns’

“A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties,” Haidt said.

“It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly a billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.”

The right has thrived on conspiracy-mongering and misinformation, the left has turned punitive.

Social media took off just as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was perfecting its formula for generating audiences through fear and outrage. In a prescient 2010 article, Ted Koppel, one America’s best broadcasters, bemoaned the rise of partisan “news”.

“While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic,” Koppel wrote.

“It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that ‘everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,’ seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.”

Australia’s local right reliably mimics whatever the ratbag end of American politics does next, meaning we can expect to see the tools they’ve used to oppose the Voice become standard practice – lies and conspiracy theories constantly fed into the echo chambers, Australians going down the American path of constant division.

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