Paul Fletcher was recently appointed as Australia’s Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.
One of his stated priorities is to:
continue the Morrison Government’s work to make the internet a safer place for the millions of Australians who use it every day.
Addressing online racism is a vital part of this goal.
And not just because racism online is hurtful and damaging – which it is. This is also important because sometimes online racism spills into the real world with deadly consequences.
An Australian man brought up in the Australian cyber environment is the alleged murderer of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch. Planning and live streaming of the event took place on the internet, and across international boundaries.
We must critically assess how this happened, and be clearheaded and non-ideological about actions to reduce the likelihood of such an event happening again.
There are six steps Australia’s government can take.
1. Reconsider international racism convention
Our government should remove its reservation on Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
In 1966 Australia declined to sign up to Article 4(a) of the ICERD. It was the only country that had signed the ICERD while deciding to file a reservation on Article 4(a). It’s this section that mandates the criminalisation of race hate speech and racist propaganda.
The ICERD entered into Australian law, minus Article 4(a), through the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).
Article 4 concerns, such as they were, would enter the law as “unlawful” harassment and intimidation, with no criminal sanctions, twenty years later. This occurred through the 1996 amendments that produced Section 18 of the RDA, with its right for complainants to seek civil solutions through the Human Rights Commission.
With Article 4 ratified, the criminal law could encompass the worst cases of online racism, and the police would have some framework to pursue the worst offenders.
2. Extend international collaboration
Our government should extend Australia’s participation in the European cybercrime convention by adopting the First Additional Protocol.
In 2001 the Council of Europe opened the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime to signatories, establishing the first international instrument to address crimes committed over the internet. The add-on First Additional Protocol on criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature came into effect in 2002.
Australia’s government – Labor at the time – initially considered including the First Additional Protocol in cyber crime legislation in 2009, and then withdrew it soon after. Without it, our country is limited in the way we collaborate with other country signatories in tracking down cross border cyber racism.
3. Amend the eSafety Act
The Enhancing the Online Safety of Australians Act (until 2017 Enhancing the Online Safety of Children Act) established the eSafety Commissioner’s Office to pursue acts which undercut the safe use of the internet, especially through bullying.
The eSafety Act should be amended by Communications Minister Fletcher to extend the options for those harassed and intimidated, to include provisions similar to those found in NZ legislation. In effect this would mean people harassed online could take action themselves, or require the commissioner to act to protect them.
Such changes should be supported by staff able to speak the languages and operate in the cultural frames of those who are the most vulnerable to online race hate. These include Aboriginal Australians, Muslims, Jews and people of African and Asian descent.
4. Commit to retaining 18C
Section 18C of the RDA, known as the racial vilification provisions, allows individuals offended or intimidated by online race hate to seek redress.
Rather than just leaving this dangling into the future, the government should commit itself to retaining 18C.
Even if this does happen, unless Article 4 of the (ICERD) is ratified as mentioned above, Australia will still have no effective laws that target online race-hate speech by pushing back against perpetrators.
Legislation introduced by the Australian government in April 2019 does make companies such as Facebook more accountable for hosting violent content online, but does not directly target perpetrators of race hate. It’s private online groups that can harbour and grow race hate hidden from the law.
5. Review best practice in combating cyber racism
Australia’s government should conduct a public review of best practice worldwide in relation to combating cyber racism. For example, it could plan for an options paper for public discussion by the end of 2020, and legislation where required in 2021.
European countries have now a good sense of how their protocol on cyber racism has worked. In particular, it facilitates inter-country collaboration, and empowers the police to pursue organised race hate speech as a criminal enterprise.
Other countries such as New Zealand and Canada, with whom we often compare ourselves, have moved far beyond the very limited action taken by Australia.
6. Provide funds to stop racism
In conjunction with the states plus industry and civil society organisations, the Australian government should promote and resource “push back” against online racism. This can be addressed by reducing the online space in which racists currently pursue their goals of normalising racism.
Civil society groups such as the Online Hate Prevention Institute and All Together Now, and interventions like the currently stalled NSW Government program on Remove Hate from the Debate, are good examples of strategies that could achieve far more with sustained support from the federal government.
Such action characterises many European societies. Another good example is the World Wide Web Foundation (W3F)) in North America, whose #Fortheweb campaign highlights safety issues for web users facing harassment and intimidation through hate speech.
