Twitter—The heart-beat of our democratic process

images    Twitter has changed. From its inception when our now Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted about eating ice-cream at Double Bay, Twitter has evolved to be a platform for public comment—truly an instrument of the implied freedom of political communication, permitting citizens to express our views in our representative and responsible government essential to our democratic processes as defined in our Constitution.

Government, by way of its own Australian Public Service Commission and bodies such as the SBS are either not aware of this implied freedom or are preferring to ignore it. They earnestly write up their social media guidelines warning employees about the danger upon which they embark should they make comment on social media.

The guidelines sound reasonable enough on first reading. Here is an example from SBS:

“While SBS employees have the right to make public comment and to enter into public debate in their personal capacity, it is important to ensure that SBS is not brought into disrepute. Individuals should consider how their posts will be perceived by the community, taking into account the standards which apply to their work”.

 

In this statement, SBS conflates two essentially different things—the rights and responsibilities of the person as an employee, and the rights and responsibilities of the person as a private citizen—essentially erasing the distinction between the two. The result? By conflating these two aspects, the employer succeeds in conscripting the employee as employee for 24 hours a day, every day.

More significantly though, this statement has the effect of appropriating the employee’s role and function as a private citizen—effectively denying him the freedom to participate in the democratic process.

Fair enough you might say. “Why would you want to bag your employer?” After all, you might say, “I agree with the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who says that an employee is in a master-servant relationship”—“And why would you want to bite the hand that feeds you?”

Well, although the SBS social media guidelines sound benign, there is one thing that creates a minor impediment—that impediment being the implied freedom to participate in the democratic process arising out of our Constitution. This implied freedom provides immunity for a citizen who criticizes government, its politicians or its politics, from any adverse action for having expressed that point of view. Indeed, the High Court has the power to strike down any such legislative fetter to that freedom, unless the court considered that the fetter is reasonable, adapted and to a legitimate end.

So one might ask “Well may the SBS write up its social media guidelines using fine words and a paternalistic tone, but is it acting lawfully in doing so”.

From my point of view, the media guidelines are a form of gas-lighting: “We deny your reality that you have an immunity arising out of the Constitution, should you make critical comments about government, politicians and government policy, in order to assert our own reality that we will sack you if you do – but we will do it nicely and paternalistically…”

The SBS social media policy tips its hat to the possibility that an employee does have the freedom to criticize government, but quickly conflates such an idea with the threat of punishment.

For organisations such as SBS and the APSC, the implied freedom is truly an inconvenient truth, best to be ex-nominated from the social media discourse, best to be camouflaged by fine words, benign at first glance, kind and paternalistic even, until one changes from the ‘Young-lady-in-the Hat’ point of view, to the ‘Old-Crone’ point of view, and sees those benign words for what they really are—a very real and material threat to one’s livelihood – certainly an adverse action and certainly from which action one might desire the constitutional immunity.

And who would want to lose their livelihood, with children to raise and mortgages to pay?

And thus, these equivocal trip-wire guidelines by employers, succeed in stifling dissent, chilling our democratic freedoms—nay, responsibilities—and create a basso-continuo of anxiety for those who might want to express a point of view as a private citizen in a representative and responsible democracy.

In the past, I have referred to Twitter as the heart-beat of the news. I still believe it to be so. Sure, not all Twitter posts are either political, or even critical of government, many posts being the equivalent of eating ice-cream at Double Bay. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But Twitter is so much more!

The irony here is that government departments use Twitter for their own purposes, purportedly to be in communication with stakeholders and clients, but as long as the conversation is a one-way only conversation, these government departments can only be described as using Twitter as a propaganda tool, a gas-lighting tool.

So I say to Scott Morrison, “You may well refer to Twitter users as ‘bed-wetters’” and I say to the Prime Minister, “You may well say that our words are ‘electronic graffiti’, but you are both sadly offensive to a class of persons, your citizens, as well as mightily ignorant of the power of Twitter—to your detriment”.

I would urge you instead, to see the power of Twitter as a very real instrument for citizens to participate in our democratic processes, free to criticize you, your government, and your policies, in a representative and responsible government, arising out of our constitution and re-write those policies. There is nothing to be afraid of, except our points of view. We are engaged in conversation. But given that conversations, axiomatically, are a two-way dialectic enterprise, we would ask that just as we listen to you, you listen to us.

In so doing you will show respect for us, for our constitution and for our democratic processes, and be prepared to hear what we on Twitter have to say, without us being in fear of losing our livelihoods as a result.

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About lalegale

Legal and psychological advocate for freedom of political communication.
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