Australia Censored Episode 3: Free Speech And Civil Liberties Online With Andrew Lowenthal

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23 February 2024
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In this episode of Australia Censored, host John Storey, Director of Law and Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs talks to Andrew Lowenthal. Andrew is an investigative journalist and Executive Director of liber-net, a digital civil liberties initiative.

Liber-net focus is to reestablish free speech and civil liberties as the default standard for our networked age. Andrew worked on the “Twitter Files” and the role of government agencies in influencing social media companies to censor information on the internet is discussed.

Below is a transcript of the show.


John Storey:

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Australia Censored. I’m your host, John Storey, Director of Law and Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs. Today, I’ll be talking to Andrew Lowenthal. Andrew is an investigative journalist, and executive director of liber-net, a digital civil liberties initiative. Andrew, as I know, you’re aware, the Australian government is proposing to introduce internet censorship laws, their so-called Disinformation and Misinformation Bill, and these laws would empower a government agency, the Australian Communication and Media Authority, to impose fines or other punishments on the social media companies if they fail to censor misinformation to ACMA’s satisfaction.

Now, this has raised freedom of speech concerns, because if ACMA has the power to impose fines, what’s stopping it from saying, “Hey, guys, we think you should take this down, or else,” and it would effectively give a government agency and the government itself control over social media. Now, of course, that’s a concern, but one of the things that people should be aware of is that this sort of thing is already happening, maybe not without the backing of law, but as the Twitter Files reveal, there has already been collusion between government agencies and social media to take down certain content, including in Australia. Now, you were part of the Twitter Files investigations. Can you tell us a bit about what the Twitter Files were, and what your role in them was?

Andrew Lowenthal:

Sure. And just firstly, I think the way you’re thinking about, it’s quite right that people are thinking, “Well, okay, this thing is in the future, this bill is coming. It might have an impact down the track.” But actually it’s happening now, and it’s been happening for quite some time, and that was revealed through the Twitter Files and also other investigations. So the Twitter Files were essentially a project or an investigative journalism initiative that came about as a result of Elon Musk purchasing Twitter, and then releasing internal documents of the Twitter itself, releasing internal documents to a series of journalists, including Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, Bari Weiss, Lee Fang, and others that people may have heard of. So I came on board to work with Matt Taibbi about a year or so ago, specifically as he was trying to understand this web of anti-disinformation NGOs and academics, and essentially this blob that had grown up in the last four, five, six years under this rubric of anti-disinformation, some of which was legitimate, but a lot of which was essentially being weaponized as a way to enact a new 21st century version of censorship.

So I worked with him, looking at particularly the role of NGOs, and academia, and philanthropy, because that’s my background. My background is actually very much from a progressive NGO. Well, I founded and directed my own NGO for almost 18 years that did some amount of anti-disinformation work in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia was our main focus. There was a role, the work that we were doing was around the Philippines, particularly where the government-sponsored trolls and other things were very much a real political phenomenon. But what has happened is that this small… Well, it’s small, modest problem which is growing, has essentially been hijacked by people with essentially shouting fake news at their opponents to become essentially political cudgel rather than independent search for the truth, which would be difficult enough in its own right.

John Storey:

Yeah. One of the things about your investigations that rang alarm bells for me was the involvement of the military in this anti-disinformation movement. Ordinarily, there’s a bit of sensitivity to the crossing of civil and military, of matters that the military are there to defend our borders or operate overseas, not to influence things within the country. We normally associate that with sort of tin-pot dictatorships where the military runs things. But your investigations reveal that the military have quite a large involvement in this so-called anti-disinformation space.

Andrew Lowenthal:

Absolutely. Well, military, and I would say, perhaps more so intelligence services. But where’s the line around that? So for example, the Australian Twitter Files revealed that it was actually the Department of Home Affairs, which houses things like ASIO and Border Force, were flagging content for that they were suggesting politely. I guess, you could… It was the nicest way to say it to Twitter, and you would only have to presume to other social media as well, content that they think violated Twitter’s terms of service that they believe should be taken down. The things that they were flagging though, this is a so-called extremism division that was working on COVID-related issues, jokes, jokes about Dan Andrews wearing a mask, political commentary on the health minister, jokes about how long you had to line up to get a PCR test. Things that were just maybe coarse, maybe not exactly the person you’d like to sit down and have a drink with at the pub, but entirely speech that should be protected. And also, sometimes medical questions that were quite legitimate to be asked.