Slow change over time
Speaking realistically, the aim through these mechanisms cannot be to “eliminate” racism, which has deep structural roots. Rather, our goal should be to contain racism, push it back into ever smaller pockets, target perpetrators and force publishers to be far more active in limiting their users’ impacts on vulnerable targets.
Without criminal provisions, infractions of civil law are essentially let “through to the keeper”. The main players know this very well.
Our government has a responsibility to ensure publishers and platforms know what the community standards are in Australia. Legislation and regulation should enshrine, promote and communicate these standards – otherwise the vulnerable remain unprotected, and the aggressors continue smirking.
The terrorist attack in Christchurch was an expression of racist hatred that is being disseminated systematically across the globe by some media, think tanks and grassroots groups.
To actively challenge and dismantle racism, we need to create communication platforms for people who experience it. At the Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), we have developed an activist-in-residence programme as a framework for moving voices from the margins to the centre.
This month, Māori activist Tame Iti completed his residency.
Global network of racist Islamophobia
The Christchurch terror attack is a manifestation of Islamophobia, cultivated by images, disinformation and false narratives that are anchored in the portrayal of a Muslim threat to civilisations, especially western civilisations.
An entire industry has built up to manufacture and amplify hate. It is funded by a small network of foundations, political interests and private donors. They profit from the circulation of hate and propel Islamophobia for political and economic gains.
Hate generates ratings. It captures viewers, justifies neocolonial policies and spawns an entire industry of hate products such as video games and music videos. Individual acts of racist violence have to be seen within this wider context.
Manufacturing a threat
The attack is part of a global network of racist terror that is often legitimised by the structures of the state. We need to examine the close relationship between donors and political parties and grassroots right-wing groups that circulate hatred toward Muslims.
Media images are rife with racist narratives of the Muslim threat, often juxtaposed with narratives of threats posed by migrants and refugees.
The alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch attack referred to US President Donald Trump as an inspiration for the fight to protect white supremacy. This offers an insight into the global reach of the Islamophobia industry. In several speeches on his campaign trail, Trump amplified the trope of Sharia law, stating that Muslims would have to denounce their commitment to Sharia before being granted immigration visas to the US.
Similarly, politicians of various right-wing parties across western democracies have routinely circulated the image of the Muslim migrant threatening western civilisation. In the US, groups such as ACT for America, led by Brigette Gabriel with over 750,000 members, manufacture the threat of the Muslim “other” to organise communities around hatred of Islam. The group positions itself as a national security organisation, drawing up accounts of unwed Muslim migrant and refugee men who threaten white purity and exaggerating links between the influx of Muslim refugees and the threat of rape. Similarly, the image of the Muslim terrorist is often deployed as a heuristic for cultivating the fear of Muslims.
The effects of hatred
The effects of racism are documented in a substantive body of research. A study comparing reliance on media versus personal contact for information about Muslims found that media spread stereotypes, negative emotions and support for harmful policies. The opposite was found for those who relied on personal contact to learn about Muslims.
The study also observed that perceptions of Muslims as aggressive were associated with support for public policies harming Muslims, including military action in Muslim countries and restricting civil liberties of Muslims. Similar studies have observed that white Americans who rely on media as the primary source of information about African Americans – as opposed to personal contact – are more likely to express stereotypical beliefs and hold prejudicial attitudes.
In our own ethnographic work with African Americans in Gary, Indiana, we have documented the effects of racist attitudes and behaviours on the well-being of communities of colour. Racist discourse not only creates continued stress for people of colour, but has a direct impact through threats of violence. The colonial context of New Zealand is embedded in racist ideology that has an impact on the health and well-being of Māori.
Images of the Muslim “other” help sell entertainment programmes and video games, political campaigns cultivating the narrative of “white genocide” and weapons and new technologies sold by the arms industry.
Transforming Islamophobia through voice
Our research suggests that giving voice to people who experience racism forms the basis for a transformation of racist and colonialist structures. A commitment to challenging the industry of hatred targeting Muslims requires regulation and democratic processes. Everyday forms of normalised Islamophobia need to be challenged as much as extremist articulations of “white genocide”.
Acknowledging racism is the first step toward countering hate. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to the attacks by saying “this is not us”. But we can only have a conversation about racism if we acknowledge the white privilege that enables and upholds it.
