Elon Musk draws Australia’s wrath over Sydney attack images on X


Three government ministers over the past 24 hours have flagged a potential move to bring in tougher laws including a mandatory code of conduct for social media companies that operate in Australia. Musk is the owner of X, formerly Twitter, and has pushed back. — AFP

Australia is gearing up for a fight with Elon Musk and American social media giants over allegations they failed to move fast enough to police graphic content and misinformation during two violent attacks in Sydney over the past 10 days.

Three government ministers over the past 24 hours have flagged a potential move to bring in tougher laws including a mandatory code of conduct for social media companies that operate in Australia. Musk is the owner of X, formerly Twitter, and has pushed back.

Calls for a crackdown on social media companies have grown following two knife attacks in Sydney, including a terrorist attack in an Assyrian Orthodox church on April 15 and a mass stabbing in a mall, which left six people dead on April 13.

As both incidents unfolded, graphic content from the stabbings was posted extensively on social media platforms, while misinformation spread quickly about the identity, motives and ethnicities of the attackers.

Australia has an eSafety commissioner with powers to order the removal of material from social networks, however in a public statement a spokesperson for X said that the commissioner “does not have the authority to dictate what content X’s users can see globally”. The company said it would “robustly challenge” the orders in court.

In a post to X on Friday night (April 19), Musk referred to the commissioner as “the Australian censorship commissar”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said it was “extraordinary” that X had resisted the government’s requests about the Sydney attacks.

“Overwhelmingly, Australians want misinformation and disinformation to stop. This isn’t about freedom of expression, this is about the dangerous implications that can occur when things that are simply not true” are spread, he said at a press conference on April 22.

It’s not the first time Musk has clashed with national authorities. Earlier this month, lawyers representing X told Brazil’s Supreme Court that the company would comply with all its orders, a week after the billionaire said he would defy its judges and lift restrictions imposed on some accounts.

Australia’s Emergency Service Minister Murray Watt said the public has “had a gutful of these narcissistic billionaires who think they are above the law”.

Meta Platforms Inc, led by Mark Zuckerberg, operates a much larger online ecosystem, spanning WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and the Twitter-like Threads, however it has not adopted the same combative stance as X.

“They have a social responsibility to do the right thing by their consumers. They’re not doing it. They do think they are above the law. They’re thumbing their nose at the laws that we have in place. And I think it’s entirely fair that we go after them,” Watt said in an interview on Sky News on April 21.

Watt’s comments were echoed by Services Minister Bill Shorten and Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones on Monday morning.

In addition to tougher measures targeting inappropriate content, Australia has been considering introducing new legislation to crack down on misinformation, particularly around national elections. In the wake of the two April attacks, opposition leader Peter Dutton said he would consider backing new laws introduced by the government. – Bloomberg

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