A moment in October 2023

Reflections on combating online hate

The world in general, and Australia in particular, are having a moment. For many it is a moment of frustration, disillusion, and deep concern. There are real world events shaping this moment, the referendum on the voice, the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel and the resulting war, and other local and global events. A common thread to our experience of them is the way they are mediated through social media and the online world.

Were it not for social media, the human stories, many of them tragic, would be less visible. Were it not for social media, the outright trolling and expressions of hate on those stories would not be cutting us so deeply. Were it not for social media, the disinformation would not spread so fast and so far. Dialogue becomes harder when the facts themselves are in dispute; whether due to a lack of information, the deliberate and tactical spread of disinformation, lower levels of trust in the media / experts / governments and other credible sources, or just information overload.

As Australia’s only charity dedicated to tackling all forms on online hate and extremism, the Online Hate Prevention Institute has a huge task to undertake on a very tight budget, even in the best of times. There are no words to describe this month. It’s simply horrific. Pausing to share what we’re doing with you is incredibly hard, both because there is still so much else that needs to be done, and urgently, and because reflecting on the past few weeks is so incredibly painful.

Earlier this week I met with political activist and businessman Simon Holmes à Court. We discussed the work of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and the current moment in time. It followed our AGM last Sunday, also reflecting the work that’s been done, and the work that is so urgently needed right now. This articles shares of some what’s been discussed, and some of what’s developed since then, as right now everything is moving so fast.

What we’ve done

Last Sunday we held our AGM, as scheduled months earlier. We reported on the work undertaken in from 1 July 2022 to 30 June 2023 as usual. It was huge year of international engagements on tackling online hate and extremism: participating in meetings in the Capitol in Washington DC, testifying in the European Parliament in Brussels, engaging in a counter terrorist workshop at Meta’s offices in Singapore, representing the Australian Government at IHRA meetings in Croatia, and more.

It was also a huge year for impactful research into online hate, at a global IEEE event we launched our report into anti-Asian hate, produced in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and Meta (video of the panel and launch). In partnership with Australia’s peek Jewish community body, the ECAJ, we undertook a year long project and released a report into online antisemitism in Australia in 2023, which was covered in an episode on ABC’s 7.30.

We also testified to parliament, made submissions on law reform, and prepared confidential reports for governments, social media companies, and communities. We were deeply involved in responses to neo-Nazis in Australia, often quietly as we don’t believe in giving them oxygen. We produced over 380 pages of confidential reports documenting and monitoring extremist groups, people and incidents in the United states.

What we’re doing now

Our AGM also discussed the work we have done since 1 July 2023, and what we are working on now. This includes a major project on online racism and disinformation related to the referendum and our response to Hamas’ terrorist attack and rising extremism and online hate, both antisemitism and Islamophobia, from the resulting war.

The referendum project is being undertaken in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and Meta. We are about to complete phase one, the data gathering phase. We’ve gathered over 36,000 online comments across Facebook, Twitter / X, and Reddit. The comments are from discussion threads related to media articles about the referendum. So far we have comments from 3,700 threads of discussion, related to over 250 different media articles. The task of analysing that data is daunting. We’ll be hiring additional staff to assist with this work over the summer.

Documenting a Moment of Hate is a joint project by the Online Hate Prevention Institute (Australia) and the Online Hate Task Force (Belgium) in response to the Hamas terrorist attack, resulting war, and the rising levels on online hate this has inspired. The project has six analysts monitoring both antisemitism and Islamophobia across 9 online platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, TikTok, Gab, YouTube, Bitchute, Instagram, and Reddit. The analysts are viewing content as it appears in Australia, Europe, and Israel. The team members include Jews and Muslims, an Israeli and a Palestinian. The project is being undertaken because it is urgently needed. We have not had time to secure funding for the project and welcome any donations to support this vital work. We aren’t waiting though, the project infrastructure was completed yesterday and last night the analysts met and began work. At this point we are committed to gathering data over a two week period, subject to financial constraints we may look to extend that.

Other responses during the Hamas-Israel war: The new project follows a briefing on antisemitism, and another on disinformation, that we released after the Hamas terrorist attack. The current moment is not like the past “cycles of violence” in the Middle East. The Hamas terrorist attack was on an unprecedented scale in both numbers and brutality. Hundreds of terrorist invaded Israel and set out to kill civilians. A recent report from AP (largely focused on Palestinian casualties) puts the number of civilian victims in Israel of the Hamas attacks at 1,091 including many women and children, with a further 309 Israeli soldiers killed. These are not accidental deaths in the midst of war, they are the result of a deliberate strategy of terrorism as Hamas focused on killing and kidnaping civilians. These acts are not only horrific, they are explicitly prohibited by international law as war crimes. CBS resports how some terrorists live streaming their attacks (as we reported occured in the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, Halle, Buffalo etc), while others boasted of how many Jews they killed in phone calls home to their parents in Gaza.

Mean time in Australia, one university’s Vice Chancellor messaged all students and staff to remind them that “during the current conflict and at all other times, we support the rights of students and staff to engage in political discourse, including by making pro-Israel and pro-Palestine statements or commentary, but we will not tolerate any pro-terrorist statements or commentary, including support for Hamas’s recent terrorist attacks.” It says a lot about the slow creep of allowing antisemitism on to campus that THIS is where we need to draw the line. More here.

A meeting with Simon Holmes à Court

When I met with Simon Holmes à Court earlier this week, it was a chance to pause and reflect. Simon’s followed our work online for a while, sometimes engaging and give us a boost, but this was the first time we’d met. The meeting was his suggestion, and he went out of his way to make it happen and to learn more about the Online Hate Prevention Institute and the work we do.

Dr Andre Oboler and Simon Holmes à Court

We discussed the Hamas terrorist attack and the Hamas-Israel war. We discussed OHPI’s activities, including the report prepared for our AGM. We also discussed the IEEE’s Digital Platforms and Societal Harms event which took place in Washington DC earlier this month, and which I initiated and chaired. We looked through OHPI’s new pitch deck which explains who we are and how we work. We spoke about the challenge we’re seeing in the online world and how we might bring people together to better tackle the problems of hate and disinformation.

Looking to the future

The Online Hate Prevention Institute is great at what we do in tackling online hate and extremism. Our work on policy and law reform sees us regularly consulted by researcher, governments, even the United Nations. What we aren’t good at is downing tools to get the support we need to keep operating. Right now, in this moment of chaos, we are running through our reserves at a rapid pace as we do the work that urgently needs to be done.

If you can help us keep that happening, whether it is through a donation or by reading our pitch deck and 2023 report and speaking to others about it, that would all be greatly appreciated. Particularly when speaking to your local member of parliament, as much of this work really should be at least partially funded by government, just like other vital community safety organisations. The rest will always need to come from those who support and value the work we do.