We need to create opportunities for face-to-face interactions with Muslims in societies that often normalise racism. This means listening to voices that express the uncomfortable experiences of racism.
Recognising the links between racism toward Muslims, immigrants and indigenous peoples is the first step toward dismantling it and beginning a process of decolonising anti-racist interventions.
Have you ever considered that what you type into Google, or the ironic memes you laugh at on Facebook, might be building a more dangerous online environment?
Regulation of online spaces is starting to gather momentum, with governments, consumer groups, and even digital companies themselves calling for more control over what is posted and shared online.
Yet we often fail to recognise the role that you, me and all of us as ordinary citizens play in shaping the digital world.
The privilege of being online comes with rights and responsibilities, and we need to actively ask what kind of digital citizenship we want to encourage in Australia and beyond.
Beyond the knee-jerk
The Christchurch terror attack prompted policy change by governments in both New Zealand and Australia.
Australia recently passed a new law that will enforce penalties for social media platforms if they don’t remove violent content after it becomes available online.
Platforms may well be lagging behind in their content moderation responsibilities, and still need to do better in this regard. But this kind of “kneejerk” policy response won’t solve the spread of problematic content on social media.
Addressing hate online requires coordinated efforts. Platforms must improve the enforcement of their rules (not just announce tougher measures) to guarantee users’ safety. They may also reconsider a serious redesign, because the way they currently organise, select, and recommend information often amplifies systemic problems in society like racism.
Discrimination is entrenched
Of course, biased beliefs and content don’t just live online.
However, we can all play a part in reducing harm online.
There are three aspects we might reconsider when interacting online so as to deny oxygen to racist ideologies:
- a better understanding of how platforms work
- the development of empathy to identify differences in interpretation when engaging with media (rather than focusing on intent)
- working towards a more productive anti-racism online.
Online lurkers and the amplification of harm
White supremacists and other reactionary pundits seek attention on mainstream and social media. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to name the Christchurch gunman to prevent fuelling his desired notoriety, and so did some media outlets.
The rest of us might draw comfort from not having contributed to amplifying the Christchurch attacker’s desired fame. It’s likely we didn’t watch his video or read his manifesto, let alone upload or share this content on social media.
But what about apparently less harmful practices, such as searching on Google and social media sites for keywords related to the gunman’s manifesto or his live video?
It’s not the intent behind these practices that should be the focus of this debate, but the consequences of it. Our everyday interactions on platforms influence search autocomplete algorithms and the hierarchical organisation and recommendation of information.
In the Christchurch tragedy, even if we didn’t share or upload the manifesto or the video, the zeal to access this information drove traffic to problematic content and amplified harm for the Muslim community.
Normalisation of hate through seemingly lighthearted humour
Reactionary groups know how to capitalise on memes and other jokey content that degrades and dehumanises.
By using irony to deny the racism in these jokes, these far-right groups connect and immerse new members in an online culture that deliberately uses memetic media to have fun at the expense of others.
The Christchurch terrorist attack showed this connection between online irony and the radicalisation of white men.
However, humour, irony and play – which are protected on platform policies – serve to cloak racism in more mundane and everyday contexts.
Humour and satire should not be hiding places for ignorance and bigotry. As digital citizens we should be more careful about what kind of jokes we engage with and laugh at on social media.
What’s harmful and what’s a joke might not be apparent when interpreting content from a limited worldview. The development of empathy to others’ interpretations of the same content is a useful skill to minimise the amplification of racist ideologies online.
As scholar danah boyd argues:
The goal is to understand the multiple ways of making sense of the world and use that to interpret media.
Effective anti-racism on social media
A common practice in challenging racism on social media is to publicly call it out, and show support for those who are victims of it. But critics of social media’s callout culture and solidarity sustain that these tactics often do not work as an effective anti-racism tool, as they are performative rather than having an advocacy effect.
An alternative is to channel outrage into more productive forms of anti-racism. For example, you can report hateful online content either individually or through organisations that are already working on these issues, such as The Online Hate Prevention Institute and the Islamophobia Register Australia.
Most major social media platforms struggle to understand how hate articulates in non-US contexts. Reporting content can help platforms understand culturally specific coded words, expressions, and jokes (most of which are mediated through visual media) that moderators might not understand and algorithms can’t identify.
