The Australian government actively intervened over 4,213 times in less than three years to limit or censor digital content related to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been reported.
The news was brought to light following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request lodged by Liberal Senator Alex Antic.
Although the number of government interventions was disclosed, the reasons behind these actions and the guidelines governing them have been withheld.
Senator Antic expressed his bafflement at the role of the Department of Home Affairs, traditionally responsible for areas such as border control, in influencing the narrative around public health via covert agreements with social media corporations.
In his own words, Senator Antic questioned, “On what basis is the department qualified to determine the truth associated with Covid related matters?” He also asked if this was a manifestation of an Australian equivalent of “#Twitterfiles”, referencing Twitter’s approach to moderating sensitive political content.
The Liberal Senator submitted the FOI application in December and received a review this month. He is now privy to the Department of Home Affairs Online Content Incident Arrangement Procedural Guideline.
This guideline explains how the government collaborates with digital platforms like Facebook, Meta, Twitter, Instagram, and Google to oversee and intervene with content.
FOI request by @SenatorAntic shows the Australian Government worked in secret with foreign companies to censor Australians on social media. At least 4213 individual requests were made by The Department of Home Affairs to censor members of the public. It is not clear what… pic.twitter.com/0EEpHE5qDm
— Rukshan Fernando (@therealrukshan) May 22, 2023
Although the document spans 28 pages, every page except the title has been entirely redacted. The subtitle, “Australia’s domestic crisis response protocol for online terrorist and extreme violent content”, alludes to the intent behind this version 1.3 document dated November 2022.
The department shared a supplementary document which outlines the number of interventions made under these arrangements. It indicates that between January 2017 and December 2022, the department made 13,636 referrals to digital platforms to assess content against their terms of service.
A staggering 4,213 of these were “Covid-19-related referrals”, all of which occurred within three years from early 2020.
These interventions equate to almost four requests per day during this time period. The Coalition led the government for the majority of this time.
The department has been challenged by Senator Antic to elucidate the nature of these 4,213 Covid-related requests.
A department spokesperson did not clarify further, but disclosed that these kinds of pandemic referrals will cease after June 30 this year.
The matter is set to be taken up in Senate estimates hearings next Monday.