Tackling the online hate of right-wing extremism

Published in The Point Magazine in December 2014. Author: Matt Khoury. http://www.thepointmagazine.com.au/post.php?s=2014-12-04-tackling-the-online-hate-of-right-wing-extremism

A new online hate reporting tool will be shared with government departments, police and non-government organisations to help locate and tackle the online racism fuelling right-wing extremism in Australia.

The user-based reporting software, Fight Against Hate, has been developed by Dr Andre Oboler, chief executive of the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) and allows registered users to report cyber-based bigotry and bullying. This information is then collated by a ‘back-end tool’ that could advise on counter strategies.

The software’s launch, which took place on Tuesday December 9 in Sydney, comes in the wake of the federal government introducing the Enhancing Online Safety For Children Bill to parliament. Geared towards protecting youth from online hate, it instigates a review by a Children’s e-safety Commissioner who could then instruct the removal of offensive material and issue fines to perpetrators and social media companies.

“A lot of the focus of CVE (countering violent extremism) has been aimed at the Muslim community – there’s a lack of balance.”

– Professor Anne Aly, of Curtin University, WA

Such moves are necessary to monitor vilification, according to Dr Oboler, the chief executive of OHPI, as currently “there is no pressure on social media companies… to uphold their terms of service.”

Of the 50 offending pages that were identified in the organisation’s report last year, ‘Islamophobia on the Internet: The growth of online hate targeting Muslims’, 34 were still up on the internet, he said.

“For it to work, we need people to get on board… (then) we will have the data to make a difference,” Dr Obler said.

The president of the Muslim Women’s Association, Joumana Harris, who spoke at the launch, said, “Regulation of social media is failing dismally… (It) has been a platform that extends beyond the virtual realm to the physical.”

Discrimination against Muslim women online had been rising steadily since 9-11, she said, and “we certainly haven’t been the only ones.”

The online tool will tackle racism, xenophobia, bullying, misogyny, homophobia, religious vilification, antisemitism and other forms of online hate.

The new loud minority

Recently, the ‘white nationalist’ movement has achieved its “biggest numbers and biggest success” by inciting anti-Muslim sentiments, according to Professor Greg Barton, of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University.

Until recently, Australia had “dodged that bullet” and “we don’t have big problems like the neo-Nazis in northern Europe,” but these “bigoted sentiments” have “problematic effects on social harmony”, he said.

“Many have anxieties about Islam that have been exacerbated.”

Examples of “sympathisers” to the movement are lobby groups that have called to ban the burqa and boycott halal food, he said. Other groups are protesting developments of mosques on grounds that “Islam hates Christians”. The Sydney siege has only fuelled their hateful rhetoric.

Online posts give instructions on how to make weapons and urge followers to “go in and blow them up,” said Dr Anne Aly, convener of People against Violent Extremism (PaVE) and a professor at the Department of Social Sciences and International Studies at Curtin University in Western Australia.

Online hate goes beyond the draw of ‘bonehead’ neo-Nazi organisations such as the Southern Cross Hammerskins or the local offshoot of the UK-formed Blood and Honour and its militant wing Combat 18. Members of Combat 18, along with a police officer who tipped them off about being under surveillance, were convicted of firing at a Perth mosque in 2010.

The new white supremacy movement exceeds the “persistent but small subculture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves,” ASIO’s 2010/11 annual report noted. Its scope is bigger than anti-Semitic groups such as the Holocaust-denying Adelaide Institute, Australian League of Rights and supporters Woman for Aryan Unity.

This is an “insidious” threat to social harmony, Professor Aly said. “Their mantra is (that) there’s nothing wrong with being proud of being white.”

“We have to be wary of is extremism on both sides. There needs to be a much broader brushstroke that includes the white nationalist movement. A lot of the focus of CVE (countering violent extremism) has been aimed at the Muslim community – there’s a lack of balance.”

The American-based website, Stormfront, which has spread to Australia, has gained more popularity among white extremist Australian youth. The Australian Defence League (ADL), a group that proclaims itself “as against Islam and Islamic immigration,” and is an offshoot of the football hooligan-founded English Defence League, has also gathered an increased presence on Facebook.

The ADL claims to have supporters in the Australian military, and members of the Royal Australian Navy were expelled this year after posting inappropriate comments on social media.

NSW Police Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas said this year that ongoing investigations in conjunction with ASIO into online hate campaigns and anti-Islamic attacks, including on Muslim women, were ongoing.

Incidents of racially-motivated hate have been collated by community-initiated websites such as the Islamophobia Register and more recently, the Speak Out Hotline, a joint initiative by NSW Police and Multicultural NSW, publisher of The Point Magazine.

Fighting the Stormfront

The Attorney-General’s Department has funded an Exit White Power website produced by the non-government organisation All Together Now with the aim of countering violent white nationalism.

Stevie Voogt, the project manager at the website, said it “aims to target people before they’re signed up as members. Once people are involved, it’s hard to get them out… And if one person gets involved, it’s (likely to lead to) more than one.”

The project has used Google ads and search engine optimisation strategies, which include keywords to attract ‘at risk’ young people who might be looking for the Australian Defence League or Stormfront. “When the (Exit White Power) page comes up, it looks like another right-wing extremist site.”

So an individual might surf onto the website after typing ‘How do I get involved in white supremacy’, but once there the website “debunks conspiracy theories” of the movement, Voogt said, while it’s also geared towards concerned family members and community members and produces a guide on how to converse with ‘at risk’ individuals.

The organisation also has a Facebook page “where we invite them to talk and have an online discussion with them. Rather than (attacking them by) calling them a racist, we listen to them.”

Winning the battle against extremism

Further input from the private sector is “crucial”, according to Ross Frenett, a project manager of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

“The only group in society with the expertise to counter extremism online is the private sector; their engagement is no longer optional, it’s crucial,” he said in an interview with The Point Magazine.

This has occurred previously: Google Ideas worked with the Institute to launch Against Violent Extremism (AVE), an online network of former right-wing extremists and victims of violence to spread their message to a wider audience.

Beyond the internet, real efforts to counter this involve “community work, not bashing down the doors.”

Much of the counter measures against right-wing extremism is done by ‘formers’ – those who were part of the movement but have come back into the fold. One such ‘former’ is Robert Orell, who once held a white supremacy “idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil” but is now the director of Exit Sweden, an organisation that supports individuals to disengage from extremism.

“We (exit Sweden) have no interest of being in conflict with persons engaged in the white power movement but do want to offer support to those who want to leave,” he told The Point Magazine.

These more advanced EXIT strategies involve providing alternative housing and employment pathways.

These EXIT strategies have been applied to help IS-inspired extremists, too: the Hayat program in Germany keeps foreign fighters in touch with counsellors and their families, rather than attacking or incriminating them.

The program is now being considered by the Home Office in the UK, as governments attempt to tackle extremism in all its violent forms.