As digital citizens we can work together to deny attention to those that seek to discriminate and inflict harm online.
We can also learn how our everyday interactions might have unintended consequences and actually amplify hate.
However, these ideas do not diminish the responsibility of platforms to protect users, nor do they negate the role of governments to find effective ways to regulate platforms in collaboration and consultation with civil society and industry.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks a month ago, New Zealanders are grappling with difficult, albeit necessary, questions about discrimination and casual racism.
The response to the horrific attack has been heartwarming. Tens of thousands of people from different backgrounds offered support to the Muslim community and paid their respects to those senselessly killed and wounded. The response of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been similarly refreshing, and has become a global talking point. This gives us hope for a better future.
But lurking behind news articles and commentary proclaiming that this is “not us”, debate is growing about what this atrocity also tells us that we have been reticent to acknowledge.
Everyday racism links to extremism
In some ways, both of these narratives ring true. On the one hand, we have bought into New Zealand’s high global ranking for tolerance and inclusion. On the other hand, New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) and those of us who research prejudice and bigotry routinely find evidence for everyday experiences of casual racism. These experiences give extremism the space it needs to breathe.
One in three of the complaints received by the HRC in New Zealand is about racial discrimination. In 2017, the commission launched a Give Nothing to Racism campaign fronted by acclaimed film director Taika Waititi.
Everyday, or “casual” racism and bigotry can appear relatively subtle or blatant. It may include comments such as complimenting someone who doesn’t fit the dominant group for being “well-spoken”, calling someone a “good” Muslim/Māori/Asian, excusing race-based jokes or comparisons as “just joking”. These seemingly benign comments are often accompanied with more blatant experiences of ethnic slurs, being told to go back to one’s country, or managers admitting they do not hire people with “foreign” sounding names (a violation of New Zealand law).
Compounded with such day-to-day experiences is research spanning decades and using a variety of tools (including neuroscience methods, reaction-time measures, and behavioural measures) to show bigotry lies on a continuum from blatant to subtle.
It’s worth mentioning, even subtle biases contribute to negative outcomes for minority groups’ health, well-being and participation in wider society. And even subconsciously perceiving minorities as “less civilised” can fuel intergroup conflict and violence towards minority groups, as shown by decades of research
While terrorism may represent the actions by a small number of extremists, they are fuelled by social norms that allow these ideologies to take root and propagate. As acclaimed French theorist Jean Baudrillard observed in The Spirit of Terrorism:
terrorism merely crystallizes all the ingredients in suspension.
Social norms shape attitudes
This does not imply that communities themselves are responsible for acts of terrorism, but rather that terrorism reflects what circulates in geopolitics, national politics, normative beliefs of those around us, the media and the influence of other ideological and social forces. Global context is, of course, important, but New Zealand now needs to reflect on how social norms within our own community can inadvertently promote hate and prejudice.
In Christchurch, and New Zealand more generally, extremist groups have been omnipresent for decades. Just last year, there was a white supremacist march down a main street in Christchurch that received numerous car horn toots of support. Students in Auckland have reported an increase in extremist group messaging on campus, even after the disbanding of a controversial European student association.
More broadly, data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey (NZAVS) show that 28% of New Zealanders are willing to express negative feelings toward Muslims. Fortunately, this is where all of us may be able to contribute to reinforcing the inclusive and tolerant society we tout in international rankings.
Where to from here
Well-intentioned and fair-minded people are often unaware of everyday experiences of members of minority groups. They often dismiss them as unrepresentative because the majority has a psychological investment in believing it “doesn’t happen here”. But such experiences do happen here as empirical research consistently finds, and these experiences cannot be undone simply through a similar number of positive experiences. People have a “negativity bias”, which means that negative events are weighed more heavily than positive ones. And if we have limited opportunities to forge meaningful close connections with people from other groups, then all it takes is a handful of negative experiences to wash away the benefits of other positive interactions and create distrust and social distancing between groups. Research shows although positive experiences are more common, negative experiences influence our attitudes more strongly.
Even as we work in increasingly diverse workplaces, our social circles tend to be fairly homogenous. Data from the NZAVS show that as recently as 2017, 64% of White New Zealanders report that they did not spend any time in the last week socialising with someone Māori. Some 83% say the same about socialising with someone Pasifika, and 77% report spending no time with someone Asian, suggesting that for many of us, our social networks are largely homogenous.
