The Australian Multicultural Foundation says cyber racism is on the rise, and Australians need to be vigilant in monitoring and reporting incidents to the authorities.
The comments followed community anger about a Facebook page vilifying the Sudanese and Indigenous communities in the Western Sydney suburb of Blacktown.
Called "Had a dream I was in Africa, woke up, still in Blacktown," the page facilitated racist posts about Sudanese and Indigenous people. It had also been used to advertise a meeting of the far right wing Australia First Party, to "end the refugee invasion of Australia". Created in August 2011, the page has more than 4,500 likes.
“It's fuelled by fear of the unknown. I have no issues of freedom of speech, but when we talk race religion and culture it crosses that line. It's incumbent upon everyone to make social cohesion in Australia work, ” said Hass Dellal, executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation.
Acuoth Acol works with young Africans and has been based in Blacktown for more than 10 years. He says the Facebook page gave the impression that Sudanese migrants were unemployed or not studying, only congregating in public spaces to cause trouble - which he says it's not true.
“The majority of the South Sudanese in Blacktown area settled here since mid-2000s. Most of the people from South Sudan arrived as refugees or under humanitarian protection visa, seeking better life. I can assure you that the majority of the people from South Sudan are either studying or working,” said Acol.
According to 2011 Census figures, Blacktown received the second largest number of new settlers in NSW. A total of 13,425 arrivals included migrants from India, the Philippines, Fiji, Pakistan and Sudan.
Blacktown City Council says it "does not condone racism and is proud Blacktown City is a diverse and multi-cultural community where 184 countries and 156 languages are represented."
A formal complaint about the page has been lodged to the Australian Human Rights Commission by Blacktown Councillor Susai Benjamin. “All the Blacktown councillors unanimously agreed to lodge a complaint. We've also informed the NSW Community Relations Commission,” said Cr Benjamin.
He said the Facebook page was brought to his attention last week. “People are obviously appalled and upset. However small that group might be, it's not a good thing. Those behind this page are cooking up these tensions deliberately to create tension, and that's shocking.”
Racism expert Professor Kevin Dunn from the University of Western Sydney welcomed the Blacktown Council's response.
“It's a good action to take. Unfortunately in Australia there are very few official mechanisms for countering cyber racism. Sometimes public naming and shaming is the only way to effectively force people to take down racist content.”
Hass Dellal says cyber-racism has increased globally. “It's happening right across the world and Australia is not immune. When we have community groups coming out saying we don't accept these views, it has an impact.”
Professor Dunn says it's impossible to know the exact scale of the problem because Australia has no formal reporting processes in place. "It is true that the Human Rights Commission has been receiving more complaints – but not everyone who sees or receives an attack makes a complaint.”
He said he would like to see Australia enact policies which obligate social media providers operating in the country to regularly report racist attacks and complaints about racist content to the government. “Many people assume there's nothing they can do and ignore it, but ignoring racism only encourages those making the attacks, allowing them to assume that the majority agree with them,” said Professor Dunn.
Councillor Susai Benjamin will be meeting with the Australian Human Rights Commission this week to follow-up on what can be done to close the page. “I believe the Race Discrimination Commissioner has the responsibility to handle this as effectively as possible,” said Cr Benjamin.
Acuoth Acol says the South Sudanese community in Blacktown is generally doing well. “A number of university students graduate every year, and huge number of the community members are employed, with some running their own business. They all call Australia home,” said Acol.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has not responded to SBS's request for comment.