Australian Public Servants Warned Against Liking Social Media Posts That Are Critical Of Government Policies

from the couldn't-happen-in-the-US-oh-wait dept

The Internet effectively turns everyone into a publisher, able to promulgate their ideas in a way that was not open to most people before. That's great for the democratization of media -- and terrible for governments that want to control the flow of information to citizens. The Australian government is particularly concerned about what its 150,000 public servants might say. It has issued a "guidance" document that "sets out factors for employees to consider in making decisions about whether and what to post". Here's why:

The speed and reach of online communication means that material posted online is available immediately to a wide audience. It can be difficult to delete and may be replicated endlessly. It may be sent to, or seen by, people the author never intended or expected would see it.

Deciding whether to make a particular comment or post certain material online is a matter of careful judgement rather than a simple formula. This guidance sets out factors for employees to consider in making decisions about whether and what to post.

That sounds reasonable enough. But it turns out that what the policy is really about is muzzling public employees, and stopping them from expressing or supporting views that disagree with government policies. As the Australian organization Digital Rights Watch summarizes:

The new guidelines warn that public servants would be in breach of code of conduct if they "liked" anti-government posts, privately emailing negative material or do not remove "nasty comments" about the government posted by others. The new policies apply to employees even if they use social media in a private capacity outside of work hours.

It also applies to your past employment with the Australian government -- and futures ones:

it is also worth bearing in mind that comments you make about an agency you've never worked in might be made public and taken into account if you apply for a job there later. Perhaps you haven't breached the Code, but you might have ruled yourself out for that job if the comment could reasonably call into question your capacity to work there impartially.

In other words, if you criticize any aspect of government policy, you'll never work in this town again. What's troubling about this move is not just that it is limiting people's freedom of speech -- something that the guidance freely admits:

The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. This right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.

It's also that we have seen before where this kind of muzzling leads. Back in 2013, Techdirt wrote about similar rules for public servants in Canada, only rescinded last year. One of the most problematic areas was in the field of the environment, since it meant that even world-leading scientists were unable to point out publicly the evident flaws in the the Canadian government's climate policy. It looks like experts employed by the Australian government now find themselves similarly unable to be openly critical of the official line, no matter how misguided or dangerous it may be. There are also signs that a similar muzzling of scientists is starting to take place in the US. Despite unequivocal evidence of "drastic" climate change in a new, but unreleased US government report, emails obtained by the Guardian reveal the following:

Staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference "weather extremes" instead.

At least they can still like social media posts that are critical of the US government's environmental policies. For now...

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 1:36pm

    Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

    Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 1:50pm

      Re: Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

      Oh, don't worry! Go read the actual guidelines. They cover that in the FAQ!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Captain Beard (profile), 9 Aug 2017 @ 1:55pm

        Re: Re: Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

        Wow. That just makes it so much worse.

        Also covered in that same portion of the FAQ: You're not even supposed to post anonymously.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 1:58pm

          Re: Re: Re: Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

          It's a shitshow! The more I read it, the more baffling it became!
          As far as I could find, Australia's Constitution doesn't expressly grand Freedom of Expression, but this goes beyond what I'd imagine such a system to allow!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ThaumaTechnician (profile), 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:29pm

        Re: Re: Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

        It's published as an editable Word document.

        Obviously, you're meant to make any changes you want and publish it as a handy PDF.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          John, 9 Aug 2017 @ 3:12pm

          Re: Re: Re: Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

          All Federal Australian government announcements are posted as Word & PDF documents. The Word documents make it easier for the non-thinking journalist to cut & paste the press release into their article and call it "news".

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 1:38pm

    Just NOPE!

    "The new policies apply to employees even if they use social media in a private capacity outside of work hours."

    Nope! Not anywhere, not anyone, not anytime, NOPE! Curtail their spending time doing that or anything not work related during work hours, fine. Off the clock, in their homes? FUCK RIGHT OFF!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 10 Aug 2017 @ 6:19am

      Re: Just NOPE!

      This sort of thing is why I laugh at Australians who claim they have human rights.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Kronomex, 10 Aug 2017 @ 4:24pm

        Re: Re: Just NOPE!

        We have human rights? That's news to me, I thought we were rapidly becoming a fascist country. Every time someone raises the horrific spectre of a bill of rights the politicians, in particular the LNP politicians, jump into their Anti-Rights bunkers and hide until it blows over.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:04pm

    At least the guide provides the best way out!

    You won't be able to "like" posts, but you can share them without worries. Here's how:

    What about ‘liking’, sharing and reposting?

    If you ‘like’ something on a social media platform, it will generally be taken to be an endorsement of that material as though you’d created that material yourself.

    ‘Sharing’ a post has much the same effect. However, if you’re sharing something because you disagree with it and want to draw it someone else’s attention, make sure that you make that clear at the time in a way that doesn’t breach the Code itself. It may not be enough to select the ‘angry face’ icon, especially if you’re one of thousands that have done so.