One account was targeted, had only 20 followers. And so if you think about what are they doing that they’re targeting, and looking around for accounts that only have 20 followers that obviously have absolutely zero social influence. And they were tracking non-Australian accounts under the idea that somehow, because they were operating, I think, in the Australian information space, I think, is the term they used, that somehow it was legitimate for the Australian government to comment on Twitter on accounts from India, or the US, et cetera. So the overreach here is already, prior to this bill, is already out of control, and beyond the remit of what those agencies should be doing. And also that begs question of, well, there is a job for those agencies which is to protect Australia, and so why are they focusing on accounts with 20 followers rather than potentially looking at actual threats to Australia’s security?

John Storey:

Yeah. I mean, it seems like this what you’ve called anti-disinformation, but this approach of we need to censor things on the internet really exploded during COVID. That’s where people just felt that there’s so much disinformation, and there’s so many lies, and governments need to crack down, and there’s a role for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. But the sad irony, as far as I’m concerned, is that it was actually during COVID, where the need for fulsome debate, free thinking, alternative viewpoints was never more needed, and I’ll just quote something I read in one of your articles. I just think it summarises it perfectly. “Disinformation does of course exist and does need to be addressed. However, the biggest source of disinformation are governments, corporations, and increasingly anti-disinformation experts themselves who have, through COVID-19 and many other issues, gotten the facts wrong.”

And that to me seems to be the biggest problem with things like Australia’s misinformation laws. It requires someone, a body, a group fact-checkers, an organisation to determine what is the truth, and so that you know what is false, and therefore can be censored. And how can we entrust that role to a government who themselves so often and so recently got so much wrong?

Andrew Lowenthal:

Absolutely. I mean, I think if you made a list of who are the people I would least like to trust with the truth, I imagine… Are absolutely number one. So a government-appointed body, which it turns out, as I understand, the minister can also direct, on occasion, specifically to think about or investigate particular issues, is absolutely the last group of people that should be in charge of determining the truth. Even if they were absolutely expert at it, which they are not, you still wouldn’t want it to happen.

So you talk about COVID, the absolute litany of things that the government got wrong, that vaccine wasn’t going to stop transmission, that it was going to stop transmission and that absolutely did not end the pandemic. Keep seeing stories on the ABC about 7th wave, 8th wave, whatever wave we’re up to, it didn’t end as we were told, questions about how effective masks were. In the end, the lockdowns which, particularly, people in Melbourne suffered rather brutally through as well, and the origins of the virus, all these things were not allowed to be discussed and bizarrely it was… I come from historically the political left. It was actually the left who turned on free speech the most, and this is another bizarre political phenomenon of our new era. And so the work that I did in my previous organisation was all around freedom of expression in often autocratic and authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, in Thailand, in Indonesia.

And the last thing, any of the people I was working with there wanted was for the government to have more control over determining what was true and false. They were fighting for a civic space online where they could discuss robustly the problems of the day, and the cowering of the mind that seems to have happened across the board, not only the left, but it’s also a general social phenomenon where people, I think, have gotten confused. They don’t know what to think, they’re not trusted to think as well. That cultural phenomenon needs to be radically pushed back, because it failed. And COVID is the biggest example of the failure of trying to shut down debate and discussion, because we’ve got very bad outcome as a result.

John Storey:

Well, why do you think there has been that shift? I mean, you mentioned how the progressive left has now turned on freedom of speech. What do you think has changed? Why is freedom of speech almost seen as a fringe-right dog whistle, which hasn’t always been the case?

Andrew Lowenthal:

I think it’s because a change in who is in the leadership of the left and its concern. So I think you’ve shifted from a working class, union-driven, quite robust, rough and tumble left that maybe pounce back as well is just there until the ’90s or early-2000s. And I think you have a much more university-educated middle class left, now, that is much more sensitive to different issues, some of which is legitimate as well, but finds it much more difficult to have robust discussions, and is much more easily offended, and in some ways, actually sees its activism as managing social discourse in society rather than, say, ameliorating economic inequality or people’s right, that work which used to be the main thrust of the left back in days gone by.

So I think you’ve seen a major cultural, demographic shift in terms of who is the left. Now, much of that is quite positive, but they, now by saying they, we, I’m not sure where I am today, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and there seems to be a absolute lack of foresight that, actually, the original misinformation bill was introduced by the Morrison government. Now, the liberals are saying, “Oh, this is really bad, we don’t like it,” which is good. But it might be useful to have a little bit of a cynicism there as well.

