ABC CANBERRA BREAKFAST
TUESDAY, 12 JANUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: Social media platforms; Deadly Capitol riots; Free speech and the importance of calling out misinformation.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Authorities in Australia including our elected representatives have worries about how the tech giants operate and the way things are passed as above board or below it. There has been now a group formed called the Parliamentary Friends of Making Social Media Safe. Fifty MPs have joined it, including Dr Andrew Leigh, federal Member for Fenner and Canberra local. Dr Leigh, good morning to you for the first time in 2021. Thanks for being with us.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Adam. Happy New Year. As you were saying earlier, it was a gorgeous sunrise this morning. I was running up Mt Majura and it was just magnificent seeing the sun coming up.
SHIRLEY: Good time of day for it, given it was 12 degrees not 34. Later that will be a bit hot for a run, I would say. Why is it you wanted to be a part of this group, and what are the key issues around online media for you in 2021?
LEIGH: I come at it from the point of view of what it's doing to our ability to connect in person. Nick Terrell and I wrote a book last year called Reconnected, in which we focused on the challenge of connecting Australians in meaningful ways. The fact is that Australians have got fewer friends, that we’re part of fewer groups, that we’re less likely be joining, volunteering and voting than we were in the past. And part of that seems to be to do with social media. That's taking up an extraordinary large share of our time. One study suggests that over the course of your lifetime, the typical person would spend five years on social media, which is more time than you would spend eating and drinking. Much of that time is going to activities which are driven by these apps, which are designed to be extraordinarily addictive, using techniques from modern psychology in order to hook us and keep us on the platforms for longer and longer. Social media can be a great way of connecting, particularly for diverse communities and in small towns, but it can also take us away from face-to-face interaction. It's getting that balance right that really concerns me.
SHIRLEY: To what degree have you in your personal and professional life wrestled with that addiction? You mentioned the information online platforms provide, the way they can contribute, but also take away from what you're trying to do Dr Leigh.
LEIGH: That’s a great question, Adam. I constantly find myself in my job wrestling with the need to respond to email - I sometimes feel like my job description is “email answerer” - and to spend time with my three wonderful kids. I worry as a parent about the amount of time they spend online and the quality of that interaction. And like everyone else, you know, I've had that experience of scrolling through Twitter when I should really be picking up the phone to call a friend. It's something that we wrestle with a lot. There's a couple of the statistics we uncovered in Reconnected - one in three Australians checks our phone within five minutes of waking up, one in five admit to checking it while on the toilet, one in four say that they text while they're driving, and half of all pedestrians in big cities are distracted by smartphones when they cross the road. So we are plugged into these devices, which are amazing information machines and make queues a whole lot less burdensome than they once were, but can also distract us from leading a full and thoughtful life.
SHIRLEY: And they can go to quite serious safety issues for those of us who are using them, but others who we might impact with what we do and say. I'll go to this text from Penny, as a point I want to address with you - everyone has been very quick, says Penny, to talk about the threats to free speech and our right to free speech, but everyone seems to have forgotten the other half - with rights comes responsibility. Not even Voltaire supported free speech as an unfettered right. Where do you fall on the concern or the argument about the right to say what you want and how you want online, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: I think Penny’s hit the nail on the head. The old quote about free speech is it doesn't extend to the right to shout fire in a crowded theatre. And the lines that the social media platforms have drawn, as my colleague Tim Watts has pointed out, seem broadly in accord with what most people would want - no hate speech, no use of the platforms to incite violence, no use of them to spread medical misinformation during a pandemic. They're pretty reasonable principles to apply. So I'm comfortable with where the social media platforms have drawn the line. But I do agree with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission head Rod Sims when he says that there needs to be a broader conversation over the way in which those platforms are drawing the lines, because they have a great degree of monopoly power.
SHIRLEY: Yeah. Regardless of which government is in power in the day, extending that thought, do you see there a need for some sort of government regulation on the operation of these tech giants and their media platforms?
LEIGH: I think it's inevitable that there's going to be greater government regulation around what they do. And look, they have played a really pernicious role in certain contexts. You look at the attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar a couple of years ago, which was largely fuelled by Facebook. The role of platforms in a range of violent uprisings has been really problematic. And we've also seen worrying trends: the mental health of young teenagers seems to have really deteriorated just over the last 13 years, since the rise of the smartphone and social media apps. Here in Australia, we’ve seen a substantial deterioration in the mental health of young school students. The share in psychological distress has gone up from 19 to 24 per cent. The share of school kids who say that they're ‘very stressed’ has gone from a third to a half. And even the youth suicide rate has risen over this period. We can't be absolutely sure that that's to do with social media and smartphones, but the correlation is pretty strong and so it's something to be concerned about.
