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Fighting the untrue

By Michael Jensen - posted Wednesday, 4 October 2023

We've lost faith as a nation in our collective ability to be bulldust detectors – and now we're asking the government to step in.

Everyone knows that free speech has its limits – or ought to. The classic example is shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre: an act which most people rightly think should be censored. A free speech absolutist is a rare beast indeed.

And in an information environment saturated in outright baloney – and dangerous baloney at that – who wouldn't think that the proposed amendment to the Communications Legislation "Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation" is a good thing? The legislation is aimed especially at social media platforms; and requires the owners of these platforms to take responsibility for what appears on their sites. It will hold them accountable, too, with stiff fines for non-compliance.


'Misinformation' is defined as 'content contains information that is false, misleading or deceptive' and is likely to cause 'serious harm'. Misinformation is distinguished from disinformation in that misinformation may be sincerely believed.

Disinformation is held to be intentionally misleading.

It may not be your intention to do mischief, but if you are deemed to be likely to cause it, then this law can target your sincerely held beliefs as bulldust.

The examples given sound fair enough, and it is easy to find very recent examples of them. Bulldusting about corruption and bias in the electoral process without evidence, for example, causes real harm to our democracy. Promoting bleach as a cure for COVID19 could cause adversely damage people's health. That's medical bulldust. Antisemitic bulldust leads to hate crimes against Jewish people.

We all know people who've become persuaded of fringe, fantastical claims. We may say that the truth hurts, but it is falsehoods that do an incredible amount of damage.

But as always with laws, it isn't the extreme cases that prove most difficult. The new law invites a government bureaucracy, or a court, firstly a) to decide what counts as 'misinformation' and b) to determine what is 'seriously harmful'.


They, in effect, become the ministry of truth.

But by what criteria are they to determine this? Even the 'best scientific data available' might not be as objective or as reliable as first thought. We've seen this unfold during the COVID years. The government will now be the judge of different political and religious views.

And how are they to determine what classifies as 'serious harm'? This is far more concerning, because the definition of 'harm' in recent legislation has started to become a subjective matter: a person is deemed to have been 'harmed' if they say that they've been harmed. Harm is now not simply physical but psychological. The word 'violence' has likewise grown in scope. This is what the legislation opens us up to: the potential for the suppression of sincerely held minority views on the basis that they have potential to cause 'serious harm' – a category that is expanding wide and ever wider.

As a person who is an advocate of Christian faith, which is, in an increasingly secular society, fast becoming a minority opinion, I do not want my views either censored or protected. I want them aired: discussed, criticised, argued against, doubted, and questioned. I don't mind being offended, if I am also allowed to have my say.

This law, if passed, will be a sign that we've given up the war for truth and will resort to the force of law instead.


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About the Author

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church at Darling Point. He has a doctorate in Moral Theology from Oxford University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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