While this is similar to patterns elsewhere in the world, these homogenous networks create psychological distance between “us” and “them”. This also insulates us from hearing differing perspectives because minorities often fear that they will be seen as complainers if they share negative experiences in casual settings.
Instead, establishing relationships with people who are different from ourselves promotes positive intergroup contact, which is one of the most well-established approaches to reducing prejudice. Similarly, promoting social environments that encourage dialogue and cooperation, establishing common goals and providing opportunities for multicultural experiences offer some starting points for how to move forward.
At a time when the UN estimates more than 250 million people live outside of their country of birth, cultural diversity is an inevitable reality. It means we must learn to live and work together, and at the very least tolerate our differences. If each of us works to remove everyday bigotry within our immediate environment, we make it that much harder for extremist ideologies to take hold.
Kumar Yogeeswaran, Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology; Chris G. Sibley, Professor, University of Auckland; Danny Osborne, Associate Professor of Political Psychology, University of Auckland; Marc Wilson, Professor of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, and Mike Grimshaw, Associate Professor of Sociology
Following the tragic attack in Christchurch that killed 50 people as they prayed, I felt compelled to visit the injured in hospital, and meet their family and friends.
I also visited others in their homes, alongside an elder and pioneer of the New Zealand Islamic community, the man who helped establish Al Noor Mosque where most of the victims were killed.
Their stories of survival are moving, sometimes remarkable and often deeply sad.
But the common thread in their response to the horrific events of March 15 is profound bravery, deep consideration and thoughtfulness, and a complete lack of desire for vengeance.
At the hospital, I met Ahmad, a middle-aged man from an Afghani background. He said he survived because he was buried under the dead bodies that piled up in the mosque. Although he was shot twice in the back and was lucky to survive, he was not angry or resentful.
When asked about his abiding thoughts now he said:
terrorism must not scare us. Racism must not divide us.
I then visited Fuad, another middle-aged man originally from Afghanistan who also escaped death. He had been struck by a bullet in the back and another just missing the back of his head.
His wounds were visible. He told me, with four children, he was just grateful to be alive. Not resentful or vengeful, he was full of praise for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her deep expression of humanity.
Mustafa, a young university student of Turkish heritage, was shot in the legs. One of the bullets exploded in his leg and it is difficult to know the long-term impacts – but he smiles and is cheerful, kind and respectful to the nurses who care for him.
Like the other two, he was not hateful. He said:
We trust in God. Don’t be scared to go to Mosques and schools.
He was quick to point out terrorism would serve its purpose if it made people afraid – our fear is their victory.
Still in shock from seeing the events at Al Noor mosque unfold, Burhan, a Sudanese man in his 60s, stood in the hospital corridor. That Friday at the mosque, he heard the shooting but was not sure if it was real.
He then saw two men shot dead, one on his right and the other behind him.
He ran outside and hid behind a car but could see the shoes of the terrorist as he continued to fire. He watched as a father ran out with his three-year-old daughter in his arms calling out “my daughter!”.
Both had been shot multiple times and both remain in critical care.
A young man in his 20s whom I had met when we completed the hajj pilgrimage last year, witnessed the gunman as he shot that young father and child.
Not unscathed, he too was shot in the hip and shoulder and his father only survived by pretending to be dead.
Without anger and strong in his faith he said:
the Prophets of God were tested more severely.
Down every corridor the message was the same – the survivors urged unity and the strength to resist hatred, racism and vengeance.
At the community centre later that day I met Adnan Ibrahim the father of the youngest of the 50 victims killed at the two mosques. His son, Mucad Ibrahim, was only three years old.
Before he was killed, he had run toward the gunman thinking it was a game.
As Adnan retold the events, everyone became very silent. In deep pain and sorrow, he showed grace and dignity.
Verily we belong to God and to Him we shall return.
His most present thoughts were about the sad condition of humanity, that such things could happen.
On my way to the carpark, I met Matiullah, a young man under 20 years old. I greeted him and asked if he lost anyone. He told me his father was killed while standing in prayer at the mosque. I embraced him and was struck by his gentleness and calmness.
