As the year draws to a close one of our key reflections is that in 2018 it became harder than ever for people to oppose online hate. While social media platforms increase the pressure on far-right groups, closing many of their pages, the people involved simply created new accounts and put their energy into trolling to harass those opposing racism and other forms of hate. 

The Online Hate Prevention Institute was routinely targeted. Whatever the type of hate we were dealing with, trolls would come out of the woodwork attacking us for our stance. They argued moderating their comments or removing these uninvited trolls from our page would be an offensive to their freedom of speech. Their impact on the freedom of speech of others, and their ability to go about their daily life, was simply not on their agenda.

Moderating & banning hate speech

As our supporters know, we take a very different view and believe hate speech should be removed by social media platforms. Further, we have a “no platform policy” under which we not only moderate comments to our page to remove hate speech, but we also ban those who post it.

Sometimes we ban fake profiles or supporters of hate pages even before they comment.  Our page is an asset of our organisation. We invest heavily in it and racists, homophobes, antisemites, Islamophobes, misogynists, trolls and other haters are simply not welcome. Their presence undermines our work and the space we try to create for our supporters.  

Learning from the hate speech

We believe in learning from hate speech and sharing those lessons with others. Real change requires people to see the hate, to know what’s happen in social media. That’s not an argument for leaving it up, as part of the fabric of social media, but rather for documenting it and sharing it in an appropriate manner and context, in a way that highlights what’s wrong with it and why it should be opposed.

In order to learn from hate speech, we believe in documenting it before removing it. The hate on our page is almost always archived before it is removed. We note the accounts that post it, and sometimes investigate them discovering new hate groups or new fake profiles dedicated to hate.

Protecting the haters

Sharing the hate comes with risks. One of those risks is that it can paint a target on those who engaged in hate. It’s one thing for people to disagree with them, particularly in responses on our page which we encourage, but taken too far, the opposition to a person who promoted hate can itself become a form of bullying. Particularly where it moves on to target other people, such as messaging their family, friends or work colleagues.

To protect those who post hate from a backlash that might get out of control we not only ban them, stopping them from digger a larger hole, but we redact their name and picture when we discuss their comments in our publications. Exception to this practice are rare, but do occur e.g. when the person is presenting themselves as a public figure (e.g. running for public office) or as a leader and spokesperson for a hate group.

Even when we redact information from our public material, we retain a copy of it and we do share this information with others such as social media companies, police, government agencies, civil society groups and academic researchers. This can have the result of accounts being closed, charges being laid, or people being put under government surveillance ac part of efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorism. 

Yes, they really said that…

Lately, due to limited resources, we have been a little slow on the moderation on our page. Working hard to get the content out in a timely fashion, the barrage of abuse that then results has at times just been too much to deal with.

The remainder of this posts shares some of the content we have been holding off moderating until we had time to properly document it and investigate the posters. The accounts that posted these comments are now all banned from our Facebook page. There’s plenty more moderation still to come, but this article was starting to get a little long.

I’m not racist but…

One response we received was from a poster who wrote of Islamophobia:

 Ahhh is that the same as someone saying “they hate Christians”?? Perhaps you can get a share of the Halal takings?

They where challenged by someone who wrote that the halal industry was a source of significant export income for Australia. They were asked if they wanted to put an end to this. The response want a little more direct:

 I was never racist……I have always believed in giving everyone a fair go, and I have friends from many other cultures. I believe everyone has the right to practice their own faith……..but when people come to my country, to take advantage of all it offers, to make a new life…..I BITTERLY OPPOSE their efforts to change it back to the very places and oppression they have fled. ISLAMOPHOPBIA. Walk the streets of Yagoona or Bankstown and try ‘fitting in’ as a Christian. Take off your blinkers lady. Anyway, they really don’t have to do anything except multiply……..and eventually they will have the numbers to put people in positions of power……..I’m 73 and not sorry I won’t be alive to see Sharia Law, or Arabic as mandatory in schools….or GOD forbid having to wear a burkha. Look at history, check Iran in the 70s when hundreds of thousands of women walked the steeets of Teheran protesting the decision that they should be forced to wear the burkha…..find anyone there today without one? The latest in Pakistan where a poor women accussed of blasphemy because she insulted a man by being served first…..GOD FORBID THAT OUR COUNTRY SHOULD EVER END UP THE SAME. If you want to fight for anything, fight for the freedom this country offers…..and so many died for to protect.

To break this down, the person has argued:

  • They are not racist, they have friends of many cultures and faith… BUT (and here is where it goes off the rails) they make an argue that Muslims are an exceptional case and should not be treated the same as those other cultures and faiths
  • They base the idea Muslims are somehow different on the narrative that Muslims are engaged in “efforts to change it [the country] back to the very places and oppression they have fled”. 

