Earlier today I was interviewed on ABC Radio by Myf Warhurst. We discussed the problem of online hate and what the Online Hate Prevention Institute does about it. This was a head of talks scheduled for the evenings of Tuesday 16/4 in Sydney Wednesday 17/4 in Brisbane and Thursday 2/5 in Melbourne. The interview is now available online.

Background to the upcoming talks

I first discussed the problem of Islamophobia on Social Media on radio with Waleed Aly on ABC Drive back in 2013. It followed the release of OHPI’s ground breaking report on Islamophobia on the Internet. Back then the main question I was being asked was why we should take this online content seriously.

Last year the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Committee on British Muslims said it was that 2013 report which “led to calls from politicians for better structures to deal with online hate and for social media platforms to take a greater onus on tackling online hate”.

A more recent report on Islamophobia was used by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia in a report to the UN Human Rights Council. That was despite it only being an interim report, OHPI having run out of funding to complete a full report.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) doesn’t just deal with Islamophobia. In fact, the organisation grew out of the Jewish community and efforts to tackle online antisemitism. For almost a decade I served as a co-chair of the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism and it was the significant progress in tackling online antisemitism, and the desire to spread that effort to tackling other forms of online hate, which led to the creation of the Online Hate Prevention Institute. 

We’ve also been dealing with racism against Indigenous Australians, homophobia, misogyny, violent extremism and more. We do this by monitoring the online space with the support of the public using software we have been developing for years. 

A UNESCO report on “Countering Online Hate Speech” described OHPI’s software as one of the initiatives that “take combating online hate speech a step further and serve as innovative tools for keeping track of hate speech across social networks and how it is being regulated by different private companies.”

Just last year we were in Google’s office presenting on ways to handle online incitement during crisis situations at the launch of Tech Against Terrorism.

We’ve also completed work looking at the 2017 Bourke St attack, the 2017 Flinders Street attack, the 2018 Bourke Street attack and now the attack in Christchurch. In each to those we’ve looked at how the far right have used the incidents to try incite hate and cause race riots.

We also took action during the Martin’s Place siege using our contact with both Facebook and police to have fake pages setup by the far right, pages that pretended to be Muslim pages in support of the attack, rapidly pulled. We used social media to encourage people not to spread the content. Our warning was seen by over a quarter of a million people.

A large part of what OHPI does is coming up with recommendations on how we can change the technology, policies and laws to better deal with the problem of online hate. I have been arguing since 2010 for regulation, but the regulation needs to be done in the right way. Recent Australian laws fail to do this. What we need instead is for regulation and technology to be working together. 

We also need much greater support for civil society which is able to help stroke the right balance. Despite OHPI’s leading role in this space globally, we’re running on a budget of under $40,000 and without government support at either federal or state level for our activities. Even in the run up to the election, and after Christchurch, we haven’t been contacted by any political parties with promises to change this. 

Despite the serious limits this puts on our capacity, we continue to do what we can to keep people safe. We have excellent relationships with the technology companies and the ideas we make for improvements to the technology are given a serious hearing and often implemented. Just in the past couple of weeks we’ve highlighted to one company that prevented some content being properly reported. We not only got the content removed, but initiative discussions on changing to the system and fix the flaw.

The public talks will discuss how we can better tackle the problem of online hate and extremism and how all parts of society can work together to keep the public safe. This is an evolving space and a report looking at these issues with major recommendations is currently being worked on. We have shifted the needle in the past and this new work will do so again. 

Laws Against Racial Vilification

During the interview I mentioned Section 18C and that the government pushed to remove it despite data that showed it was useful, that hate speech caused real harm, and that the public did not support a change. This was in response to an earlier interview Myf conducted about the lack of scientists, and indeed the lack of science, in our political discussions.

In discussion I noted the push for removing S 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was ideological and not based on science. I mentioned that even polling by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) which was strongly pushing for the change didn’t show a majority of the public supporting the idea. An IPA spokesperson wrote to me to tell me I was “completely wrong”.

