Elon Musk and Anthony Albanese’s church attack spat isn’t about free speech. It’s about power

Elon Musk and Anthony Albanese’s church attack spat isn’t about free speech. It’s about power
  • PublishedApril 24, 2024

It takes a special kind of person to attract universal criticism across Australia’s federal political landscape.

For Elon Musk, the controversial owner of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, the backlash he’s facing is likely something he’ll wear as a badge of honour.

He’s been called an “egotistical billionaire” by cabinet minister Tanya Plibersek, a “narcissistic cowboy” by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, an “absolute friggin’ disgrace” by the Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie and an “arrogant billionaire who thinks he’s above the law” by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. 

The Coalition too wants in, putting aside its usual defence of free speech rights to suggest Musk is pursuing an “insulting and offensive argument” in his refusal to remove graphic footage of a stabbing in a Sydney church last week. 

That incident, which authorities quickly called an act of terrorism, saw Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel hospitalised with lacerations to his head after being lunged at with a knife during a mass that was being broadcast online.

Footage of the incident spread across social media platforms, prompting Australia’s eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant to order websites take down content referencing the Wakeley stabbing. 

Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, agreed, while Musk’s company X threatened its legal action in a bid to fight the government. 

If it was a legal fight that Musk was wanting, he got it. Inman Grant beat him to the court and won a two-day injunction against X for only blocking the content in Australia

At the time of writing, the video remains online and is actively being promoted by a crossbench senator elected under Clive Palmer’s party.

Case sparks questions about the reach of Australian law

The whole saga offers a timely reminder of how far the world has come in such a short time.

It was only in 2008 that Supreme Court Justice Betty King banned the crime drama Underbelly from being broadcast in Victoria. It was a simpler time. TV episodes were broadcast weekly, streaming was barely a thing and getting the episodes to Victoria almost required the shelving of a USB (maybe don’t Google that at work) to get it across state lines. 

Now we live in a globally connected world, where technology and media companies have wide-reaching platforms that share content across international jurisdictions. 

The Musk-Inman Grant matter sits in the hands of the courts to determine how far-reaching Australian laws are.

Should a country be able to ban content being shown globally? Where does the line exist? Could a country, say Russia, have the ability to demand X remove content beyond its borders of Ukraine’s military resistance?

These are questions for the nation’s sharpest legal minds to determine. But there is more at play here than simply matters of the law.

Both Musk and Australian politicians are using the case to fight political battles in their interests.

For Musk, it’s a chance to further bolster his free speech credentials. It’s in his interests to pick a fight with a government he thinks is overreaching. It’s a chance for him to be seen sticking it to “the man”.

But there is more at stake than just speech. His commercial interests lie at the heart of this dispute.

Musk knows that other nations are closely watching the laws Australia makes for the social media giants. Just look at how Australia’s plain packaging of tobacco has been adopted internationally. Further social media crackdowns here could come with greater crackdowns in bigger markets like the United States and the United Kingdom. 

The X owner says the footage should stay up because it doesn’t breach the company’s standards. 

Musk also seems to forget that free speech doesn’t mean it’s free of consequences. Global tech companies might have long been able to influence governments of the day, but it is the law of the land, not his commercial interest, that determines what is legal and what isn’t. 

For Albanese and the broader Australian political class, this too is about standing up to “the man”.

The government sees a political virtue in pushing back against Musk and his platform, which has repeatedly been found to foster a toxic discourse. They’ve determined that the spreading of a terrorist act is a bridge too far in the public’s eyes. 

Labor likely sees another use for this scandal. It’s been threatening greater action against the social media platforms to curb the spread of misinformation. This unrelated scandal offers cover for advancing new laws against the tech giants. 

It’s little wonder Meta, knowing the threat it is facing, was so keen to be seen to have followed Inman Grant’s orders. (Also, did someone say schadenfreude?).

julie inman grant speaks at a press conference
Julie Inman Grant has powers to compel social media companies to release information.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

The former US president Theodore Roosevelt is often quoted as saying you can go a long way if you “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

It’s a sentiment that embodies the American-born Inman Grant’s approach to her tenure as eSafety commissioner.

Inman Grant is a former senior official at Twitter. She knows X’s soft underbelly and has repeatedly shown an ability to find the spot to inflict pain on the company when it fails to meet community standards. 

Her job comes with enforceable powers which means if the companies don’t answer her questions, they face daily fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s these powers that have allowed her to accuse X of failing to police hate and failing to meet anti-child-abuse standards.

That big stick that Inman Grant carries has brought with it not just shame but financial pain for Musk’s X.

He’s now taken to calling her the “Australian censorship commissar”, a move straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook to dismiss her as a Communist or Soviet party official.

Having touched a nerve, Musk might not be the only one wearing a badge of honour. 


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