Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has sparked a war of words with serial entrepreneur and firebrand Elon Musk, calling the world’s richest man “an arrogant billionaire” after Musk hit back over an order to take down graphic posts after the Wakeley church stabbing.

The stoush emerged after Musk’s social-media network X was ordered to take down posts that include graphic footage of the stabbing, in which a 16-year-old boy attacked a bishop and priest in what NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb called a “religiously motivated” incident that met the criteria to be labelled as a terrorist incident.

That incident – and police pursuit of 12 people in relation to a subsequent riot in which dozens of police officers were injured – motivated eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant to order social media networks to pull down the content.

Although X initially hid the content from Australian users, eSafety warned that the content could cause “irreparable harm” and pushed for a global takedown – ultimately winning a two-day injunction that forced X to hide the material from users worldwide until Wednesday afternoon.

Inman Grant’s push to ban the publishing of materials related to what is being investigated as a terrorism incident stems from heightened concern – and stronger powers – stemming from the 2019 mass shooting incident in a Christchurch mosque, which sent regulators scrambling as livestream footage of the attacks were quickly replicated across social media channels.

The latest order aims to prevent the similar dissemination of yet another terrorist incident, but Musk – whose long-running crusade to position X as a bastion of ‘free speech’ has drawn cries of hypocrisy given his kowtowing to the Chinese government – hit back, labelling Inman Grant Australia’s “eSafety Commissar” and pointing out that X had already removed the content for Australian users as required.

“Our concern,” he wrote, “is that if ANY country is allowed to censor content for ALL countries… what is to stop any country from controlling the entire Internet?”

Yet his concerns fell flat with Australian politicians, who have been clamouring over themselves to condemn Musk’s opposition to Australian regulations.

“Online tech thugs are operating as if it’s the Wild West,” Greens communications spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said during a press conference at Parliament House, calling Musk a “narcissistic cowboy” who should “front up to the Australian people… and explain why his company doesn’t have a social conscience and isn’t doing the right thing.”

“It’s not users who made this horrendous footage go viral over the last week,” she said. “It’s the algorithms that these companies have kept secret.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was similarly confrontational, pledging during an ABC interview that “we’ll do what’s necessary to take on this arrogant billionaire who thinks he’s above the law, but also above common decency.”

“The idea that someone would go to court for the right to put up violent content on a platform shows how out-of-touch Mr Musk is,” Albanese said.

“Social media needs to have social responsibility with it. Mr Musk is not showing any.”

Freedom of speech

The stoush over the Wakeley videos comes just days after Musk threatened to sue the Australian government over a takedown order related to controversial posts vilifying transgender activist Teddy Cook or face a fine of up to $800,000.

Although X complied with the order, widespread reposting of the content means that it continues to be accessible to users – an outcome that Inman Grant was undoubtedly trying to avoid replicating by pushing for a global ban on the Wakeley content.

eSafety has been navigating an increasingly fractious relationship with social media giants, recently ordering Google, Meta, X, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Reddit to detail their efforts to prevent the spread of terrorist and violent extreme content.

The commissioner also recently instigated civil action against X after the social network ignored a fine of more than $600,000 for its failure to comply with child sexual abuse material (CSAM) reporting requirements.

Yet Musk seems determined to wear the controversy as a badge of honour in protecting freedom of speech, whose near unrestricted guarantees under the US Constitution are less robust in Australia and nearly every other country.

Indeed, while Albanese noted that the ban has “bipartisan support” – and that “other social media platforms all complied without complaint” to the eSafety order – X users railed against the Australian government’s ‘censorship’ as Musk said he “would like to thank the PM for informing the public that this platform is the only truthful one.”

Albanese would have none of it, though, telling Sky News that the new injunction was “a loss in the legal system” for Musk and promising that the government “will back the eSafety Commissioner.”

“This has been a distressing time,” Albanese said, “and I find this bloke on the other side of the world, from his billionaire’s establishments, trying to lecture Australians about free speech.”

“I won’t cop it, and Australians won’t either.”