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Australia to Elon Musk: Explain how you’re dealing with hate on Twitter

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia has ordered Twitter to explain what it is doing to tackle online hate, saying there had been a sharp increase in “toxicity and hate” since Elon Musk took over the company last year.

Twitter could be fined as much as $475,000 a day if it doesn’t comply, under an online safety law that Australia touted as world-first when it was introduced in 2021.

Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s eSafety commissioner and a former Twitter executive, said Thursday that she issued the notice after a “worrying surge of hate online” and specifically a sharp increase in reports of serious online abuse since Musk bought the company in October.

“Twitter appears to have dropped the ball on tackling hate,” Inman Grant said in a statement on Thursday. She worked at Twitter as director for public policy in Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia between 2014 and 2016.

Twitter has 28 days to respond to the notice. The company responded to an emailed request for comment with a smiling poop emoji, its automatic response to media inquiries since the Musk takeover.

Inman Grant said a third of all complaints about online hate reported to the eSafety commission are now from Twitter, with the platform generating more complaints than any other over the past 12 months.

She singled out as particularly problematic Musk’s decision in November to reinstate tens of thousands of accounts that had been banned or suspended under previous leadership as a potential factor in increased hate speech.

The commission received reports that the reinstatement “emboldened extreme polarizers, peddlers of outrage and hate, including neo-Nazis both in Australia and overseas,” she said.

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Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers told The Washington Post in January that he had been taken aback by vitriolic attacks on the platform ahead of a constitutional referendum planned for later this year on whether an elected advisory body to Parliament for Indigenous Australians should be established.

Australia instituted the Online Safety Act in 2021, requiring social media providers to take reasonable steps to ensure that users are able to use the service in a safe manner, including limiting cyber abuse. The government at the time called it a “world first.”

The commission’s move to issue the notice to Twitter was an encouraging sign that Australia was prepared to act against social media companies, after it had “talked a tough game” for several years, said Josh Roose, associate professor in political sociology at Deakin University in Melbourne.

“If you do business in Australia, you’re still subject to Australian legislation, particularly around hate speech, anti-discrimination, and so on,” he said.

Australia does not have a broad constitutional right to freedom of speech, as in the United States. It has more limits on speech than the United States, including stricter defamation laws and a racial discrimination act that makes it an offense to publicly offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person on the basis of their race.

Limitations on speech that discriminates on the basis of other categories, such as disability, gender or sexual identity, differ state by state.

“You can’t get online and abuse and harass people on the basis of these protected categories — much like you can’t do that in a workplace — and you can be prosecuted for hate speech,” Roose said.

Twitter was contravening Australian protections by allowing discriminatory language, he said.

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Despite Musk’s bravado, there is precedent for the company complying with requests from specific countries. In May, it removed some tweets for domestic users ahead of an election in Turkey.

At the time, Musk tweeted, “The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets.”

An analysis by Rest of World in April found that Twitter under Musk had fully complied with 83 percent of requests from governments, including requests to remove content, compared with 50 percent previously, while receiving about double the number of requests. The highest numbers were from Turkey, followed by Germany, which restricts hate speech.

Musk is the owner of Twitter but stepped aside as chief executive this month, appointing Linda Yaccarino to the role.

Australia has shown itself willing to take on social media giants in recent years.

In 2021, the government passed legislation forcing some social media companies to pay news organizations for content shared on their platforms. Facebook responded during negotiations by blocking all news links for Australian users — including health and vaccine information during the coronavirus pandemic — for about a week before it backed down.

In February, the Australian eSafety commission asked Twitter, TikTok, Google, YouTube, Twitch and Discord for information on how they are addressing child sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual extortion and the promotion of harmful content on their platforms.

It is now assessing the responses, it said.


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