I didn’t have any data in front of me in the live interview, however, we did use that IPA data in a briefing about Israel Folau and Homophobia over the weekend so it was fresh in my mind.

I don’t believe the IPA poll can be regarded as good science. As I explained to the IPA in my reply e-mail (below), the way their poll was done appears to significantly distorts the data in favour of their preferred position. Even so, less than 50% of people were willing to support the idea of weakening the law. Other data, without the flaw of a lead-in question about freedom of speech, saw less than 10% of people support a weakening of the law. Get less than 50% support (compared to the 95% they got to the preceding freedom of speech question) is quite telling.

My question to the IPA on what the coalitions policy on Section 18C is going into the election is a serious one. If this is a major point of difference between the parties, it is something the electorate should be aware of. If the coalition has changed their position, that too is something the electorate should be aware of given it would be a significant departure from their previous position. If anyone with a verified account who is able to speak for the coalition has an answer to this, please feel free to comment on Facebook and we’ll add the response here.

The IPA e-mail

Hello

You were completely wrong on ABC Radio when you quoted an IPA poll.

In the poll you refer to, 48% of respondents support removing the words insult and offend from section 18C of the RDA, only 36% oppose such move. 

To claim that “people weren’t willing to get rid of these laws” is just wrong and completely diminishes you and your organisation. 

I assume you’ve just plonked on the 16% that opted “don’t know” and added it to those that oppose, which is extremely poor form and blatantly misleading.

On the question of: Do you approve or disapprove of the proposal to change the Racial Discrimination Act so that it is no longer unlawful to “offend” or “insult” someone because of their race or ethnicity? It will still be unlawful to “humiliate” or “intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity. The results found:

Strongly Approve: 20%
Approve 28%
Disapprove 18%
Strongly Disapprove 18%
Don’t Know 16%

48% is a clear plurality of views and as close to a majority as you can get.

Kind regards,

<Redacted>

OHPI’s reply


Thanks for your e-mail. I had the poll in mind as we discussed it in an article over the weekend:https://ohpi.org.au/free-speech-has-limits-because-speech-can-cause-harm/

One of the things I was interesting in from your poll was the strong support for freedom of speech when it was presented in the abstract. I note that your e-mail below doesn’t mention this lead-in question. It’s a significant factor in the results. 

One hypothesis is that: Asking people about the importance of freedom of speech (in the abstract) right before asking them about a law that limits freedom of speech, will lead to an increase in the number of people that oppose the limitation. 

That hypothesis would be based on the idea that the person’s immediate thinking in such a situation is framed in terms of freedom of speech, and also that people will strive for internal consistency with their previous answer. 

Whether that hypothesis is correct, and if so, how strong the impact is, could be judged by asking the question about changing the law without the freedom of speech lead in.

That work was done and the results suggest that without the leading question support for removing “offend” is under 10%, while support for removing “insult” is under 8%. You can see the results in this article which I am sure you are familiar with: https://theconversation.com/what-do-australian-internet-users-think-about-racial-vilification-24280

Returning to the IPA poll, the fact that even under the most favourable position, with a lead-in question that frames respondents thinking in terms of freedom of speech, less than 50% were onside, indicates a distinct lack of support for changing the law. The data in the other poll makes an even stronger case that the public were not supporting.

While we are speaking:

Has the IPA has changed it’s views on section 18C following events such as Christchurch and Charlottesville? From what you know, has the Coalition dropped their policy to repeal section 18C?

If the IPA believes pushing for a change to this law would be popular, perhaps you will be urging the coalition to campaign on it. If they did, that would be a major policy differences between the parties. Such differences should be put before the electorate. Given their strong stance in the past, if the policy has changed and the coalition is now committed to keeping section 18C, that too should be made clear to the electorate. 

Thank you again for taking the time to write. I will put this exchange on our website and if you wish, you are most welcome to do the same. 

Comments and support

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