If Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to weed out anonymous trolls on social media, he might want to start with his own government, writes Andrew P Street.
YOU MIGHT BE AWARE that the current Federal Government are terribly worried about people using anonymous social media accounts to spread vicious lies and insidious falsehoods. Specifically, about themselves.
This has all come up because Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce has been furious – simply furious, you understand – about (reportedly) false claims that his daughter is the person with whom recently-resigned NSW National Party leader John Barilaro is alleged to have had an affair, thereby ending his marriage.
And the problem isn’t apparently the suggestion that Barilaro, like Barnaby himself, had potentially been sleeping with his taxpayer-funded staff, or even that Joyce’s daughter has gotten a sweet political job thanks to daddy’s Party connections. No, the issue is that people on social media are mean.
Incensed, he wrote a characteristically cogent piece for the Nine papers in which he fumed:
‘Twitter, it is not the trolls that inspire the devastating mental health issues. The trolls don’t have a voice unless you give them one, and you do! You make money from their noise, their ambit scratchings on the back of a lavatory door. They post their character assassinations from the back of the door at the servo and you illuminate it in on a city billboard for all to see.’
Morrison has also weighed in on the scourge of anonymous accounts, declaring that:
"Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can just go on there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives, and say the most foul and offensive things to people. And do so with impunity.”
And sure, it’s fun to see Morrison tut about people spreading scurrilous falsehoods on social media after spending the last two years defending the free speech of his own MPs such as MPs George Christensen and (until recently) Craig Kelly to publish so much horrifically wrong COVID-19 misinformation that Facebook and YouTube were forced to intervene. The exciting anonymity of Christian Porter’s million-dollar legal fund donors is apparently nothing to worry about either — but to be fair, the relationship between the Coalition and integrity on social media has always been one of “but when I do it, it’s cute”.
There are, of course, many entirely legitimate reasons why people might choose to be anonymous on social media. Perhaps a person has experienced domestic violence and is trying to keep in contact with friends and family while avoiding being located by their ex. Perhaps they’re transitioning and don’t want to be deadnamed. Perhaps they’re in one of hundreds of public-facing professions where they’d rather not be cyber-stalked by their students, patients, clients, fans or customers — or, for that matter, constituents.
Of course, there are those who use fake social media accounts to send abuse and spread scurrilous lies about people. All sides of politics do it because it's a high-impact, low-risk thing to do and frustratingly hard to definitively prove.
But the problem with the Coalition declaring war on such people is that plenty of them are in the Coalition.
Honestly, how many times does this name turn up in rounds ups of questionable government behaviour? And like so many of our Energy Minister's other exploits, what's most baffling about it is how inept he was and how there were apparently no consequences as a result.
Ahead of the 2019 Election, Taylor decided to celebrate his success at having a new car park built in an electorate that wasn't even his, which was a bit of a long bow to draw from the outset.
But when making the announcement on his Facebook page, he neglected to change from his official account to one of his sock puppet fake supporters, meaning that he congratulated himself with ‘Fantastic. Great move. Well done Angus’.
Of course, that was before the “car park rorts” broke — and as it happens, that car park which “Well Done Angus” congratulated himself for almost three years ago, like so many of those barrels of election-pork, is yet to eventuate. That's in part because there's nowhere obvious to build it, which is why a state Coalition Government election promise in 2015 to extend the existing car park was also quietly abandoned once the votes were cast.
Supposedly it's going to happen by adding new levels to the current car park just as soon as they work out where the hundreds of commuters will park in the meantime. So, you know: great move, well done, Angus.
‘...operates more than 30 Facebook pages and profiles under the guise of community groups, including at least three masquerading as news pages and another posing as an educational institute.’
What a guy.
Mind you, he needed all that helpful content since his official account vanished following allegations that he stalked two women online.
It's weird that Morrison didn't mention this in his tirade about the Coward's Castle, since at the time he described Laming's social media behaviour as “disgraceful”. Maybe he doesn’t want to interfere with Laming’s busy schedule of sending out defamation threats.
Now, it's worth making crystal clear that Senator Amanda Stoker having an alternative private Facebook account under a different name is entirely reasonable for the reasons mentioned earlier in this compelling and beautifully written article.
As a woman in the public eye, she's an easy target for online abuse, even without taking into account her regularly provocative statements as a conservative firebrand in the Morrison Government.
Where things get muddy is how often her alternate persona, Mandy Jane, would turn up on the official Amanda Stoker Facebook page to defend the Senator and speak about Stoker in the third person (‘few senators reject identity politics more consistently than she does’) as though the two were distinct and separate human beings.
Stoker’s facing a challenging road to re-election since the LNP plonked her in the historically unwinnable third spot on the Queensland senate ballot, but at least she knows her good pal Mandy will be a real spirit-raiser on the campaign trail.
Back in 2018, the chief advisor to former Tasmanian Liberal Premier Will Hodgman took on the alias Alice Wood-Jones to attack Labor on Facebook and, rather more concerningly, troll a woman by sending screenshots of her views on abortion to her employer for reasons unlikely to be related to securing a promotion.
She resigned after the scandal but her work evidently did Hodgman no harm, since he remained Premier of his island sub-nation until his 2020 resignation.
The Newcastle based PR expert was a Liberal candidate fighting to win the NSW state seat of Port Stephens following a failed tilt at the Federal seat of Newcastle in 2019 when suddenly her Facebook account and that of Liberal staffer Tasman Brown were suspended.
It turned out that they'd been linked to fake accounts denigrating sitting Labor MP Kate Washington, which Abbott claimed to have been completely unaware of and put all the responsibility for the social trickery on Brown.
It evidently didn't do the trick, since Ms Washington is still the sitting MP. But Brown was severely punished by... um, absolutely keeping his job working as an advisor to Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack. That'll learn him.
Honourable mention: Mark Latham
The former Labor leader and current One Nation troll-master has a long and distinguished history of making up using the socials to attack his many, many, many, many foes. You know, like [checks notes] domestic violence campaigner and Australian of the Year Rosie Batty.
Latham's vendetta against Batty and Catherine McGregor led to his resignation from a sweet columnist gig at the Australian Financial Review after Buzzfeed confirmed that the account used to attack Batty, McGregor, Leigh Sales, Tara Moss and, for a bit of a change of pace, Adam Goodes was not a parody account but that of the man himself.
To be fair, that's a distinction without a difference.
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