Bit of a secret–don’t tell anybody–but there’s an election coming up in 2022. And so I found myself noodling with some questions of electoral law. The one that has captured my imagination is the requirement to authorise political materials.
I want to present to you an idea that does not have a neat, tidy resolution. Reasonable people can disagree about how they want their political system to handle this. On one side of the scale, think about the mischief that arises from people being able to pump political material into the public square anonymously: people spinning political content to look apolitical or otherwise neutral. I think most people want to be able to check the source of serious political claims. On the other side of the scale, think about the extent to which a person should be required to give up their privacy just to participate in political activities. We often think about the big ticket items here: what if people want changes to laws that negatively affect LGBT Australians without ‘outing’ themselves to their family? But we don’t need to be nearly that dramatic: what if you just want to advocate for this or that policy without maniacs trying to get you sacked from your job? Or what if you just want to run a blog about economics on the side without the Press trying to doxx you (the Greg Jericho case)?
That’s the problem in broad brushstrokes. Privacy is important and people and their families shouldn’t be ‘fair game’ just because they want to engage in democratic culture, but we also know that there’s a threshold at which people are producing a lot of very partisan, very political content and we want to be able to verify the source of the content. From this broad sketch, we fill in the details about the problem and end up with a range of reasonable opinions…
A person I respect a lot said to me quietly: ‘Hang on a second. Sure, you run this argument in the abstract and it looks noble… but you’re always talking about left wing Twitter accounts.’
The anonymous Twitter accounts that I have in mind as being particularly worrisome are the PRGuy17 account (who regularly produces political misinformation that is highly partisan) and the ARC_Tracker account (that has recently shifted further away from being a bot that shows updates to the Australian Research Council’s webpage to producing really unhinged political content about how democracy itself is over if Ministers don’t rubberstamp the decisions of a statutory agency).
The complaint isn’t unreasonable: sure, it’s one thing to worry about the problem of anonymous political content… but why am I only ever worried about anonymous political content that is critical of the Government?
First possible answer: I’m way more partisan than I think I am. There’s nothing wrong with being partisan, but subjectively I would find it surprising to discover that I was.
Second possible answer (that I think is more likely): there aren’t as many (if any) right wing political accounts to criticise. There are a lot of low quality right wing accounts on Twitter: @firstname-lastname-bunchofnumbers spouting the absolute worst opinions about everything, with fewer than a few dozen followers but hundreds of thousands of tweets. I don’t think there would be a problem at all in just nuking those accounts with extreme prejudice. But we’re talking about something different here: where is the AusPol right wing account that has a large following, produces a stream of political content that is highly partisan, and where we don’t know the author? Where’s the right wing PRGuy17? Where’s the conservative ARC_Tracker?
A few years ago, there was a weird obsession by right wing news outlets with ‘winning’ Twitter. Practically everybody involved in that noise has now abandoned Twitter. There aren’t that many serious conservative views on Twitter. The ham who did his level best to be the voice of ‘good’ conservative views on Twitter ended up being weirdly pro-Trump and, every few months, loses his mind about pronouns. If anything, shitty right wing views on Twitter get rewarded especially if they’re not anonymous. Hard to grift anonymously.
On this line of thought, the closest incident I could recall was when The Australian started publishing a column by ‘The Mocker’. It was supposed to be anonymous, though it’s not clear why. The column was unremarkable except for being putrid and puerile. Perhaps the biggest shock was discovering that it’s still being published (although safely behind a paywall). People very quickly worked out who was behind it and the controversy died off somewhat. Although the controversy has died off, the underlying point remains: why is The Australian publishing content that is hyper-partisan and political in content without revealing the authorship?
The other thought is a bit obscure. What if we step back away from the Twitter scenario to think about political content more generally? Here, we think about donations to think tanks. Should think tanks really be a way of laundering political money? Does the evidence really suggest that plain packaging laws don’t work… or are you saying this because you’re funded by tobacco companies? In broad strokes, I think we have the same argument as the anonymous Twitter account: when should think tanks have to open the books and reveal who’s backing them? Would it affect the way we thought of, for example, Per Capita’s ‘research’? What are the privacy considerations and for whom? Isn’t funding a political think tank an inherently public act?
This second line of argument is appealing to me for two reasons. First, it allows me to maintain my psychic self-image of being non-partisan. Second, it seems to line up with the observations: it’s hard to criticise things that don’t exist, and the argument is generalisable to contexts where there is more of a diverse political space. But I’m not sure I’m hitting nicely upon an answer to the big mystery: where is the conservative equivalent of PRGuy17? Don’t get me wrong: I think we’re happier living in a world where that noise doesn’t exist, but there must be something systemic operating under the surface.