But at the same time, it’s like, “Well, yes.” And then if Peter Dutton is in, will you be happy with Peter Dutton, or the communications minister that Peter Dutton appoints saying, “Well, we need to have a look at our climate misinformation, and what these left wing people are saying about the climate. It’s all wrong. They’re spreading discord amongst society”? You’re not going to want that. And so you should not set up an apparatus where anyone, liberal, labour, greens, one nation, whoever it might be, can establish this kind of framework in society. You need a neutral, as neutral as it’s possible to create civic space to robustly discuss society’s problems and come up with the best possible solution. Sometimes, that’s not… Not sometimes, most of the time, it’s not a smooth, orderly, polite process, but that’s democracy.

John Storey:

Yeah. I think there is a bit of cynicism. It seems that whoever’s in power is more drawn towards censorship, because they’re the ones getting criticised. But yeah, I would implore people today, something I tell people on the political left, I just say, “Okay. Whatever you are advocating now, just imagine Donald Trump was in charge, the boogeyman of the left, or the most despised person. Just imagine Donald Trump was running the government and he was in control of ACMA. Are you still happy with this arrangement? I think that’s a good way of looking at all laws. Just imagine you lose power. Are you still happy with these arrangements?”

Andrew Lowenthal:

And that I do find that commits to some people. I think one of the issues is though that, I think, progressives assume they’ll maintain control of the bureaucracy, and therefore, they will still have a certain amount of leverage and protection in this regard. But again, actually, I feel like I’m trying to help them and say, “This could be really bad for you. You should not be into this.” That said, I mean, the response to the misinformation bill, I believe there was 23,000 submissions. Correct me, if I’m wrong. And so it was overwhelming, and I don’t think it was only people coming from the right as well. And there were some modest criticisms that I saw from some more progressive-minded journalism out as well that’s submitted.

So I think more and more people are getting the message. The bandwagon is still there. The bandwagon has lost a few folks in a wheel or two, but they’re still really trying to drive it hard as well. But I think it’s been dented, and even you see a lot of these mis and disinformation organisations changing how they speak, and talk about information integrity now, or other kind of nomenclature that they’re trying to come up with that disguises what they were doing, because I think the brand of mis and disinformation has taken a hit.

John Storey:

Yeah. I think, I mean, Mark Zuckerberg and some of the tech CEOs were brought before Congress recently, and chided for failing to protect children from dangerous content, which is something that I would support. But I can see that being used as a, “See, that’s why we need to regulate the internet.” And the problem is, it’s something like stopping exploitative material or graphic material, whatever sounds fine. But soon, the same bureaucracy, in the same legislation, is involved in silencing genuine political debate.

Andrew Lowenthal:

Totally.

John Storey:

Yeah. I think another aspect you mentioned, the left is now your university-educated middle class. I’m a lawyer myself, and I certainly see this within the legal profession. I think once you’ve been to university, and you’ve got your piece of paper explaining that you’re an expert, I do think it makes people more inclined to believe in an expert class to solve problems, rather than relying on the more, as you said, the cut and thrust of ideas and proving things. Its, “No, no, no, this can be left to the experts to solve this.” I think that might be playing a role as well. Getting to that point of… I think COVID proved that, well, I think demonstrated that the best way to get to the truth is through exposing everything, both sides of a debate, exposing it to debate. But we didn’t necessarily have that in the social media space until Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, now X, and we wouldn’t have had the Twitter Files exposing a lot of this.

I certainly applaud Elon Musk for being more of a free speech advocate, and turning Twitter into that sort of forum. But I also find it, in a way, a little bit sad that the internet was meant to be this decentralising process. We wouldn’t rely on mainstream media and governments to get our information. We can talk to each other. Every person has a phone, a smartphone, every smartphone has a camera, and we can get news ourself. But what it seems is that it’s actually become highly centralised. And if it wasn’t for the fact that there was a particular billionaire who had a particular thing for free speech and thought he’d spend $44 billion, or whatever the hell it was, on buying Twitter, we wouldn’t have that. I think it’s actually quite alarming that if it wasn’t for the good graces of a particular billionaire, we wouldn’t really have a free speech platform.

