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Cyber racism hits hard in the real world

Social media is playing a key role in facilitating the spread of racist hate and is threatening social cohesion, according to new Australian research.

A team of researchers from Monash University, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Western Sydney University presented their latest research on “cyber racism” at the biannual conference of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia in Sydney in November.

Professor Kevin Dunn, from Western Sydney University, said cyber racism has serious implications for community harmony.

 “Cyber racism can be just as damaging as face-to-face racism and our research is only scratching the surface on the adverse affects that this phenomenon is having,” he said. 

Dr Nasya Bahfen, from Monash University, said that with technological developments and the increasing popularity of social media, racist ideas and actions that were once confined to isolated encounters are now easier to disseminate and can have broader impacts on society.

 “Real life events are a conduit for an increase in online hate, which we found with the Cronulla riots, and most recently the Bendigo Mosque protests. They give a 'focal point' or what we like to term a 'swarm' around which anonymous trolls like to agitate.”

Dr Bahfen told The Point Magazine that a lot of cyber racism is reactive as opposed to proactive.

“Hate needs something to feed off, and in the case of people who engage in online hate, their existences lack purpose or meaning without the existence of the individuals or groups they hate. Their lives are defined by the objects of their hate, which sounds very sad, and it actually is, because racism is seen by many scholars as a mental illness.”

Professor Ana-Maria Bliuc, from Monash University, presented her research on white supremacist websites and Facebook groups prior to and post-Cronulla riots.

“The death threats in the virtual world then meant that I had to worry about my safety in the real one. During the height of the social media vitriol and the ‘international’ cyber bullying campaign, I had police patrolling outside my house overnight – they were taking the death threats that I had received very seriously."

– Mariam Veiszadeh, lawyer and founder of Islamophobia Register.

“So far our data seems to suggest that events such as the Cronulla riots increase the cohesions and strengthen social bonds within white supremacist groups,” she said.

Bliuc said that cyber racism has both physical and emotional impacts on the victims it targets.

“Research shows that experiences of racism are likely to further divide societies and lead to alienation and decreased social participation in the groups that experience racism and prejudice,” she said 

Her research has found that “moral disengagement was used as a tool by racists to persuade themselves and others, that their actions are justified.” 

“Moral disengagement strategies are psychological mechanisms that people use to make themselves feel okay when perpetrating a morally dubious act,” she said.

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz from UTS, said it is important to strike an appropriate balance between protecting people from racism and protecting freedom of speech.

Referencing a 2002 report by the Human Rights Equal Opportunity Commission, Jakubowicz said that “unlike pornography, violence or terrorism, racism was not a high priority for the government especially in the heightened nationalistic and racially tinged fervour of the post-9/11 fears of Muslims.”

Mariam Veiszadeh, lawyer and founder of Islamophobia Register, has firsthand experience of cyber racism after being targeted by a neo nazi organisation in the United States called Daily Stormer. The group urged its 5000 strong Facebook followers to flood Veiszadeh’s social media accounts with hateful threats, including some which advocated her murder. 

 “The death threats in the virtual world then meant that I had to worry about my safety in the real one. During the height of the social media vitriol and the ‘international’ cyber bullying campaign, I had police patrolling outside my house overnight – they were taking the death threats that I had received very seriously,” she said.

Veiszadeh said cyber racism needs to be taken more seriously because the current law fails to protect victims.

“I think lawmakers and enforcement haven’t quite come to terms with the beast that is the social media world, and I don’t think there are adequate legal protections in place to deal with cyber-bullying, because the nature of cyber-bullying is one that evolves constantly with new technologies coming into play. I think that authorities are very much treading in uncharted waters to some extent,” she said.

But the same technology used to spread hate is also being used to fight against racism, according to Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane.

"We’re seeing that technology is also being used to hold people to account. It’s one thing to deny racism if you haven’t seen it before, but what we’re seeing from the footage coming through is the very human face and ugliness of racism when it occurs. So we need to keep some measure of perspective about cyber-racism and the role of technology in all this."

Academic and Muslim community advocate Susan Carland made international headlines after tweeting that she will donate a dollar to UNICEF every time she received a hate tweet.  So far she’s donated $1000.

Dr Bahfen said she encourages all victims of cyber racism to use the channels available to them to report such incidents. 

“Always use the in-site reporting functions even if they've shown to be useless (or near useless) in the past. Twitter and Facebook both have reporting mechanisms but they are extremely arbitrary. Screenshot the attacks, and if your life is threatened go to the police and insist on making a report. Speak to your employer or university about counselling. And report the incident to groups like the Islamophobia Register, if the hate is Muslim-focused, or the Online Hate Prevention Institute who records and researches this sort of thing,” she said.

The Australian Government has also encouraged people to speak out against online hate and violence by reporting abuse to its Online Extremism Reporting Tool at www.reportextremism.livingsafetogether.gov.au    

The Point

The internet is playing a key role in the spread of racism and threatening community cohesion, according to new research by a group of Australian academics.

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