Luke McMahon has written an excellent article for the Sydney Morning Herald revealing the real identity, online personas, harassment and intimidation campaigns of far-right extremist Nathan Sykes. The Online Hate Prevention Institute and our CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, have been one of the targets of Sykes who is a former professional journalist and more recently a regular contributor to the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. The following is OHPI’s commentary and recommended action in response to the broader problem of serious online trolling.
The trolling of Nathan Sykes
Writing under the alias “Hamish Patton” on July 23rd 2016 Sykes wrote an article for the Daily Stormer mocking the concerns of Australian police over the far right. His article opens by saying, “Australian counter-terrorism authorities have placed 300 ‘right-wing’ extremists on their target watch list because every time a terrorist attack occurs involving Hajis they post angry comments online. Such comments indicate a ticking time-bomb out in the community that makes the whole of ISIS and their supporters seem like harmless puppies.” This from a man who, as Luke McMahon explains in his article, self-published a novel called Stuck Forever in the Throat of Society which appears very similar to his own life story and in which he wrote “If I didn’t have trolling, I’m sure I’d be crouched on a rooftop with a sniper’s rifle popping rounds into the ant-like, sheepish f#@kers on the street below”.
The same Daily Stormer article targeted OHPI’s CEO calling him “Australia’s answer to Abe Foxman”, a reference to the former head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in New York, which was sure to incite a response from the Fail Stormer trolls. The article moved on to personal attacks on Dr Oboler saying he “sits all day at a computer, hoarding calories by stuffing his face with donuts and spaghetti, while agonising over all the hate that he goes out of his way to find online. Then he picks up the phone and calls the police while the pizza-delivery kid’s back cricks with the strain of his massive order on his doorstep.”
In his article McMahon highlights three other targets of Sykes: Tim Soutphommasane (Australia’s Racial Discrimination Commissioner), Mariam Veiszadeh (Founder of Islamophobia Watch) and Van Badham (a left-wing commentator and journalist for The Guardian). Sykes wasn’t just abusing people, he was inciting abuse by others. Mariam Veiszadeh went public on the impact on her health that the online abuse was causing. OHPI was working with Mariam at the time and helped trace and compile background information on a person who sent a private message to Mariam saying “Watch as we come for you in your sleep cut your throat as you do the animals your torment. Kill your family for you to see. Kill your uncle which is now your husband slash grand fucker.. Born in hell like the devils you are… I will find you and hunt you down.” The poster, a 38 year old woman, was later convicted and sentenced to a community service order. After the trial Sykes highlighted how Mariam was being impacted by the abuse and encouraged people try push her over the edge. “With a little bit of a psychological push, by cleverly using a carriage or service, it just might be possible to drive her over the edge … Be mean to Mariam. Make it a mini-mantra.”
McMahon’s article highlights not just Sykes connection to the Daily Stormer, but also his use of Stormfront the oldest and most popular far-right forum on the internet. It was on Stormfront that Sykes befriended Joshua Goldberg, another online troll, who is now serving time in a US prison for citing terrorist attacks. Goldberg used many different personas for his trolling, as the BBC reported, he played the roles of a Neo-Nazi, radical feminist and violent jihadist. Goldberg too targeted the Online Hate Prevention Institute and we worked with police and media to uncover his identity.
Tackling the trolling problem
Tackling serious trolling which incites violence takes significant resources. There are specialists within the police with the relevant skills, but they are in short supply. Public safety requires far more resources than are available within the police. The Online Hate Prevention Institute and investigative journalists have been filling this gap. In this instance McMahon has done a superb job and police should now step in and take action.
Trolling which engages in incitement is a particular concern as it can lead to a barrage of abuse and threats. This abuse comes from many accounts rendering safe guards, such as allowing people to be blocked, largely ineffective. The constant barrage of abuse has led to a significant number of suicides, particularly of children. The use of the internet to “menace, harass or cause offence” is illegal under s.474.17 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. There may, however, be scope for an additional offence related to the use of a mass communication platform to incite others to harassment. Changing S18C to “harass and intimidate” was not the right approach, but an additional criminal sanction for inciting harassment and intimidation is something that should be considered.
Despite the growing crisis online, the Online Hate Prevention Institute has not received government funding to support our work combating extremism and online hate. Donations from the public have so stopped the organisation from folding (thank you to those who have and continue to donate). We are operating without paid staff and relying on voluntary time means the work is at a virtual standstill. A major report into the response to the Bourke Street attack is 95% complete but has now remained in that state without any progress for months. Thanks to seed funding from private donors the Australian public, the police and the government had a free leading-edge center tackling these emerging issues for a number of years. We are world class in this work as recognized by UNESCO and top experts from around the world. The free ride is over and the reduction in capacity at the Online Hate Prevention Institute is being felt by the community and by those charged with the community’s safety. We urge the Government to start funding the Online Hate Prevention Institute, Australia’s only charity focused on this growing problem. We also again invite those who see this work as important to make a donation. Tackling the problem of serious trolling is something that needs urgent support.
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