In cyberspace, it seems Australian government agencies are sheriffs outgunned - the fallout from the 'Aboriginal Memes' Facebook pages revealed confusion over issues of online jurisdiction and enforcement. But amid violent threats to anti-racism campaigners, some have taken to harnessing social media for good.
By
Andy Park

17 Aug 2012 - 11:36 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

Last week, SBS reported on a Facebook page which racially vilified Indigenous people, that together with a wave of complaints, led to investigations by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and ultimately pressured the social media giant to remove the content.

Facebook has removed two similar pages since, as outrage over the issue developed into social media campaigns opposing the offensive 'memes'.

But the fallout from these events, to feature on SBS World News Australia tonight at 6.30pm, has exposed a gap in the enforcement powers of government agencies responding to discriminatory online content, an anti-hate advocate says.

Watch the report via YouTube:

POLICE INVESTIGATE THREATS FROM 'TROLLS'

For first-time online anti-racism campaigner Jemma Grace*, the fallout has been in the form of direct threats to her safety. (*Jemma's name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

“I started the 'Shut Down Aboriginal Memes' page to counteract the page and [to] get as many likes,” she said.

She and her campaign group have been targeted, she says, by “trolls” who set up the original Aboriginal Memes page.

She has received threats in abusive messages such as “If I were to meet you I would spit on you and kick you in the c***”

“My first reaction to the messages that I received was just shock,” Ms Grace said.

Another message threatened violence against Indigenous people as a whole.

“I will spend my last few months touring Australia, setting traps with goon, petrol and fried chicken and kill as many of these useless f*** as I can,” it read.

Ms Grace has reported the messages to federal and state police agencies.

“The emails that were sent to me were that horrible, and that hateful, that I think that it should be shown that they can't do that,” she said.

“They can't online bully without any repercussions at all.”

A Victoria Police spokeswoman, Natalie Webster, said the matter was being investigated.

“Victoria Police is aware of the reported threats and is currently in possession of material which we are reviewing,” she said.

FACEBOOK AND ZUCKERBERG'S RESPONSE

Facebook Australia has thus far not responded to questions from SBS last week about its operating policies.

But the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and former marketing manager for the brand, Randi Zuckerberg, defended the company's practices in an interview this week.

Randi Zuckerberg is noted for her opposition to online anonymity and her advocacy for free speech. She was asked by SBS about criticism of Facebook's definition of “hate”.

“It's very difficult running a global internet company today because the definitions of these things change so drastically so you want to be very sensitive to local cultures and local norms,” Ms Zuckerberg said.

“For example just take nudity. The US is fairly conservative, but if you go to France, anything goes, so how do you determine what gets taken off the site?

“It's very difficult to come up with laws that apply to the entire world.”

WATCH RANDI ZUCKERBERG INTERVIEW (VIA YOUTUBE).

Randi Zuckerberg says that in some cases, it's more constructive to engage people with alternative points of view.

“I think the best thing you can do is to engage that person in dialogue because often people when they are posting things like that it's because they're not educated and just engaging them can do more good than deleting,” she said.

“I do think in some ways it is a bit of a grey area where people should step in and where they shouldn't - there's free speech in most of the world and social media platforms whether you agree with them or not they still have the right to post that,” she said.

She was not aware of the recent controversy involving the 'Aboriginal Memes' pages, but agreed with their removal.

“My personal view is that if a post on Facebook or any other social media is inciting violence or hate towards a certain group than it should be taken down,” she said.

Mia Garlick, Facebook's head of communications and policy today issued a statement.

"While we do not remove this type of content from the site entirely unless it violates our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, out of respect for local laws, we have restricted access to this content in Australia," she said.

DO WE NEED AN INTERNET OMBUDSMAN?

There is no dedicated point of contact for Australians who have concerns about potentially discriminatory content online – the Telecommunications Ombudsman's jurisdiction does not extend to online content and ACMA is more concerned with education around cyber safety, only able to refer live content to the classification board.

AHRC can investigate and mediate but does not have the powers to bring criminal charges against those responsible for content that breaks the Racial Discrimination Act.

Dr Andre Oboler from the Online Hate Prevention Institute is calling for a dedicated internet ombudsman.

“The problem we've got at the moment is that there is a gap between our different government agencies and what they can actually do,” he said.

“Racial discrimination is dealt with by the Australian Human Rights Commission and also by the state level commissions, but they tend not to have government enforcement powers.”

“Frankly, what we need is a government ombudsman or someone who can take the case forward and actually represent the public interest.” he said.

A key recommendation made by the Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman in a submission to the Federal Joint Select Committee in Cyber-Safety called for a dedicated online ombudsman.

But the government had no such plans, a spokesman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told SBS.

“The Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety found in June 2011 that the role of an online ombudsman may be too restrictive in achieving greater online safety," he said.

The peak body for ombudsmen, The Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association (ANZOA), refused to be drawn on the topic.

“ANZOA would not be involved in any discussion around whether an office, such as an online dispute resolution service, should be created and what powers should be granted it,” a spokesperson for ANZOA chairperson Clare Petre said.

Mr Oboler said the creation of a new office might not be necessary, and that powers could be granted to an existing agency.

“There could be a change to the ACMA, there could be a change to the AHRC. Government needs to change the legislation to empower them to stop the hate.” he said.

TURNING NEGATIVE INTO POSITIVE

For her part, Ms Grace is planning to use memes, similar in format to the content that shocked her into activism, to promote a more positive Indigenous image.

“We are getting images that we actually have permission to use from the Indigenous communities and using those images to send a positive message about our first Australians to the public via Facebook,” she said.

“I guess to counteract the negativity the Aboriginal memes page has generated around the Aboriginal issues in Australia.”

However, Dr Oboler said positive memes don't work, as they only preached to the converted.

“The reason that a positive approach or counter-speech by itself isn't enough, is because all that happens is the admin of that hate group then goes and bans those trying to counter the speech,” he said.

The National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern has another idea.

Backed by Telstra, the centre has developed a social media platform specifically for indigenous youth.

The platform copies the interconnectivity of Facebook to inspire young Indigenous users to achieve their goals in positive environment.

The site, which also has a Facebook page, will remain walled-off to the broader web until users and administrators feel comfortable about participation procedures.

It's hoped that within the year, the now 130 users of the platform will grow, and the site will be sufficiently robust to be opened to the public.

Bianca Roberts, 24, is one of the site's online community hosts and helped developed the operating protocols, which include a “respect” button on posts.

“There's a lot of negative stuff out there, especially at the moment in terms of Indigenous Australians, but also people of other backgrounds and ethnicity groups,” she said.

“I think it's important to create a safe space for these young people to come and not feel like they are being judged or discriminated against.

“For me it's being about sharing the positive stories.”