SHIRLEY: If we look at events at Washington, DC last week in the Capitol Building - I mean, what sort of consequences should there be if any for platforms like Parler or 4chan, if they are proved who have been the platforms where people had spread information or meeting places or forms of violence to then activate and create that threat to democracy?
LEIGH: I'm not enough across the US media law and the extent to which platforms bear responsibility as distinct from the writers of content. But I certainly agree with the decision that Amazon's made to cease providing Amazon Web Services hosting to Parler. And I'm pleased to see others, such as Google and Apple, looking to remove Parler from their app store. If Parler doesn't have restrictions on inciting violence, then they're stepping outside the bounds of community norms.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is our guest. Dr Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner and he's a member of the soon to be officially launched Parliamentary Friends of Making Social Media Safe group. It is across party lines. Fifty MPs, according to Nine newspapers, have already joined it and what is your view on this about how important there is for an independent regulator - government intervention even - in the way these tech giants use and operate their connecting platforms? We’re all plugged into them, just about ,so you probably have a view on what is above board and what is not. 1300 681 666 is the phone number to call. I don’t know whether you caught, Dr Leigh, the acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack speaking on News Breakfast earlier today. Among other things, she asked the Deputy Prime Minister, regarding Craig Kelly and George Christensen's posts in the last few months, what kind of censor is there for party members who may be spreading misinformation. The Deputy Prime Minister said in response facts are sometimes contentious and what you might think is right, somebody else might think is completely untrue - that is part of living in a democratic country. Given you're involved in this parliamentary group wow, what is your response to the acting Prime Minister's view on this?
LEIGH: On the parliamentary group, I really commend Sharon Clayton and Anne Webster for getting it off the ground. I think it's an important initiative. And on the coalition MPs who are spreading dangerous misinformation in a pandemic, I think they're completely out of line and I'm astonished that Michael McCormack won't stand up for sensible science at this time.
SHIRLEY: Is he right to say that facts are sometimes contentious, and what you might think is right somebody else might think is completely untrue?
LEIGH: In the case of hydroxychloroquine, which Craig Kelly has been touting for some time now, the early observational study suggested it worked but high quality randomised studies showed very clearly that it didn’t. At a time when we're trying to get people to take up vaccination, we know that these platforms may well be used by those who are trying to discourage vaccines, just as they've been used by those spreading disinformation on climate change. Michael McCormack needs to be very clear that he stands with science, with the experts in the public service, who I'm sure are telling him unequivocally that the sorts of claims being made by Christensen and Kelly are wrong, just as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would be telling him very clearly that the claims from Christensen and Kelly about Donald Trump having won the US election are completely false.
SHIRLEY: If anyone in your party, an elected representative, were to make these sorts of plans, would you expect the leader Anthony Albanese to censor or discipline them?
LEIGH: I'd expect him to immediately call them into line, just as he has been equally shocked by the statements that Kelly and Christensen have made. The fact that Michael McCormack won’t call them into line shows very clearly that the tail is still wagging the dog. That's why the coalition hasn't been able to act on climate change, because the tinfoil hat brigade that sits up in the coalition backbench doesn't command a majority. Remember, the National Energy guarantee got through their party room - but the denialists command enough power in order to stop sensible reforms going through, such as action on climate change. Not calling them out on vaccine disinformation is a real danger.
SHIRLEY: And just to conclude on this element of online media and the regulation otherwise that is required, is the overarching need here in your view to eliminate hate speech - deliberate, targeting, perhaps of minorities, or inciting violence - or the protection and preservation of a right to speak whatever you would think or say in a democratic society?
LEIGH: It's always a balance between the two, Adam. Those two principles are both equally important to me. It's very important that we that we allow people to have a diversity of views, but it's also important that we don't have platforms inciting violence.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh, it is a difficult one obviously to get any sort of consensus on but a crucial one to try to deal with given how ever present this kind of media and this sort of identity is in our lives. Thank you for your time today.
LEIGH: Real pleasure, Adam. Thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.