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Australian MP targeted by conspiracy posts calls for Facebook to be treated as publisher

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The Nationals MP Anne Webster is lobbying senior ministers to bring forward legislation that would force Facebook and other platforms to assume editorial responsibility for the content they publish, in an effort to combat proliferating misinformation.

Webster launched defamation proceedings against Australian conspiracy theorist Karen Brewer over a series of posts made on Facebook in April this year. The posts, which were shared hundreds of times, including on accounts associated with Mildura, Webster’s home town, accused the first-term MP of being “a member of a secretive paedophile network” who had been “parachuted into parliament to protect a past generation of paedophiles”.

Related: Essential poll: two-thirds of Australians say government should regulate Facebook and Google

Brewer also claimed without evidence that a charity founded by Webster and her husband to help single mothers in Mildura access education was “a cover for the supply of young teenage mothers to a secretive paedophilia network”.

Brewer was ultimately ordered to pay $875,000 in damages after a federal court judge labelled the claims “disgraceful and inexplicable”.

Webster outlines her draining ordeal in an interview on Guardian Australia’s politics podcast this weekend. The MP also reveals she is pressing the government to take remedial action.

“I am pushing that we do have legislation that calls Facebook and whatever platforms to account as publishers,” Brewer says in the interview. “I’m not saying that holding these platforms to account as publishers is the only answer, but it is the clearest answer that I can think of”.

“If anyone has a better answer, then fine, let’s do that, but at the moment I see these platforms really get away with far too much and are not being held to account – so I think that’s got to stop”.

Facebook last month apologised to Webster over months-long delays in responding to reports of abuse she received from the online conspiracy theorist. Webster says that remedial action was too long in coming.

The Nationals MP is contemplating pursuing a private member’s bill if she can’t persuade the government to take on the platforms and require them to take editorial responsibility for defamatory content and bullying. “I’m not going to be sitting down waiting for somebody else to do something because this is incredibly important and it affects many, many lives”.

Webster says senior government ministers are resisting the idea that platforms be deemed publishers with the same editorial responsibilities that mainstream media publishers have.

Related: Australian MP takes on conspiracy theorist in court but experts don't know where to begin with online battle

The platforms have also fiercely resisted that categorisation.

In an interview with Guardian Australia’s politics podcast last year, the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said Facebook’s argument that it was not a traditional publisher was “an appropriate point for them to make, because they don’t hold themselves out [as that]”.

“I don’t think we can dismiss reality – a digital platform is a different kind of business to a traditional media organisation that has editorial obligations.”

Webster says the current resistance to meaningful change “involves several ministers” but that she does not intend to be deterred. “I think we need to pursue it”.

She says the problem was the regulatory environment was lagging the take-up of technology. Webster likens the societal impact of the technological disruption to washing up in a “strange land”.

“It’s as though – when we are talking about social media platforms and in fact digital information technology generally – that we, 20 years ago, landed on this unknown environment and we have to learn to breathe, we have to learn to perhaps walk differently – like the moon, there may be different gravitational pulls,” she says.

Related: Facebook apologises to Australian MP falsely accused by conspiracy theorist of being in 'paedophile network'

“There are just different effects that happen, whether it’s speed – whether it’s the ability of thousands of people to comment instantaneously”.

“We have a new environment, and I think that politically we have a responsibility to make sure policy addresses that different environment, and I don’t think we’ve done it well”.

The MP says since details of her ordeal with Brewer have come to light she has been overwhelmed by expressions of support from the community and from fellow parliamentarians, some of whom had have endured similar experiences.

She says it might be possible to build cross-party support for legislative change because misinformation online goes beyond vicious attacks on people in public life – people in the community are also battling terrible experiences of bullying and misinformation of social platforms.