Turning a blind eye

On the United States news site The Verge, a story recently appeared, a months-long investigation, in which content moderators employed by Facebook detail the cruel nature of their work for the tech giant.

Witness to the most violent impulses of humanity on a daily basis, they spoke of emotional strain, paralysing anxiety, panic attacks and even PTSD-like symptoms that have stemmed, they believe, from their work.

Not least from the brutal videos and images they must review – one after another – for hours on end.

For 17 minutes, as the Christchurch shooter livestreamed his attack, the rest of the world glimpsed this horror. Most turned away, any curiosity curdled; whatever this was, people agreed that it could not happen again.

This week, the Australian parliament offered its solution – the Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019.

The Morrison government promised the legislation “will ensure that online platforms cannot be exploited and weaponised by perpetrators of violence”. Social media companies and others will now face immense fines if they fail to report and remove violent content from their sites “expeditiously”.

In the spirit of expedition, the bill was announced by Morrison last weekend, handed to the opposition on Monday, and passed into law on Wednesday – unbent by the warnings levelled by experts in technology and the law.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus offered a neat summary of the bill’s blind spots – the potential it could undermine Australia’s security co-operation with America, how it might encourage social media companies to encroach further on users’ privacy and stifle whistleblowers.

“I must be clear: this bill is clumsy and flawed in many respects,” Dreyfus told the senate. “The government has been too cowardly to hold an adequate number of parliamentary sitting days before the election this year, so the parliament is being forced to deal with this bill on a ridiculous timetable.”

“Not even New Zealand,” he continued, “where the Christchurch atrocity occurred, has attempted to make this change in such a short time frame.”

Then his party went ahead and voted for the bill.

This is Australia’s policy response to the inhuman act that was Christchurch. Not to address the violence – nor the bigotry, racism and hatred held beneath it – only to ensure that it cannot be seen.

It is perhaps a fitting legacy for the 45th parliament – a cohort that gave up so entirely on the potential of government to reshape the country in a better image. Their quarrel is not with the shooter and his hate; it is with the internet that carried his pictures. Their answer is not to heal but to hide.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Turning a blind eye".

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