Canberra silenced posts on COVID

In less than three years the federal government intervened at least 4213 times to restrict or censor posts about the Covid-19 pandemic on digital platforms.

A freedom of information request by Liberal senator Alex Antic has revealed the number of interventions, but details about the reasons or the guidelines under which they were made remain secret.

“It is entirely unclear to me why the Department of Home Affairs, a department which is primarily charged with the duty of overseeing matters like border control, has been using a backdoor arrangement with social media companies to influence the media in relation into matters such as public health,” Senator Antic said.

The senator has called for a full explanation about what information was taken down from the digital platforms and why.

“On what basis is the department qualified to determine the truth associated with Covid related matters?” the South Australian senator and vaccine mandate opponent asked. “Are we seeing an Australian #Twitterfiles?”

The “#Twitterfiles” tag relates to documentation from the social media company revealing how it moderated politically sensitive material, such as suppressing reporting about the information found on a laptop owned by the US President’s son, Hunter Biden. Twitter also suppressed Covid-19 posts from doctors who disagreed with official public health and vaccine information.

Senator Antic made the FOI application in December and received a review this month. He is now in possession of the Department of Home Affairs Online Content Incident Arrangement Procedural Guideline, which details how the government works with digital platforms such as Facebook, Meta, Twitter, Instagram and Google to monitor and intervene on content.

The document is subheaded “Australia’s domestic crisis response protocol for online terrorist and extreme violent content” designated as version 1.3 from November 2022. It runs to 28 pages but aside from the title, every page has been fully redacted.

The department provided a separate document, summarising numbers of interventions under these arrangements. It revealed that between January 2017 and December 2022 it “had made 13,636 referrals to digital platforms to review content against their own terms of service”.

More than 9000 of these were related to terrorism and violent extremism. But 4213 were “Covid-19-related referrals”. Given the pandemic was not declared and did not reach Australia until early 2020, more than 4000 Covid-19 referrals occurred in less than three years.

The Covid-19 interventions represent nearly four requests per day over that period. The Coalition was in government for most of that time.

Senator Antic says the Department of Home Affairs must explain the nature of the 4213 requests made about Covid matters.

A spokesperson for the Home Affairs Department failed to provide further details on the nature of the Covid interventions but revealed that such pandemic referrals would not occur after June 30 this year.

The issue is expected to be raised in Senate estimates hearings on Monday.


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