Facebook Witch-Hunt Deeply Sinister

Professor of Criminology, Kristian Lasslett, digs into the proposed ban on Facebook in PNG. He asks whether the Communications Minister is engaged in a deeply hypocritical move, given his own virulent use of the platform prior to abandoning the opposition benches. 

Communications Minister Sam Basil has proposed a month ban on Facebook, while his Department audits the social media platform to identify ‘fake accounts’ and ‘misleading information’.

It is hard to know where to begin in evaluating such a hare-brained scheme.

First, this is a government that cannot identify, much less counteract, the grand levels of corruption that are decimating a wide expanse of departments, state enterprises, and the private sector, in broad daylight. Often the evidentiary crumbs are so big, it is hard not to trip over them.

But of course there are no feet to do the tripping after the O’Neill government gutted the nation’s anti-corruption apparatus. It has also failed to deliver on a promise to introduce an Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Alongside grand scale corruption, has been grand scale policy failures. Only several weeks ago meticulous research* by Paul Flanagan and Luke Fletcher revealed that policy failures and corruption had ensured the massive PNG LNG project incredibly produced a net negative impact on PNG.

The Prime Minister labelled this ‘fake news’. Under the impending Facebook witch-hunt presumably this research is the very type of ‘criminal’ activity which the Communications Minister, Sam Basil, is trying to ‘protect’ the nation from.

And how would Mr Basil view his own postings. Before he cleared out from the opposition benches to join the O’Neill government he was rather fond of using Facebook to engage in activity the Prime Minister would no doubt view as ‘misleading’.

Image: Do as I say, not as I do?

Image: Fake news or fact?

And that gets to the heart of the problem – fake news and misleading information have proven to be labels bereft of any rigorous criteria. Increasingly they are flippant labels being used for political axe-grinding by governments with records of corruption and mass policy-failure.

In PNG Facebook has become one of the few genuinely democratic and free spaces where citizens and friends abroad can not only connect, but share information on some of the most critical governance, policy and human rights questions facing the nation.

Indeed Facebook in PNG has become an extremely serious tool. It is where tens of thousands of people go daily, largely from their smartphone, to discuss policy, debate politics, interrogate corruption, spotlight injustice, and drill into regional and local issues.

We have seen dedicated editors maintain vibrant Facebook groups in PNG that span a vast range of issues.   Threads often last for days and weeks with hundreds of comments.

This has created new spaces for unheard voices. Victims of corruption and abuse have shared their story. Countless cases have gone viral, leading to wide-ranging support from citizens and civil society organisations.

Like never before the nefarious commercial and political affairs of the powerful have been put under a microscope. Exposes have spread like wildfire, opening up new opportunities for justice from below.

This has also had a notable effect on Papua New Guinea’s  traditionally sheepish news-media. This sheepishness is not without reason, journalists in Papua New Guinea face very real and violent consequences if they put a forensic spotlight on bent politicians or their clients in the corporate sector.

But that assumes they have the resources and training to even conduct these types of detailed investigations. While some exceptional journalists have overcome the deficit of professional support to do stunning investigative work, it tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

But with citizens pushing the boundaries of what is possible, principally via Facebook and connected blogs, we have seen more and more critical reports seeping into the mainstream media. Recent spotlights on the National Housing Corporation and the Leave of Absence scandal, are examples of journalists doing great work.

It seems exceedingly unlikely that the real objective of this Facebook witch-hunt is fake accounts, pornography or misleading information. Just from a technical perspective this exercise is expensive, complicated, time-consuming and most likely entirely unfeasible.

We can only make an educated guess at the real drivers behind this move.

Perhaps it is an attempt to put a freeze on the circulation of information and ideas that have percolated on this platform for PNG users, through fear and repression. Or maybe the initial ban on Facebook is a test run for a more enduring blackout.

Though it is risible to imagine that with all the critical economic issues facing the country that the Communications Minister thinks investing in a new white-elephant alternative to Facebook is prudent.

It is also concerning to read that the National Research Institute (NRI) has agreed to partner in this witch-hunt. It has been pleasing to see the NRI take on a bigger public role over the past several years, often being a beneficiary itself of the social media revolution. If it partners in this exceedingly ambiguous exercise, it will lose the public trust it needs to be a credible voice for research the nation so sorely needs.


* The author of this article sits on the Jubilee Australia Board. Jubilee Australia is the publisher of the study by Flanagan and Fletcher.