In George Orwell’s 1984, Hate Week began on 4 April. So it seems a good week to reflect on the rising incidence of hateful, ignorant and malicious content on the Internet and the Tasmanian Electoral Commission’s attempts to regulate electoral comment in cyberspace.
Provincial newspapers, like municipal councils, spend much of their editorial energy on roads, rates and rubbish, so it was pleasing to wake one morning last week in Launceston, the capital of northern Tasmania, to read an editorial in the Examiner lamenting that the ‘Commission can’t stop the cowboys’. (Examiner, 30 March 2011, p.18.)
The Examiner was taking a stand on a media policy issue, one that the media itself is both part of the problem and part of the solution.
The cowboys in question are the Byzantine bloggers, Facebook facists, and twisted twitterers who are turning political commentary into a free fire zone of ignorance and prejudice from behind the safety of untraceable pseudonyms. It’s a problem that shows every sign of corrupting political discourse in Australia and elsewhere.
The Examiner reported that the Tasmanian Electoral Commission will now require all people who make public comment during election campaigns to state their full names and addresses, as required by electoral acts in every Australian jurisdiction, state and Commonwealth.
To take out an advertisement, submit a letter to the editor, or publish pamphlets, the name and address of the author must be revealed: so far, however, cyberspace has escaped the electoral law of open disclosure, a law that simply asks ‘are you proud of your opinion’?
The Examiner welcomed the announcement, but editor, Martin Gilmour, doubted that the Commission could ever succeed in its legal mission.
Now this is not an attack on free speech; it’s an attack on irresponsibility and malice.
Our system of democratic government is termed representative and responsible.
Our parliamentarians are representatives of the electorate, not delegates. They vote (one must believe) in ways they believe best support the collective benefit and interests of their electorate, even if local and vocal lobby groups don’t see it that way.
Parliamentarians are made responsible to the electorate by having to stand for election at regular and relatively short intervals.
But responsibility cuts another way. We, the electors, are responsible to be informed, intelligent and conscientious in our vote and in our public expression of opinion on political matters. Otherwise, the system will collapse under the weight of distrust and misinformation, indeed hatred, such as underpins the Tea Party in the USA.
And it seems that we are blindly headed into the blizzard of malicious, willfully ignorant, and vicious invective that is sweeping the Internet, under to lame guise of freedom of expression on every and any matter.
Despite claims by Ted Lapkin (Age, 1 April 2011, p.21.) that ‘without the unconstrained exchange of views there can be neither real political debate nor a truly free press’, this country gets on quite well without profoundly malicious, misanthropic and hate filled speech that is Lapkin’s necessary burden of freedom. (I did consider the date April Fool’s Day, and that the paper hit the streets before noon, but decided Lapkin’s op-ed piece was serious. After all, he was defending his mate Andrew Bolt.)
Societies and individuals have always placed limits on freedom of speech: these limits, formal and informal, have taken centuries to accumulate. Like the common law, they encode in public practice and personal behavior the kinds of ideas we may think but choose not give voice to or publish.
But the Internet has created opportunities to publish our thoughts faster than our temper cools, or our culture creates codes of behavior to socialise that freedom to publish.
And the media, especially the on-line editions of the capital city tabloids, are complicit. They publish widely of this avalanche of unconsidered, frequently anonymous or pseudonymous, speech. Tabloid papers, and TV programs like Q&A, are quite happy to harvest the rage of unknown authors and serve it up as part of their approved and considered editorial content. Rubbish is elevated to considered content merely but the act of publication. Suddenly aberrant anguish becomes part of the first draft of history.
And as the boundaries of what is said in public recede, the quality of the debate falls, and respect for the individual collapses. We now have jumped-up shock jocks berating political leaders for being late, as if politicians’ only purpose in life was to dance to a broadcast schedule and not interfere with ad breaks.
And it gets worse. At least one major paper has run readers’ comments on-line that are, undoubtedly, in contempt of court. Comments that are sub judice, and threaten the conduct of a fair trial for arrested individuals. Of course, the papers do it in the name of public debate, but can the profit motive be far behind, as they struggle to find a business model to make the Internet editions pay?
But, back to the Examiner’s pessimistic assessment that ‘Commission can’t stop the cowboys’.
Help to stop the cowboys may come from an unexpected quarter, the Australian Coalition against Copyright Theft and their campaign to drive Internet service providers (ISPs) towards legal responsibility for content carried by their services. If an ISP can be held responsible for illegally down loaded music and videos, could the law oblige them to control other content, especially during the run-up to elections, despite the technical difficulties. Or are there other approaches?
We have a blackout on electoral advertising in the last three days of an election campaign to prevent ambush advertising, claims to which the target group no time to rebuff or refute, and to let the rest of us cool down. So will the Internet be blocked from carrying electoral content filed without the author’s name and address for three days or longer? And how would names and addresses be authenticated?
Parts of the mechanism are in place. It’s called the electoral role and, maybe, the Electoral Commission will issue log-ins and passwords to voters wishing to publish views in cyberspace during an election.
One way or another, some constraints on anonymous or pseudonymous speech on political matters is, increasingly, essential to protect our way of democratic governance.
Today we distinguish political election materials based on the formal authorisations. Phony election material is starting to be more widely used. An election, in which we can no longer distinguish between legitimate political party statements, claim and counterclaim, and downright lies and intentional misinformation, is an election that takes the country closer to political paralysis.
It’s the way we seem to be heading. Can the users of the Internet impose their own restraints or does this herald a new era of government media regulation?
Dr Vincent O’Donnell writes the weekly column March of the Moguls that appears in Screen Hub and produces Arts Alive, the national arts and culture current affairs radio program. He is an honorary fellow of RMIT University School of Media & Communication, and the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical Studies.