Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has a reputation in Canberra as a serious, careful operator with deep policy knowledge despite his youthful background in comedy. But last week, he made a dramatic move, with a directive aimed at technology giants YouTube, Google, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Apple and Microsoft, to pull down Russian state media content.
Here was a government minister using his office to try get RT, a Russian state-controlled international television network, and Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency, news website platform and radio broadcast service, off much of the web in Australia.
Precedents for such a move are few and far between. Australia has had wartime censorship and at times an unedifying regime of literary censorship, but trying to kick state-backed news sites off social media? That is new. It raises the broader question: could other outlets ever be targeted in the same way?
Here is what Fletcher wrote to the companies on Thursday, after earlier issuing a warning in comments to this masthead. “I am writing to ask that [your company] takes action as a priority to suspend the dissemination on your platform in Australia of content generated by Russian state media organisations, given that there has been a significant volume of such content promoting violence, extremism and disinformation in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Examples are not hard to find. One evening the top story on Sputnik, the ultimate successor to what was once called Radio Moscow, claimed Russia was close to “liberating” the city of Mariupol in Southern Ukraine, which had actually been desperately resisting Russian occupation in the face of a brutal shelling campaign. It made no reference to an “invasion” or “war”, instead using the maddening euphemism of a “special op” and uncritically parroted false claims from Russian President Vladimir Putin that he sent troops to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. (In reality, while the country has issues with the fringe right in sections, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust).
It’s ugly stuff. But there’s a debate to be had about whether kicking Putin’s media outlets (though they claim to be independent of the Russian government, akin to a BBC or ABC) off social media is a good idea. One might suggest, as one MP did to me earlier this week, that it’s a bad idea because it smacks of what an authoritarian state would do.
If the technology firms adhere to Fletcher’s demand (which only Apple, Microsoft and Snap really have as part of earlier global strategies) RT and Sputnik would still be easily accessible via a web browser. Compare that to Russia, which has effectively criminalised honest reporting and commentary on the war. Simply calling the conflict a war is now potentially punishable by up to 15 years in jail under laws introduced last week. Facebook has been blocked and Twitter severely restricted in the country.
Another fear is that blocking RT and Sputnik will backfire. RT has already branded itself as a “freedom” website. It is directing users to other platforms that take a hands-off approach to moderation, such as messaging service Telegram and video site Odysee. For a site with only a small audience in Australia, the risk is that RT ends up reaching more viewers because of its newfound notoriety.
Media experts have suggested aggressive fact checking, disclaimers and tweaking algorithms to limit the reach of the Russian news sites may be a more sensible approach. All the tech companies have been doing that, with unusual, though far from perfect, effectiveness so far.
But so far, the question is academic because Fletcher has been stonewalled by the largest social media platforms, at least in their public responses that point to global steps already taken.
RT News and Sputnik remain accessible on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter.
It is hard to see the reason for the social giants’ lack of action. They have already crossed the Rubicon on this issue when they pulled down the Russian giants’ sites for European users earlier in the war after calls from the European Union.
If they see Australia as different in some way, they should say how. If they are unsure of their European move and want to constrict it, they should explain that too. If they have not figured out a position because Australia is a minnow in the minds of their busy leaders, that should change.
Fletcher has issued a serious demand and deserves a serious public debate. Silence is no answer.