This is what we have previously described as the Islamophobic narrative that “Muslims are a threat to our way of life”. This is a very popular anti-Muslim narrative on social media.

  • The threat to our way of life narrative is reinforced by the claim it is difficult fitting in “as a Christian” in Yagoona or Bankstown.

This sort of argument originates in the UK, a Christian country to the extent that it has an established Church and gives a number of seats in the upper house (the House of Lords) to the Christian clergy. Transporting this argument to Australia really doesn’t make sense. Particularly the choice of Yagoona, an area named after the Aboriginal word for ‘today’. If there is discrimination, it is far more likely to affect Indigenous Australians and it is they who have a far greater right to complain about all this “Christianity” impacting their land and way of life. 

As for Bankstown, one of our supporters replied “Bankstown shopping centres have lavish Christmas displays. I don’t think Christians are struggling to fit in somewhere which embraces one of their major religious holidays so completely.”

  • The idea “they really don’t have to do anything except multiply” is another example of the “threat to our way of life” argument.

This “demographic threat” argument suggests that Muslims are some how inherently different and can’t fit in. It not only rejects the idea that Muslims can be part of the Australian community, support Australian values and contribute to our society, it goes further and seems to suggest that it is somehow genetic and even after generations of Muslims being born and growing up in Australia, they would still somehow not be “real Aussies” but rather a threat. This really starts to become a classic racist argument rather than one about religion. 

  • The argument is made more explicit by the claims that as the Muslim community grows over time, “they will have the numbers to put people in positions of power” and that this will see “Sharia Law”, “Arabic as mandatory in schools” and Australians “having to wear a burkha”. 

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assume Australian Muslims want things like Sharia Law, mandatory Arabic in schools, or dress code requiring women to wear a burkha. The Monthly ran an interesting article on Sharia Law in 2010. In the article it highlights how Sharia Law is used in personal matters such as marriage and divorce. This is similar to other faiths where a religious process occurs in addition to the civil registration of a marriage or a filing for divorce. Religious courts for different religions can also serve as a from of Alternative Dispute Resolution within the scope of Australian law. This can (when both parties agree) provide an out-of-court process for resolving issues like contract disputes in business.

As the Monthly reported, the Australian Muslim community itself is divided:

However, within the Muslim community, it’s a deeply polarising issue. Proponents of sharia are often condemned for fuelling hostility towards the Muslim community, while opponents are attacked if they seem to question or criticise Islamic law. The Islamic Council of Victoria was so convulsed by a controversy that erupted after one of its board members advocated sharia courts in 2009 that it won’t even discuss the matter, although an insider confirms it is “completely opposed in any shape or form” to legal recognition of sharia law.

One outspoken opponent organisation is the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria. “Our experience in Australia is that when this proposition is made, it’s made to serve the interests of a small group of conservative men, particularly as it relates to matters of family and relationships,” says the council’s executive director, Joumanah El Matrah. “Muslim understanding and day-to-day ethics around relationships have changed, so this tradition of imitating practices formulated in the time of the Prophet Mohammed – I don’t think that is acceptable to a vast majority of Muslims now.”

The post ends with a call to “fight for the freedom this country offers…..and so many died for to protect”. This reference to our war dead, cementing fighting for Great Britain overseas as the bedrock of Australian identity, is again an effort to assert a certain vision of Australia. One that ignores the right to freedom of religion embedded in the Australian Constitution, ignore the place of Indigenous Australians and the uncomfortable truth that the “white Christian identity” being promoted as “Australian” was itself imposed. It ignores the plurality of our community, many of those World War I soldiers served under General Sir John Monash – our greatest General who was a Jewish Australian born in Melbourne.

The same post made two more comments:

[…]why are they trying to get Brexit in the UK?…..check out France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany…….everyone that opened their arms……you think they are all wrong? Its not Islam perse thats at fault……its the radical fundamentalists…..but THEY rule the rest.

And after some push back the poster replied:

Thats the funny thing….I don’t hate anyone….I believe in live and let live…..you’re the one spewing hate…and in fact whrn I lived in Sydney, my doctor, also a friend, was an african indian muslim. I have sat in her car while she did her prayers and I said my own quiet prayers…….as I said its not Islam perse…..its the radical elements….AND THEY WILL RULE!

In these final comments they defend the idea they aren’t racist, suggest they are only talking about radical fundamentalists, but then completely undermine that idea by claiming all Muslims are controlled by the 
radical fundamentalists. This sort of logical contortion allows the poster to dismiss even their own experience with Muslims that don’t match any of what they have seen online, and instead accept conspiracy theories that promote hate.

