On August 29 2016 in Boulder, near Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, a stolen motorcycle driven by a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy and a utility vehicle driven by a 55-year-old man collided. The boy, Elijah Doughty, was killed at the scene and the man charged with manslaughter.
The man appeared in court the next day. Violence broke out outside the court where 200 people were protesting. Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett explained, “It was a race riot, there’s no doubt about that, tempers ran high and there’s a number of country towns where that can happen but it hasn’t happened for a long time”. Seven young people were arrested in relation to the riot, they ranging in age from 15 to 25.
There has been a spate of thefts of dirt bikes around Kalgoorlie. Police Minister Liza Harvey spoke of rumors of owners of stolen dirt bikes hunting down the thieves for retribution. She said, “with respect to vigilante action, if you like, police are investigating the claims that that has become a part of the culture in Kalgoorlie, and that is certainly not something that we would encourage in any way shape or form.”
The situation was exacerbated by the spread of both racism and incitement to violence through social media. Triple J reported on a number of the comments seen in two closed Facebook groups. Two days before Elijah was killed someone wrote in one of the groups that, “there is going to be revenge of some sort very soon! And all the do gooders will wonder why people are getting pissed off” while another added “How many human bodies would it take to fill the mineshafts around Kalgoorlie? A: We’re one theft closer to finding out!” These comments followed earlier suggestions that people should “Feel free to run the oxygen thieves off the road if you see them” and complaints that “Everyone talks about hunting down these sub human mutts, but no one ever does.”
Following Elijah’s death WA Police Acting Commander Darryl Gaunt described Facebook posts about the incident as “disgusting and racist” saying they had “absolutely inflamed the situation”. One social media user, for example, commented, “Good job you thieving bastard. Don’t think you’ll be touching another bike anytime soon ahaha. About time someone took it into their own hands hope it happens again.”
Triple J Hack’s Tom Tilley interviewed the Online Hate Prevention Institute’s CEO, Dr Andre Oboler on September 15th about the online hate and incitement. A podcast of the show is available from the ABC, the interview starts at 11:33:
The following is a transcript of the interview:
Tom Tilley: Now we’re talking to Alan about how much control you have over these Facebook pages that can get completely out of control, and I want to bring a guest into the studio who has some experience dealing with this kind of problem. We have Dr Andre Oboler, he’s the CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, and he’s just come back from a trip to the US where he was talking about racism on social media at a leading American university. Andre thank you so much for joining the conversation, now there were some horrible and even racist things said on those two Facebook pages in Kalgoorlie, is this a common thing you see in small communities where people have these kinds of outbursts?
Andre Oboler: Firstly, thank you for having me. This sort of problem does occur throughout the country, and not just limited to Australia but overseas as well. What we see is that people have lost their inhibition to speak their mind when it comes to racist ideas. Your previous guest was saying that it’s no worse than it has been, the problem is we’ve got an epidemic of hate speech in social media, all forms of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and it’s just been growing and growing and growing, and as a society we’ve just been allowing this to happen. My organisation’s been monitoring individual incidents, but also the overall trends, and just between last year and the year before there was about a 3,000 percent increase in the sort of racism which was occurring online, so it’s time we start waking up to the problem.
Tom Tilley: Somebody on the text line says nobody would make these comments face to face, this is spineless, do you agree with that Andre?
Andre Oboler: I think that’s quite true. I mean we’ve seen the odd incident on public transport, where people have attacked strangers with racism etc, but what we’re seeing online is that people feel there is no consequence. They feel they can say what they like, and unfortunately that’s been reinforced by the sort of political discussion we’ve had in Australia, all the discussions around 18C and freedom of speech have been sending a very negative message, that people have a right to racist, to be bigoted, and you know, that’s actually not the case.
Tom Tilley: We just heard the acting Mayor Alan Pendle who is with us in the studio say that it was very hard for someone in his position in local council to really take action. He said the police were looking into it, as you just pointed out, some of the things that are said on these sites are illegal, what can be done about them Andre?
Andre Oboler: Look one of the problems we have is that the problem is so wide spread that people are hesitant to engage with it. In the UK for example, they have been much more willing to prosecute, and the results is that the courts have been flooded. They have got to the point where some members of the British Parliament have suggested that the social media companies should have to pay for the costs of the police and the courts in actually dealing with these problems that are occurring on their platform. Their argument has been that it’s no different to the sort of fees that get paid to police in the UK when they are going to football games, and they have to have extra protection because there is a large crowd and it increases the need for public resources, someone has got to pick up that cost. So look, one side of it is that we really do need the police to be a lot more active, we need the courts to be more active, we need people to be willing to come forward and see it all the way through to completion. The other side is that we really need to monitor the response of the platform providers themselves. Platforms like Facebook really should have a public obligation to prevent the law being breached in the levels we are seeing at the moment and it wouldn’t take much to actually start imposing limits. We saw this in Europe at the end of May this year, the European Union reached an agreement with Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube, where the majority of illegal content which was posted online would be taken down by the platforms within 24 hours. There’s no such agreement in Australia at the moment.
Tom Tilley: Andre, on the text line, one person says “I’m sorry, but freedom of speech”. Obviously we have to balance any controls with our right to free speech, so how do we strike the right balance?
Andre Oboler: I’m actually got to disagree. We don’t have a right to freedom of speech in Australia.
Tom Tilley: Not complete freedom obviously
Andre Oboler: No, this is an American First Amendment concept, which is unique to America. In Australia we have a freedom of political communication, this is an implied constitutional freedom, and I’m a very strong supporter of that. I believe someone like Pauline Hanson should be able to make the sort of comments that she makes because the public need to know what she thinks when they go to the polling booth. When it comes to the sort of hate speech we see in social media, the Commonwealth Crimes Act actually says you can’t do that. We’re not talking the Racial Discrimination Act which is a civil penalty, we’re actually talking the criminal law.
Tom Tilley: Ok, very interesting Andre, thank you for joining us.
Andre Oboler: Ok, thank you for having me.
Tom Tilley: That’s Andre Oboler, who is the CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, talking about Facebook sites and other social media platforms where people often make hateful or racist comments, and that comes off the back of what we heard about in Kalgoorlie where there were two sites where people were venting about crime and often taking it way too far. On the text line, is there an arse hole epidemic? Someone else says, no matter who they are or what they have done, those comments about the Aboriginal community are f’ing disgusting.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute is a world leader in combating online racism, religious vilification, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hate and incitement to violence through social media. We take reports from the public of hate speech on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter through our FightAgainstHate.com reporting platform. This allows us to monitor how the platforms respond and to share the reported items with other key stakeholders. We also produce briefings and reports to create public awareness.
At the Online Hate Prevention Institute we have a growing collection of work tackling hate against Indigenous Australians. Both our reporting tool and our work in this area have been positively commented upon by UNESCO and other leading international bodies and experts, as have our collections on the many other types of hate we tackle. Our work is supported by an online community of over 24,000 supporters and we invite you join us.
As a charity, our work is funded through public donations. Since March 2016, due to a shortage of funding, we have been unable to cope with the volume of content coming our way. Since September 2016 our financial situation has grown more acute. Financial support to enable us to continue this critical work is urgently needed. Donations can be made here (or using the quick donate bar below), and donations by Australian tax payers are tax deductible. Thank you for your support!
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