The community elder Dr Hanif Quazi took me to see Ambreen Nadeem, who lost both her husband and her 21-year-old son, Talha.
Talha was completing an engineering degree. The entire family were planning to visit Pakistan in June and the tickets were booked.
As I met her with her two remaining sons, 17 and seven years old, I was filled with sadness.
Grief lined her dignified face.
And she said:
I pity the killer because his heart was filled with hate, not love.
“Pray for us,” she added quietly. I did.
At a time when we could expect that anger, vengeance and resentment could take hold in a community so demolished by violence, I found the exact opposite.
They were compassionate. They were forgiving. They were humane. And this is what we need right now.
Living in a networked world has many advantages. We get our news online almost as soon as it happens, we stay in touch with friends via social media, and we advance our careers through online professional networks.
But there is a darker side to the internet that sees far-right groups exploit these unique features to spread divisive ideas, racial hate and mistrust. Scholars of racism refer to this type of racist communication online as “cyber-racism”.
Even the creators of the internet are aware they may have unleashed a technology that is causing a lot of harm. Since 2017, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has focused many of his comments about the dangers of manipulation of the internet around the spread of hate speech, saying that:
Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken.
Our team conducted a systematic review of ten years of cyber-racism research to learn how different types of communicators use the internet to spread their views.
Racists groups behave differently to individuals
We found that the internet is indeed a powerful tool used to influence and reinforce divisive ideas. And it’s not only organised racist groups that take advantage of online communication; unaffiliated individuals do it too.
But the way groups and individuals use the internet differs in several important ways. Racist groups are active on different communication channels to individuals, and they have different goals and strategies they use to achieve them. The effects of their communication are also distinctive.
Individuals mostly engage in cyber-racism to hurt others, and to confirm their racist views by connecting with like-minded people (seeking “confirmation bias”). Their preferred communication channels tend to be blogs, forums, news commentary websites, gaming environments and chat rooms.
Strategies they use include denying or minimising the issue of racism, denigrating “non-whites”, and reframing the meaning of current news stories to support their views.
Groups, on the other hand, prefer to communicate via their own websites. They are also more strategic in what they seek to achieve through online communication. They use websites to gather support for their group and their views through racist propaganda.
Racist groups manipulate information and use clever rhetoric to help build a sense of a broader “white” identity, which often goes beyond national borders. They argue that conflict between different ethnicities is unavoidable, and that what most would view as racism is in fact a natural response to the “oppression of white people”.
Collective cyber-racism has the main effect of undermining the social cohesion of modern multicultural societies. It creates division, mistrust and intergroup conflict.
Meanwhile, individual cyber-racism seems to have a more direct effect by negatively affecting the well being of targets. It also contributes to maintaining a hostile racial climate, which may further (indirectly) affect the well being of targets.
What they have in common
Despite their differences, groups and individuals both share a high level of sophistication in how they communicate racism online. Our review uncovered the disturbingly creative ways in that new technologies are exploited.
For example, racist groups make themselves attractive to young people by providing interactive games and links to music videos on their websites. And both groups and individuals are highly skilled at manipulating their public image via various narrative strategies, such as humour and the interpretation of current news to fit with their arguments.
A worrying trend
Our findings suggest that if these online strategies are effective, we could see even sharper divisions in society as the mobilisation of support for racism and far-right movements spreads online.
There is also evidence that currently unaffiliated supporters of racism could derive strength through online communication. These individuals might use online channels to validate their beliefs and achieve a sense of belonging in virtual spaces where racist hosts provide an uncontested and hate-supporting community.
This is a worrying trend. We have now seen several examples of violent action perpetrated offline by isolated individuals who radicalise into white supremacist movements – for example, in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway, and more recently of Robert Gregory Bowers, who was the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
In Australia, unlike most other liberal democracies, there are effectively no government strategies that seek to reduce this avenue for the spread of racism, despite many Australians expressing a desire that this be done.
Ana-Maria Bliuc, Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology, Western Sydney University; Andrew Jakubowicz, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Technology Sydney, and Kevin Dunn, Dean of the School of Social Science and Psychology, Western Sydney University
This piece is part of a series on race and racism in Australia. The series examines this complex and incendiary topic, and the role it plays in contemporary Australia. You can read the rest of the series here.
But unlike many countries around the world, the focus here is on civil laws. Although many states have criminal laws prohibiting serious vilification (such as NSW and Queensland), there are no criminal “hate speech” laws at the federal level. In practice, the vast majority of vilification complaints in Australia are dealt with under the civil law.
The basic idea is pretty simple. In a society that aspires to embrace diversity and support the human rights of all, it is not OK to vilify someone (that is, denigrate or defame them) because of who they are, as opposed to something they might have done.
We have been researching anti-vilification laws for more than two decades. So, how well do these kinds of laws work? Do they provide redress and remedies to targets of hate speech? Do they stifle free speech? And, perhaps most importantly, do they reduce the incidence of hate speech?
First, let’s look at whether hate speech laws provide redress and remedies to targets of hate speech. If a person feels that an incident of unlawful vilification has occurred, they can lodge a complaint by contacting the relevant state authority (for example, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board) or the Australian Human Rights Commission.
There are procedural difficulties in lodging a complaint. For example, the person complaining needs to be from the group that was targeted and has to be able to identify the person about whom they are complaining (which is difficult when vilification happens in public places and the perpetrator is a stranger). The process can also take a long time. This can discourage people from lodging complaints or cause them to give up before the matter is resolved.
After a person lodges a complaint, the authority will assess whether the allegation falls within the definition of unlawful vilification. If so, the authority will investigate and attempt to mediate a resolution.
Our research has found that in about a third of complaints, a successful resolution is reached. This usually means that the person who made the comments agrees to stop making them or agrees to apologise, or the workplace where the comments occurred agrees to hold workshops to educate their staff about appropriate behaviour. These are all good outcomes.
The whole mediation process is confidential, so the public rarely gets to hear about these success stories. But they do show that the laws can provide redress and remedies to targets of hate speech.
The same research project showed that communities targeted by hate speech support the existence of the laws. Even if they never make a formal complaint, people appreciate that the government has legislated to tell everyone that racist, homophobic or other vilification is unacceptable. These laws help people to feel valued and supported.
Unfortunately, there are some gaps in current anti-vilification laws. Most laws don’t cover religious vilification and so, for example, little protection is offered to Muslims, even though we know they are one of the most vilified groups in Australia.
Do hate speech laws stifle free speech?
One of the most common arguments made by opponents of hate speech laws is that they stifle free speech. But our research does not support this claim.
Only a small number of complaints are lodged around the country each year (about 200), and less than 2% of those complaints end up in a court or tribunal. Of those that do, only half succeed. The most commonly ordered remedy is an apology or correction, or removal of the material from public view.
There is little evidence that people feel some topics are “off limits”. On the contrary – political debate in Australia is robust and wide open.
In fact, some of those who complain most vociferously about being silenced – like Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Tony Abbott – are amongst the loudest and most influential voices in Australia. They are prominent public commentators who enjoy wide media exposure.
Do hate speech laws reduce the incidence of hate speech?
This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer.
Our research has shown that there have been some changes in how controversial topics are discussed in outlets like newspapers. Overt racial and other vilification is less common now. Anti-vilification laws have played a part in effecting this change, but lots of other factors have been important, too, including changing social attitudes.
Unfortunately, as our research confirms, there has been little to no change in the incidence of vilification in public places – on the street, on trains and buses, or in shopping centres, for example. The only shift that has occurred is in who is targeted, with more recent waves of migrants newly targeted. There has been a shift, for example, towards people of African heritage and from the Middle East.
On this level, anti-vilification laws do not seem to have reduced the overall incidence of hate speech.
Another way of measuring the success of anti-vilification laws is in public attitudes. Opinion polls show strong public support for the idea that governments should draw a line in the sand – one that says that racist hate speech and other forms of group vilification are unacceptable.
This is perhaps the most important legacy of 30 years of anti-vilification laws in Australia.
Immigration has become one of the most divisive issues in Australian politics. It has created open fractures within government ranks and sparked dog whistling; it’s being exploited to nefarious political ends by fringe and not-so-fringe players.
But an appallingly racist diatribe, by a senator who not one in a thousand Australians would have heard of, on Wednesday brought almost all the parliament together to reassert some core values of Australia’s policy.
Delivering his maiden speech on Tuesday, Fraser Anning called for a ban on all further Muslim immigration and invoked the words “final solution” – the term referring to the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews – when calling for a popular vote on immigration.