Christian flavoured narratives

Another poster makes the following “humorous” post:

Im on a debate group woth christian and muslims. We discuss our scriptures.. both sides will say things however these are only words not threats you would be surprised how much they love their shariah law would love to whip every westerner for not being muslim.or drinkers. Or fornicators killed via a stone to thr skull. But its just their opinion im sure they are joking right lol

This promotes the idea Muslims love Sharia Law and particularly the bits about punishments which today would be seen as barbaric and incompatible with our way of life. There’s also an element of Muslims being against “the West”.

The narrative here follows a particular strand of anti-Muslim Christian identity politics. Research by PEW on the attitudes of Europeans has noted that in most countries (Finland being an exception) the percent of Christians who are opposed to minorities is higher than the percent of religiously unaffiliated people who are opposed to minorities. In both cases it is a minority of the group who hold these views, but hate narrative with a Christian flavour are likely a large part of the reason for this result. Here’s some of the findings from PEW:

Most Western Europeans say they are willing to accept Muslims and Jews in their neighborhoods and in their families, and most reject negative statements about these groups. And, on balance, more respondents say immigrants are honest and hardworking than say the opposite.
But a clear pattern emerges: Both church-attending and non-practicing Christians are more likely than religiously unaffiliated adults in Western Europe to voice anti-immigrant and anti-minority views.

But overall, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish opinions are more common among Christians, at all levels of practice, than they are among Western Europeans with no religious affiliation. This is not to say that most Christians hold these views: On the contrary, by most measures and in most countries surveyed, only minorities of Christians voice negative opinions about immigrants and religious minorities.

We look into the poster as well.

Their account does not use a real name and is instead named after an early Pope. Their profile says they are from Brisbane but live in Rome. Their favourite quote is “Deus vult” (“God Wills”) which is a Catholic motto linked to the First Crusade. Their cover picture is an art work of crusades. Their pages includes a range of Catholic pages, but no hate pages. The profile’s about read “Sirach 8.19” a reference to scripture that says “You should not reveal your most private thoughts to anyone. If you do, you may as well throw away any chance of happiness.” The account was apparently created in 2015, but no friends are visible, no posts are visible except two profile picture changes (both in the last 24 hours), and some images which are all from this month.

An account like this is designed for trolling and spreading hate under a fake name and without any accountability. This alone would be enough of a reason for removing them from our page, even without their post designed to promote anti-Muslim hate while at the same time seeking to cast enough doubt to allow them to get away with it.

Sometimes it wasn’t what they said

Sometimes we see a very reasonable contribution to the conversation, but something causes us to look into the person who posted it and what we find leads us to ban them. 

On Islamophobia

In this case a poster questioned why it would be Islamophobic to criticize Islamic beliefs that were in fact the same as some Catholic beliefs. 

How come people can criticise catholic’s for their anti abortion and anti same sex marriage views, yet people can’t criticise Islam even though their views on same sex marriage are the same as catholics? I read anti abortion and anti gay marriage shit on social media every day and no one bats an eyelid, yet if I said Islam is against gay marriage it would be islamophobia.

Our response:

No it wouldn’t. That’s what we tried to explain in our briefing. Discussing the beliefs of a religion (any religion) and even saying you disagree with those beliefs, that’s perfectly fine unless you do it in way that is unreasonable. 

Your comment here, for example, is on topic and a reasonable contribution to the discussion. If someone was to make the same comment while protesting outside a mosque or a church… that might become unreasonable if it interfered with people’s ability to worship. Even then it would likely be a balancing act and some form of protest might be permitted at a suitable time and in a suitable location. 

If the same protest was being held outside the house of someone just because they happened to be Catholic or Muslim… it’s very difficult to see a way in which that could be seen as reasonable rather than as targeting a person because of their faith.

Despite being a useful contribution, and one that builds on what we discussed in the article which this person was replying to, when we look at their page we see they are a member of a range of problematic pages such as:

Our approach under our “no platform” policy is that:

If you post hate, you get banned. If on looking at your Facebook account we see that you are a supporter of hate groups, you get banned. If you are glorifying the Nazis on your page, you get banned. If your account appears to have been created in the last 5 minutes just to comment on our page, we assume you are probably already banned or a troll, and ban the new account as well.

The fact they like a range of hate pages leads us to ban their account under our policy. The person may like these pages for reasons other than actually supporting them, but simply by liking them the result is that the people running these hate pages feel supported, which encourages them and contributes to the problem of online hate.

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