Back to the war on the platforms

Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce appear to be serious about turning the platforms into publishers but they probably don't have time before the election

Welcome to Unmade, written on a frosty Monday morning at Sisters Beach, Tasmania.

Happy National Sausage Pizza Day. And more to the point, happy end-of-lockdown, if you happen to be in Sydney. Enjoy that haircut.

This morning’s writing soundtrack: Trans-Europe Express, from Kraftwerk. Initially, Alexa played the single rather than the album. It must have played on repeat for half an hour before I noticed.

And a reminder: If you like Unmade and want ti to succeed, please do forward it to a colleague who might also enjoy it.


Platforms or publishers?

Without the context of the News Media Bargaining Code, my first reaction to the government’s talk about making the digital platforms legally responsible for comments they carry would have been to see it as bluster.

I’m still doubtful it will happen, but not because I doubt Scott Morrison’s intent.

Last week was an eventful one for Facebook in particular, internationally and locally.

There was its hours-long disappearance from the web. And there was the compelling whistleblower testimony from former staffer Frances Haugen that the company knew the harm its Instagram platform was doing to young people’s self esteem.

Locally, deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and PM Scott Morrison signalled a new front in their war on the platforms. Joyce was enraged by a rumour spread on social media about one of his daughters.

And there was also the deletion by Facebook, apparently without explanation or appeal, of the page for industry newsletter TV Blackbox, although as I write this morning that it seems to have recently been reinstated. Facebook is yet to respond to my invitation to comment on that one.

The issue that will have the most significant local impact would be the moves by Morrison and Joyce to make platforms legally responsible for the comments they carry, just like other publishers.

Morrison escalated things during a press conference on Thursday, describing social media as “a cowards’ palace”, and arguing that users should not have the right to comment anonymously.

His key statement from a legal point of view was “The companies - if they’re not going to say who they are - well, they’re not a platform any more; they’re a publisher.”

If he followed through on that threat, then it would entirely change the landscape. Australia’s draconian defamation laws would create huge risks for all the social media players including Facebook (and its platforms Instagram and WhatsApp), Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and the rest.

At present, the platforms get to argue that, just like Australia Post wouldn’t be sued if a letter it delivers was defamatory, they’re not legally a publisher.

In the US, the platforms enjoy a similar privilege thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decent Act which carves out a protection for digital platforms. It was created to protect website moderators in the early days of the web. When Donald Trump was at his most exasperated with the platforms, he threatened to remove Section 230.

But talk is cheap, particularly from politicians, so a seemingly off-the-cuff comment during a press conference clearly carries less weight than a formal announcement of a new policy.

Over the weekend though, it started to look more like a genuine intent. Joyce told the ABC: “"The motivation is now there at the federal level in Australia, at the highest level in the United States, in other corners of the globe, to say: 'we've had enough, you can't treat us like fools. You think we're joking, we're not’.”

And communications minister Paul Fletcher, usually something of an insipid character, went on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday morning. He was given several opportunities to row back the policy, but instead he also confirmed the government was moving in that direction.

The consequences for Australia’s social; media landscape would be wide. Each platform would have to decide whether it is willing to massively invest in moderation, or remove its availability in Australia.

It could be like this year’s temporary removal of news sites by Facebook from its News Feed during the final stages of the News Media Bargaining Code legislation, but permanent. That’s also the legislation which demonstrates that the government has been willing to go beyond words in its attempts to control social media.

However, Fletcher also unconsciously pointed out the reason it probably won’t happen, emphasising that it took from 2018 for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s work to result in the code.

The Morrison government is likely to run out of time.

Communications ministers have a habit of leaving their run too late in their government’s term when it comes to legislating.

Labor Minister Stephen Conroy’s waited nearly four years and his efforts to shake up the media ownership laws failed mainly because Rudd called, and lost, an election before he could get most of the contentious legislation through.

There were similar false starts with Fletcher’s predecessor as Liberal communications minister, Mitch Fifield.

With an election due within months, it seems unlikely the Morrison government will be able to organise itself to legislate in time. If the Coalition fails to retain power, which seems probable, it would then become a question for a Labor government. In itself, that’s no guarantee the threat would vanish, but at the same time, Labor would be less beholden to the influence of News Corp which has been making much of the weather around regulation of the platforms.

This is going to be one of the media stories of 2022 and beyond.


Dr Spin: PR perils, and The Oz’s subs do it again

Dr Spin writes:

Fun with formatting

Dr Spin suspects that the most thankless part of being a PR junior is following up with individual reporters by phone and email. The phone call quickly becomes awkward when the jounro is interested enough in the pitch to ask a follow up question the caller doesn’t know the answer to, but is too nervous to admit.

And as for the email, Dr Spin will allow Steph (not Stephen) Harmon of The Guardian take up the story…

But there was more to it…

ABC Perth’s Kate Leaver received a remarkably similarly worded email, with an identically worded apology…

Dr Spin suspects that the PR person in question had a mail merge mishap in which the “to” field was automatically populated from a database with last names. Then they compounded things by sending out a second mass email. Sometimes, perhaps it’s better to just call it quits.

Legend of the subs

Of the many things Dr Spin loves about the sub-editing team at The Australian, his favourite is their keen sense of irony.

They reserve special treatment for times when the newspaper is offering helpful advice to other journalists on their shortcomings.

The best example from their back catalogue came in 2009 when then News Ltd CEO John Hartigan gave a keynote at the Press Club in Canberra and castigated the likes of Huffington Post, Crikey and even Mumbrella for their poor offerings in comparison to the thriving newspaper industry, which had much higher standards. Under the headline “Reports of newpapers deaths exaggerated”, The Oz reprinted the speech over a full page.

Unfortunately the sub-editor spelled the word newspapers wrong. Crikey even got T-shirts printed up.

Which brings Dr Spin on to this weekend’s contribution, in which the sub-editors of The Oz made commentator Chris Kenny look silly, which is generally something at which he is proficient without external assistance.

Kenny dedicated his column to criticising what he said were inaccuracies of the ABC’s Walkley-winning health commentator, Dr Norman Swan.

Unfortunately, the subs muddled up Swan with his son Jonathan, who recently picked up an Emmy for his work in a confounding. TV interview with then president Donald Trump.

Dr Spin commends the subs for their sense of humour and urges them to keep it up.


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Time for me to let you get on with your week.

Tonight’s ABC Four Corners investigation into former Sony boss Denis Handlin looks like it’s going to be compelling. Video of him dressed as Hitler and wearing a swastika is not the best look…

Have a great day.

Toodlepip…

Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade