On Sunday Australia''s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, said the antisemitic attack in Sydney last Friday "appears to have developed from a verbal confrontation, and it is a reminder that racial vilification can escalate into racial violence."
Racism on the streets is becoming more acceptable as a result of the lax attitude to hate speech that has developed online and particularly in social media. It may only happen when people let their guard down, when they have been drinking, or when their emotions are running high. It is precisely at these times when the risk of escalation from words to action is at its highest.
The good news is that we are slowly making progress. There are three positive things to share today.
The first is that a particularly vile Holocaust denial Facebook page was finally closed by Facebook today. The battle to get this page closed has taken months, and until today, Facebook (acting in light of their special exception for Holocaust Denial pages) simply refused to act against this hate speech. The removal followed a two month campaign by the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI), an Australian charity. It also followed a physical protest outside Facebook’s offices organised by Michael Mendelson, supported from Australia by OHPI and in the US by the ZOA, StandWithUs and many others. What’s important here is that persistence has paid off.
The second good news, is that Facebook have implemented a recommendation OHPI regarding communication. The suggestion was that when content is removed, all the people whose complaints were previously rejected should receive an update telling them the content they previously reported has been reconsidered and has now been removed. This is important because it sends a positive message when positive action has been taken. The rejection of legitimate complaints can demoralise those who have taken the time to report them. It can discourage them from making the effort the next time they see something vile. Ultimately it can leave them disillusioned with Facebook and lead to a reduction or an end to their use of the social media platform. We don’t want people feeling that Facebook is too hostile for them to stay in that online community. Facebook doesn’t want to lose users. OHPI’s recommendation was a win-win, and it’s great to see Facebook have implemented it.
The third item related to OHPI’s crowd powered solution to online antisemitism and to online hate more generally. The system will allow users to report online hate via an online system that is independent of Facebook. It will allow other users to help verify the content is hate speech. Artificial intelligence will provide a quality control system. I’ve written about this idea before. What’s new is that there is now a crowd funding appeal aimed at raising the money to start building this system. There’s 10 days left in the appeal and with donations from around the world (mostly the US and Australia) the project is almost half way to its goal. This also means there is a practical way people can contribute to solving the problem by making a small donation now, and then volunteering their time to report and assess the reports of others once the system is up and running.
Antisemitism is still a problem, and in Australia we are still in shock after the attack last Friday. At the same time, there are positive things happening down under in the fight against antisemitism. We mustn’t lose sight of these positive efforts, and of the need to support them.
Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and co-chair of the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism.