Facebook has pledged to shut down hate speech months after the mass broadcast of the Christchurch mosque massacre.
But it has raised questions about whether governments are doing enough to keep social media giants in check, and now academics have made a cutting claim: Australia is the best place to be an “online racist”.
“Australia has been for some time the best place in the liberal democratic west to be an online racist,” University of Technology Sydney online racism expert Emeritus Professor Andrew Jakubowicz told The New Daily.
“Our racists and ‘white power’ advocates are adept at using the internet and social media and, in the process, are silencing many of their targets.”
Experts believe that not only are authorities doing little to stop racism spreading online, current laws actually allow social media companies to profit from hate content.
After worldwide condemnation of Facebook’s role in the Christchurch massacre of 50 people on March 15, the social media platform last week took some responsibility for what it publishes.
The shootings at two mosques in New Zealand were live-streamed on Facebook and viewed more than 4000 times after rampant sharing across the web.
Facebook said it would stop “dangerous individuals and organisations” from espousing their views online and banned right-wing personalities Paul Nehlen, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was on Sunday praised by the UN for implementing new gun control laws.
At the weekend the PM penned an opinion piece in The New York Times calling for social media reforms to stop the transmission of hate speech online, and this week she and French President Emmanuel Macron will lobby in Paris for action to stop the dissemination of violent acts,
While international leaders push for change, Professor Jakubowicz said he feared Australian federal and state governments had not kept up with the rise of social media, while actively ignoring recommendations on how to criminalise dangerous online behaviour.
I still call Australia (an online racist’s) home
Governments of all parties have played a key part in making the online sphere an optimal spot for Australians who wish to espouse their hatred, according to Professor Jakubowicz.
The problem, the researcher has argued, is that Australia is lacking in appropriate laws.
Professor Jakubowicz said there had been “sustained attacks” against the Racial Discrimination Act by the current government, and Australia – along with the US – had refused to endorse the rate hate provisions of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
When that Convention was reviewed in 2010, it was recommended Australia criminalises the dissemination of racist ideas and incitement to racial hatred or discrimination.
But Australia refused to ink its commitment to that part of the treaty.
Without this article, critics have argued, authorities lack the power to criminally charge perpetrators of online hate.
Many other countries in the Commonwealth and European societies have laws in place, but Australian states and territories have limited agency to push back against cyber racism.
Multicultural NSW created initiatives to hinder cyber-racism, but the initiatives were terminated when Premier Gladys Berejiklian took office in 2017-2018.
“Australia has created the perfect stage for the perfect storm,” Professor Jakubowicz said, considering recent racist-fuelled attacks.
For anyone concerned about freedom of speech, the academic said the aim was not to “anaesthetise” people on social debate or content, but push back on racism and racists.
How racist is Australia?
More than half (51.4 per cent) of Australians expressed anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in a national survey of Australian residents released in 2017.
Victims in the survey said much of the racism they experienced happened online or on social media – about 30 per cent of the racism they received in everyday settings.
Other racist hotspots included public transport and the workplace, both at 32.8 per cent.
Professor Kevin Dunn of the Challenging Racism Project of Western Sydney University said few western democracies were grappling with the level of white supremacy seen in Australia’s online space.
Politicians are ready to “condemn” racist attacks, but were unwilling to meaningfully hold social media platforms to account, Professor Dunn said.
“It would discomfort people to know the extent of racist attitudes Australians hold,” Professor Dunn said.
He said the survey also showed one in 10 Australians could be considered “racial supremacists”, or those who believe people are naturally inferior or superior based on race.
Profiting from racist content?
Professor Dunn said technology to delete racism from the online sphere was readily available.
The Challenging Racism Project is investigating an algorithmic program that can analyse emotional language in Twitter posts with 95 per cent accuracy.
So why do social media platforms not take down racist slurs? Professor Dunn said it has been found racist material generates attention, and therefore social media revenue.
“There’s no regulatory injunction for them to do so,” Professor Dunn said of social media regulating racist online content.
“We need our government to make a statement and create rules about what should be allowed and prescribed.”
The academic said it was also “well within” social media platforms capabilities to monitor and remove racist material in the same way platforms had removed offensive material, such as child exploitation.
“The technology is there, and they might not catch everything, but most racist material would not exist on the web for very long [if technology was utilised],” Professor Dunn said.