Peter Dutton backs laws to crack down on ‘above the law’ social media companies over misinformation

<span>Opposition leader Peter Dutton says the Coalition is ‘happy to have a look at anything the government puts forward’ to act against misinformation on social media.</span><span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Opposition leader Peter Dutton says the Coalition is ‘happy to have a look at anything the government puts forward’ to act against misinformation on social media.Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has expressed support for a crackdown on the spread of dangerous lies on social media platforms, renewing focus on the government’s misinformation legislation which was shelved late last year.

Conspiracy theories and violent imagery spread rapidly on social media after the mass stabbing at Bondi Junction. After video and false information spread in the wake of the stabbing of bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, an estimated 2,000 people gathered at the Christ the Good Shepherd church in the Sydney suburb of Wakeley, where some rioted and allegedly injured police.

The Coalition has been fiercely critical of the government’s misinformation legislation, but Dutton said on Sunday morning it was prepared to back the laws, which were overhauled after concerns over freedom of speech and the definition of misinformation.

Related: Elon Musk and X to fight Australian eSafety order to remove content relating to Sydney stabbing

Social media companies see themselves as “above the law”, Dutton told ABC’s Insiders program.

“We’re happy to have a look at anything the government puts forward,” he said.

The communications minister, Michelle Rowland, has accused the opposition of flip-flopping and confirmed the government will introduce new legislation this year.

“Holding social media companies accountable for seriously harmful misinformation and disinformation on their platforms has never been more important,” she said.

“The Albanese government has been steadfast in its resolve to combat the scourge of mis- and disinformation online.

“The Coalition has flip-flopped on its position since 2022, putting politics first and running an irresponsible ‘bin the bill’ campaign, instead of working to hold big tech to account and keep Australians safe online. It’s hard to understand if the Coalition is actually serious about tackling this problem.”

The eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, tasked social media platforms to remove content that was in breach of online safety legislation after the stabbings, but the swift spread of false messages also ramped up calls for the government to do more.

The federal government’s proposed legislation would give the Australian Communications and Media Authority more powers over the social media platforms.

Rowland said this week that most platforms had complied with Inman-Grant’s requests.

But Elon Musk’s X, formerly known as Twitter, has rejected Australia’s request to take down content about the stabbing and accused the online watchdog of attempted censorship.

In a tweet, X said Inman-Grant “does not have the authority to dictate what content X’s users can see globally”.

“We will robustly challenge this unlawful and dangerous approach in court,” X said.

Musk tweeted that the “Australian censorship commissar [sic] is demanding *global* content bans!”.

The opposition has been vehemently opposed to the misinformation laws, describing them as “Orwellian”. The shadow communications spokesperson, David Coleman, has been running the “bin the bill” website with a petition against the laws on the grounds that it threatens freedom of speech. “This bad law must be stopped,” the website says.

But Dutton said the Coalition would be willing to work with the government to strengthen existing eSafety laws and to introduce the new misinformation laws.

“We need to get the right balance … we don’t want to impinge on your ability to express a view in a democracy,” he said.

Related: Sydney church stabbing: social media pages ‘infamous’ for spreading misinformation taken down

Labor frontbencher Murray Watt said the public had had a “gutful of these narcissistic billionaires”.

“They’re thumbing their nose at the laws that we have in place and I think it’s entirely fair that we go after them,” he told Sky News.

The deputy opposition leader, Sussan Ley, also said the Coalition would support the government “in cracking down” on social media platforms.

If the opposition does not back the bill, the government will need the support of the cross-bench to get it through.

The Greens are waiting to see the final bill before making a decision. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said earlier this week that tech companies needed to be held accountable, and that Australia’s regulation had to be “fit for purpose”. “Many of these digital platforms are now the only way people consume their news, and they need to be regulated and held to account for their behaviour,” she said.

Independent MP Allegra Spender said she would work with the government on addressing social media issues, “while retaining the space for public debate”.

Guardian Australia contacted X for comment and received an auto-reply that said “busy now, please check back later”.