Andrew Lowenthal:

Absolutely. I mean, there are constellation of small things out there, the rumbles and the others, say the video, et cetera. But yeah, essentially we’ve ended up back in this extremely, actually, more centralised situation than we were 20 or 30 years ago with media, where all the conversation, who knows exactly what percentage, I’m sure it’s in the 80 or 90%, is happening on half a dozen major platforms. And the media in Australia wasn’t that centralised in the ’80s and ’90s, and that every country had its own media landscape as centralised as it often still was. Yeah. This is not where we want to be, because there are problems with the way Musk is running Twitter as well. It’s still shadow-banning going on X. So the problem has been ameliorated, I would say, but it’s certainly not solved. The solution is that we need to have decentralised open protocol-based communications channels that cannot be censored. So think of your email, right? No one owns the platform that enables you to send email. It’s a protocol where you can email whoever you want.

I mean, there are ways that, say, a government or your internet provider could get in the middle and stop that, but if you want to send an email to 500 people, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, or have your data collected, or tracked, or whatever in order to do that. So I think those more protocol-based ways of sharing and managing information is where we should be going, so that it takes it out of the hands of particular billionaires or governments, whatever their politics of the day might be. Obviously, we’re up against quite a Goliath in that regard, because losing that amount of control, which I think where a lot of the panic comes from, losing control essentially of the narrative space is what is being feared by the kind of expert and a political class that people are going to run away, and go in a different direction. And that different direction is called a conspiracy theory or whatever it might be. But most of the time, it’s just where they don’t want you to go.

John Storey:

Yeah. I mean, Elon Musk takeover has been positive and maybe there can be other developments. But I think another positive development is just, I think there is some international focus and more concerted focus on the fact that this isn’t sustainable. We can’t have a situation where certain voices can be silenced, certain people can be driven out of the town square at the whim of unelected NGOs, or government agencies. And I think one of the most positive developments was this Westminster Declaration, which I know you were part of preparing and are a signature to.

And one of the things I found, well, I’ll ask you in a second to explain what the Westminster Declaration is, but one of the things I found good about it is reading through the list of signatories is, it’s very much people you would call freethinkers, but of the left and the right. You have people like Chris Hedges, and Steven Pinker, and people who would definitely associate themselves with being on the political left, along with your Jordan Petersons, and that sort of thing on the right. Do you want to tell us a bit about the Westminster Declaration?

Andrew Lowenthal:

Sure. So this is a declaration that came out of a meeting that was put together by myself, Michael Shellenberger, and Matt Taibbi in London, June of last year. And that brought together both people from the left and the right who maintained their commitment to free speech and expression. Out of that meeting, essentially, we decided that what we needed was a new… I know there have been free speech declarations before, but we felt, at the moment, in terms of particularly this way in which anti-disinformation and also debates around hate speech were being used as a cudgel to silence voices required a new statement for this new moment that we’re in. So from that, we put together this declaration, as noted, particularly focusing on the overuse and weaponization of anti-disinformation, and hate speech to silence voices. And then had a very broad spectrum group of people sign up and endorse it, as you said, both from the left and the right, because that’s the most important.

Well, one of the most important aspects of it is trying to reach the sections of the left, whatever that means today, to convince them that they’ve gone down a cul-de-sac, and we need to come back out. And that’s why you say this, there’s Julian Assange, there’s Oliver stone, there’s Slavoz Zizek, there’s others who are very much associated with the left, along with a whole host of people from the right. And I think that the impact was quite good. We’ve got quite a lot of media around it, and I think that it’s an ongoing document that people can reference and look back to about, what do we actually want? There is a problem out there, but we need to be very, very careful in how we manage it. And we need to, essentially, look at all of the ulterior motives of the people who are driving this industry, which is not about protecting most of it. It’s not about protecting democracy, it’s essentially about narrative control.

John Storey:

You mentioned that. I mean, I don’t think anyone would deny that there can be some harm, or it’s not ideal if people can be manipulated through false messages that are easily circulated online. But I tend to think, and I’d be interested to get your thoughts, I tend to think that the actual harm and downside of that is overblown, or at least it’s very unquantifiable. If there’s a lie spread online, does it really change, does it really turn someone from voting for one thing for another thing, or getting a vaccine, or not getting a vaccine, or whatever the issue is? I tend to personally believe that it is overblown, but it’s this concept that, no, no, we need to protect people.