Anning arrived in parliament by chance, replacing the equally controversial Malcolm Roberts from One Nation, who fell foul of the citizenship crisis. But Anning immediately parted ways with One Nation, and has recently joined Katter’s Australian Party.
Among much else, the Queensland senator told parliament on Tuesday that “the one immigrant group here and in other Western nations that has consistently shown itself to be the least able to assimilate and integrate is Muslims”.
“The first terrorist act on Australian soil occurred in 1915 – when two Muslim immigrants opened fire on a picnic train of innocent women and children in Broken Hill – and Muslim immigrants have been a problem ever since.”
Such are the rituals of first speeches that many Coalition senators and even crossbencher Derryn Hinch (who has been beating up on himself publicly ever since) went over to pay Anning the traditional congratulations afterwards.
But after that reactions were quick, and by Wednesday morning condemnation was raining down on Anning from almost everywhere.
Labor with the support of the government moved a motion in the Senate and the House; the leaders in both houses spoke.
The motion, which did not mention Anning by name, acknowledged “the historic action of the Holt Government, with bipartisan support from the Australian Labor Party, in initiating the dismantling of the White Australia Policy”.
It gave “unambiguous and unqualified commitment to the principle that, whatever criteria are applied by Australian Governments in exercising their sovereign right to determine the composition of the immigration intake, race, faith or ethnic origin shall never, explicitly or implicitly, be among them”.
The motion was the same (except for the addition of the word “faith”) as the one prime minister Bob Hawke moved in 1988 after opposition leader John Howard had suggested a slowing of Asian immigration. Then, the Liberals voted against the motion, though with three defections.
In our frequently depressing and often toxic political climate, Wednesday’s bipartisanship was a small but significant and encouraging moment of unity on what we stand for as a nation.
Mathias Cormann, an immigrant from Belgium, said: “This chamber in many ways is a true reflection of what a great migrant nation we are.”
“We have … representatives of our Indigenous community. We have in this chamber representatives of Australians whose families have been here for generations, who are the descendants of migrants to Australia of more than 100 years ago.
“We have in this chamber first-generation migrants from Kenya, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany and Scotland. What a great country we are. Where first-generation Australians can join First Australians and those Australians whose families have lived here for more than 100 years and all work together to make our great country an even better country.”
While the mainstream had its act together, on the fringe it was a wild ride.
Hanson denounced Anning’s speech. “I have always advocated you do not have to be white to be Australian,” she said. And “to actually hear people say now that, as Senator Hinch said, it is like hearing Pauline Hanson on steroids – I take offence to that”.
Never mind that in her own maiden speech as a senator Hanson had declared that further Muslim immigration should be stopped and the burqa banned. “Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own,” she said in September 2016.
Later on Wednesday Hanson introduced her private member’s bill “to give voters a say on whether Australia’s immigration levels are too high by casting a vote at the next general election”.
Then there was that force of nature, Bob Katter, who said he supported his new recruit “1000% … I support everything he said”.
It is never easy to navigate one’s way through Katter speak – on Wednesday it was at times close to impossible.
“Fraser is dead right – we do not want people coming in from the Middle East or North Africa unless they’re the persecuted minorities. Why aren’t you bringing in the Sikhs? Why aren’t you bringing in the Jews?” he told a news conference in Cairns – he could not fly to Canberra and parliament because of a sinus procedure.
As for the “final solution” reference: “Fraser is a knockabout bloke, he’s owned pubs and he’s not stupid – he built his own aeroplane. But he hasn’t read all the history books.
“He didn’t go to university, he was out working building pipelines for the coal and the gas and the oil with a hard hat on. He’s a member of the hard left, not the lily pad left. He didn’t go to university to know the significance of all these words.
“Fraser would have no idea about what that meant. For those of us, like myself that are fascinated by history and have read the history books – it is one of the worst statements in all of human history.”
“He like myself, has had constant meetings and addressed Jewish groups around Australia. We are strongly behind the Jewish people.”
Hanson wasn’t the only one complaining of being insulted. Katter turned on a journalist who referred to his Lebanese grandfather.
“He’s not. He’s an Australian. I resent, strongly, you describing him as Lebanese. That is racist comment and you should take it back and should be ashamed … No prouder Australian than my grandfather.”