Can Australian internet laws protect Leonardo Puglisi from online trolls?
Welcome to 2022! And what better way to start the year than to watch what a group of deranged online adults accusing a young teenage journalist of being a government factory can tell us about how Australia is dealing with online abuse.
Leonardo Puglisi is a 14-year-old entrepreneur from Melbourne who has spent the past few years building his own independent and remarkably professional digital media publication 6 News Australia. His work interviewing real politicians and debunking viral misinformation is impressive even before you consider he’s the age most of us grew up playing. Counter-Strike or hitting bongs.
Puglisi’s journalism has earned him the ire of poisoned internet supporters who have at various times posited that he was a Liberal government stooge, a Labor crony or not even a teenager despite his boyish face.
If this all sounds silly, that’s because it is. What’s less silly is how people who believe these insane rumors have reacted. Adults swarmed Puglisi online, sending him torrents of critical and abusive messages. The scale and virality of the abuse is quite distressing.
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Worse still, Puglisi told me that people have threatened to show up at his school, at his mother’s work and have even tried to find where he lives. All for the audacity to check bullshit online. He says he’s doing well and getting by by using the Twitter platform’s tools to block abuse.
Given that the government has been electioneering – uh, I mean, “promoting” the way it regulated Big Tech and enacted reforms to keep kids safe online, I wondered how that might help in this example?
Granted, some of the abuse Puglisi has faced is defamatory. But the government’s new ‘anti-trolling’ bill – which the Attorney General’s Department recently admitted is in fact aimed at combating defamation – is useless in this situation because taking legal action would be d prohibitively expensive and, given the nature of the abuse, like trying to put out a fire with a water gun.
The Office of the Electronic Security Commissioner would be the next place to look. Even though Puglisi was not a child, recently reappointed Commissioner Julie Inman Grant was given additional powers to deal with online cyber abuse when the Online Safety Act Has entered into force. That could help because Grant could force platforms to remove “threatening, harassing, or offensive” content if they don’t do it themselves. Puglisi tells me he plans to speak to his office.
But much of the abuse — the sheer number of posts from different people haranguing Puglisi — would likely fall below that threshold, even if it’s psychologically draining. And no online conduct law can stop one of the berserk idiots from deciding to show up in real life, God forbid.
Which just goes to show how difficult it is to deal with social media abuse, as it no longer fits neatly into the “online” and “offline” categories. Much of the risk is inherent in online platforms, set up to foster conflict and filter bubbles, and the way they allow groups to gang up on an individual.
The resources Australians have to respond to abuse online are built around individual reports and responses – which doesn’t help much when the abuse comes from a crowd rather than an individual.
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A clear sign that we are fast approaching an election is the number of Australian politicians who have decided to dip their toes into TikTok, including the Prime Minister who joined last year.
Going to the short video platform makes sense. TikTok is well and truly one of the most popular ways for Australians to spend time online and, increasingly, the driving force behind much of the online culture.
TikTok has a lot of political content, but it’s not the natural home for politicians. I guess it’s because making an engaging video requires a different set of skills than a photoshoot posted on Facebook or an evasive TV interview. The platform even completely banned political advertising. Still, some couldn’t resist the lure of the young, super-engaged audience on the platform.
So far, I’ve counted 42 federal politicians, state premiers, or major political parties who have joined with varying levels of success. I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of politicians signing up and the number of videos they’re making – all indicators of a growing focus on the platform.
What’s fascinating are the different ways parties are using the platform. Work seems to have the upper hand so far in terms of the number of accounts and their performance. The top performers of all the political accounts I follow are Labor MP Julian Hill (by far), Australian Labor Party and Annastacia Palaszczuk. Their success seems to be due to the fact that they adhere to TikTok’s standards: short, crisp videos that use the platform’s features such as sounds, text or trending effects.
Meanwhile, the government is lagging behind. Besides the prime minister, accounts belonging to MPs like Jason Falinski, Andrew Bragg and Dave Sharma haven’t quite caught on yet. Stylistically, their videos seem to be more at home on Facebook: they’re longer and feel more rehearsed and less intimate. As far as I know, none of the Nationals are in attendance. Apart from the two main parties, other standouts include the accounts of Bob Katter and Jacqui Lambie.
Overall, there seems to be a correlation between politicians who can generate headlines in mainstream media and those who have an eye for creating compelling TikTok content. No doubt these skills will come in handy as you compete for the votes of the millions of Australians who browse their For You page every day.