It’s quite a paternalistic viewpoint that people, they’re a little bit too stupid, they’re a little bit too gullible, we need to protect them from this. And I actually think that that concept is highly undemocratic, because if people can’t be trusted to analyse information and come to a decision, then… I mean, that’s the entire project of democracy is that you entrust ordinary people to pick their leader, and they’ve got agency over that. And if we’re all too dumb and gullible to make sensible decisions, it’s only a small leap to say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t really give people the vote either, because look how silly they are.” Or is that too dark a view of the [inaudible 00:28:40]

Andrew Lowenthal:

No, no. No, I think that… Well, I mean, it could go that way, but I think you’ve hit one of the main points, which is the fundamentally elitist nature of this project, which is that the population, an anti-democratic nature of this enterprise, which is that the people as a whole cannot be trusted to make informed decisions. I mean, that’s what the people in the 16, 17, 1800s, 1900s even, were making arguments around in terms of why they shouldn’t open up the vote to people who weren’t property owners, to women, to other groups. “Oh, well, they can’t be trusted. They were not going to be properly informed.” And it’s extremely anti-democratic way of viewing the world, and it’s coming from the people who see themselves as the defenders of democracy. And so there is this new kind of elitist guardianship movement, I guess you could call it, that is essentially trying to push back, I think, because it deeply fears populism.

Because populism is an absolutely huge threat to the rule of the expert class. And the status of the expert class was massively dented during Trump, and also during Brexit. And COVID, I think, was a way for the expert class to reclaim authority in society. And had they done a really good job, maybe they could coast for the next 10 or 20 years, but they did a terrible job during COVID, and on other issues. And so I think they’re in desperate trouble, and I think it’s why you see a lot of this flailing around to maintain political control. And I think this misinformation enterprise is part of that initiative to try and maintain political control, at the end of the day.

John Storey:

Now, I think you’ve hit some good points there. I think if it is true that we are rather susceptible to misinformation, and we’re opposed to dealing with that problem by imposing censorship, or a government knows best expert body that says this is the official truth and you should believe that, the alternative, so if we are a little prone to misinformation, can’t trust government, the alternatives, well, I can think of two alternatives. Would be, one is a genuinely free and independent media, where so much of our mainstream media are now, well, they’re politically polarised themselves, and it’s about narrative control, not genuine journalism. It doesn’t surprise me that the Twitter Files, Elon Musk didn’t open up the Twitter to CNN, or even Fox News. It was independent investigators like yourself, and Matt Taibbi, and others. So the media, I think have really let us down.

The other is education, in that, critical thinking is a way to immunise yourself from falsehoods online. Yet, it seems so much of our education is about indoctrination rather than critical thinking. It’s about this is how you should think, not teaching people the-

Andrew Lowenthal:

Absolutely.

John Storey:

… critical thinking skills. Is that a potential solution here, more critical thinking, more empowering people, better journalism, so that the truth is easier to find, and we can determine what the truth is more clearly?

Andrew Lowenthal:

Yeah, I’d say so. I mean, the best counter to disinformation is free speech. That is the protection measure. That has actually been the protection measure for a very long time, from lies from governments, or powerful actors, big corporations, et cetera, was a demand for free speech and expression was there to protect the little people. And that’s, again, part of this bizarre flip that we’re looking at. And for that, you need a robust and independent media. You need an excellent education system that is going to teach people how to think, rather than what to think. And you need a culture that is open and embraces those kind of robust discussions. And so we don’t have any of those things. Well, we have them to a degree, but they’re not in charge of the culture of those ideas. Right now, it’s much more about safety and protection, and I don’t want to hear ideas that might hurt me or whatever it might be.

And that cultural change is, in some ways, I see as the first step. But there is also, one of the things I find so bizarre, I talk to a lot of different people in general, so that is that there is so much out there, if you want to be a journalist right now. But there’s so many things that most journalists just will not touch, because they’re coded as toxic that we can’t talk about. Don’t talk about the vaccine, don’t talk about masks, don’t talk about the lockdown, don’t talk about the origins of the virus, don’t talk about Ukraine, don’t talk about et cetera, that the journalists are becoming incredibly conformist. Whereas, actually, I think that it used to be a place where unconformists or non-conformists went, because they had a lot of opinions, and they wanted to investigate, and understand the truth. Now, people essentially just are litigating for their side, and that’s not journalism, that’s activism. That has a place as well. But if you want to do that, you should go and work at an NGO. And if you want to do truth-seeking, then you should be a journalist.

John Storey:

Andrew, I think, your quote there, “The best solution to disinformation is free speech,” is fantastic. Probably, a great way to finish up. Thank you so much for your time. If people are interested in the work you do, how can they reach you or find out more about you?

Andrew Lowenthal:

So they can go to networkaffects.substack.com with an A, or they can go to liber-net.org. That’s the digital civil liberties initiative that I run.

John Storey:

Andrew Lowenthal, thank you for your time.

Andrew Lowenthal:

Thank you.

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