    So all everyone has to do is share it and use the same boilerplate ironic disclaimer. The granularity of these guidelines is just amazing! Do read the page for a good, sad laugh at their expense.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:19pm

    I work for a government that will go unnamed who's Leader I disagree with. Ending my employment is not an option without facing jail time or a potentially aggravating 'black mark' visible to future employers. The last few years have seen a handful of guidance papers and policies implemented and parroted through the hierarchy and I kind of accepted it as part of the position. We'd already been directed to point media inquiries to the media department, and we're supposed to basically consider ourselves to be 24/7 representatives of the organization.

    Recently some of our national leaders have said some things publicly that generated a bit of confusion and outrage. Lo and behold an hour later I get a handful of emails reminding me of my obligation to refrain from expressing dissenting opinions in places that readers can link the "off the clock" me to the "on the clock" me. In a few years the restrictions are gone (for me anyway).

    Anyway I'm more upset that the Big Boss is so regularly saying things that cause my Leadership to remind me of my limitations than I am at the fact they exist. The last guy sitting in the Office did not generate this level frustration.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:34pm

      Re:

      We have been told not to make statements that are partisan in nature but should not feel constrained to voice personal opinions. The problem with that is that now days nearly every issue suffers across a partisan divide even on matters of basic facts.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:50pm

      Re:

      Anyway I'm more upset that the Big Boss is so regularly saying things that cause my Leadership to remind me of my limitations than I am at the fact they exist. The last guy sitting in the Office did not generate this level frustration.

      I would say that the same argument brought up when private companies try this can be applied here. If you feel the need to gag you customers/employees such that they can't say anything critical of you, it's a pretty good indicator that you're doing a terrible job and/or stuff you shouldn't be doing in the first place.

      The mere presence(implied or actually written out) of such a clause is an indicator that the job/service is a terrible one and the ones in charge of it know it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 3:31pm

        Re: Re:

        The mere presence(implied or actually written out) of such a clause is an indicator that the job/service is a terrible one and the ones in charge of it know it.

        Alternatively they are full blown authoritarians, and believe that the world behaves as they say. Anybody who disagrees is a heretic, and should be burnt at the stake.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jordan Chandler, 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:21pm

    Looks like AUD does not have freedom of speech, like Canada

    The Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression. However, the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists as an indispensible part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 9 Aug 2017 @ 2:31pm

    "'Impartiality' only works in our favor."

    Perhaps you haven't breached the Code, but you might have ruled yourself out for that job if the comment could reasonably call into question your capacity to work there impartially.

    So gushing about how awesome the agency is isn't enough to disqualify someone from a position there, but being critical of it can be. Because naturally an agency operates best when no-one questions the quality of the work they do and/or if what they're doing is a good thing.

    They don't want 'impartial' workers, they want yes-men/women, people who do what they're told and only say nice things about the agencies they're working at, because of course having implied gag-clauses in any government job is the perfect way to attract new people to join.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jacob Johnson, 9 Aug 2017 @ 4:36pm

    Poor Australia

    When you do this to people, you do NOT inspire loyalty. The result is going to be so much dragging through the mud that the Australian government is going to be always trying to come up for air.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 9 Aug 2017 @ 7:18pm

    Reminds me of the "I will not tell lies" part from Harry Potter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2017 @ 9:21pm

    Rule of thumb when working for someone else

    If you are asked to do something you disagree with but it has no moral consequences, just do it because it doesn't matter.

    However, if you are ask to do something dodgy then you should stand up and be a man/women/it and say so and act accordingly.

    If something really doesn't matter, it doesn't matter. Most of the Australian Government policy (irrespective of political leanings at the time) doesn't matter. But there are some areas where it does matter, and the worst part is that people who can do something, don't and the excuse is that they are just following policy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    topology, 9 Aug 2017 @ 11:47pm

    British-stlye Westminster System, not US System

    The public service in Australia is modelled on the British Westminster system, where the entire civil service, top to bottom, are tenured (except maybe for Department Heads; I'll have to check that one), and are expected to leave the political argy-bargy to the politicians; serving all Members in the Senate and House of Representatives without fear or favour.

    All civil servants need to not just be neutral, but be seen to be neutral. Unfortunately, the political debate is so divisive and conflicted that "neutral" can be the new "criticism".

    Sad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously, 10 Aug 2017 @ 3:58am

    So, the Australian government sees the pitchforks on the horizon?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DarkKnight (profile), 10 Aug 2017 @ 4:06am

    #Really?

    Yea,

    This is why I operate under pseudonyms, on social networks. Privacy matters. It's a pretty bad idea to link with employers, recruiters, or co-workers on social media, so if you're making who you "really are" known on social media, you have to expect that to be a problem. I don't, so I won't be having to deal with something like this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 10 Aug 2017 @ 8:34am

      Re: #Really?

      An FAQ attached to the rules states that they apply to pseudonymous and anonymous posts too. It says that they do this because they've received complaints about employees pseudonymous and anonymous posts in the past that were somehow linked to those individuals.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    krappinhows@hotmail.com, 10 Aug 2017 @ 4:18pm

    So that means, even after working for the Feds for about four years in the mid to late '80's, I'm not allowed to comment about the LNP government and their political corruption and policies that look after big business, corporations, and the rich.

    Weellll, this bunch of fascists can take a great big flying fuck!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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