Sarah Jacob talks to Andre Oboler from the Online Hate Prevention Institute on why online hate during coronavirus outbreak is bad for Australia, and what you can do about it.
In early 2020, as the global community began to realise how big a problem COVID-19 would be for the world, we witnessed a spike in racist attacks, particularly against people of Asian background, as some sections of the community reacted in fear and hatred. Some world leaders even appeared to fan the flames of division.
Australia was not immune from this phenomenon. Houses were vandalised, people were verbally abused, spat on in the street and even physically attacked.
As some countries, including Australia, sought to limit the spread of the coronavirus by putting hot spot areas into lockdown, many people found that their social interactions were now limited to contact via online platforms. There, some communities found themselves under attack by trolls and online bullies.
“We’ve seen a huge wave of online [hate] content,” said Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI).
Oboler believes that the isolation of lockdown was made much worse for marginalised communities by the increase in abuse, as a large section of the community took to online forums to vent their frustration and anger over coronavirus restrictions. He believes that the damage done during this period will have far-reaching effects on our society, long after the virus is gone.
“They were effectively excluded from society. They were even more isolated than everybody else during lockdown,” he said.
“The attitudes which have developed through this content spreading online include a lot of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, and undermine the usual multicultural, inclusive values of our society. That won’t go away after the pandemic ends. We’re seeing a hardening of attitudes that will take a long time to correct.”
Although this issue has been raised by some media outlets, resolving the problem does not appear to be a priority for the Australian government as the country starts to move towards “COVID normal”, as shown by a lack of funding directed to this area. This reluctance reflects a disinclination by the current government on a broader scale to implement and fund anti-hate speech initiatives.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is the government body tasked with tackling discrimination, including online hate. Funding for the Commissions’ Anti-Racism Strategy ended in 2015, and it has repeatedly requested additional funding to develop a new strategy, which is supported by the opposition and NGOs.
Regardless, Oboler said that a response led only by government would not be effective.
“All of the money goes to having more police, giving the police more resources, when in actual fact there’s an important role that civil society needs to play,” he said.
“We can’t do that if it’s not being funded. The government can’t solve this problem on its own and I think governments are yet to realise that.”
OHPI is the only Australian charity focused specifically on online forms of hate speech. It is frequently approached by government departments to provide data and assistance in order to tackle the problem, but no funding has been made available to produce this information.
“They come to us when they want help from us, sometimes we approach them, but they don’t pay for it,” Oboler said.
“We’ve had to cut back support when they’ve requested it, because we just can’t keep subsidising the government.”
The Institute has been able to gather many examples of online hate during the pandemic and says that the data they have so far indicates that it is a growing concern.
Despite the lack of funding, there are steps that members of the public can take to help tackle the problem. Oboler said that OHPI accepts reports from the public of instances of hate speech on online platforms.
“We ask people to report incidents to the platform in the first instance,” said Oboler.
“If they take it down, then that’s dealt with. If the platform rejects the reports and doesn’t see the issue – and this happens quite frequently – we’re able to either to take it directly to people working for the company or we publish it publicly.”
People who are members of a vilified community can also report incidents to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“OHPI is funded by public donations, and right now we are hit with a growing demand at the same time as households are under increased financial pressures and less able to give,” said Oboler. “We can only hope donations from new supporters will help close the gap.”
Photo: Christopher Schirner
Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.