Dr Andre Oboler 22 May 2020
Our response to COVID-19 has created both benefits and problems which will impact society for years to come. The lockdown has forced businesses to invest more in their online presence and use of technology to support business operations. The technology skills of the workforce have been sharpened by necessity. Our collective actions will, in many places, be a boon to productivity and flexible work arrangements long after the pandemic. Like these positive effects, the negative effects too will be with us for years to come and they have the potential to set us back decades as a society.
The lockdown to prevent the spread almost eliminated those social interactions which help to strengthen the bonds between different parts of society. Events which bring different communities together have been cancelled or have gone online in ways which allow the speeches, but not the personal interactions around a meal which build the personal relationships that give strength to our community. In a similar fashion, online meetings allow for work to proceed, but are seldom arranged to enable the kind of casual interactions that typically occur in the break room. Without reinforcement, the ties that bind us, and which stretch across ethnic, religious, and cultural divides, are weakening.
More concerning, still, is the rise in hate speech occurring online. More people are spending more time online than ever before. Those whose usual online activities are promoting hate and trolling are also spending more time online. This is fuelling a rise in online hate both directly, and through their efforts to spread their hate and conspiracy theories to the many other people spending more time online. At the Online Hate Prevention Institute, we have seen a rise in anti-Chinese racism and anti-Asian racism in response to COVID-19. We have also seen those who promote Islamophobia and anti-Semitism latch on to COVID-19 to attack their chosen targets.
This rising hate seeks to silence and exclude parts of our community. This creates extra barriers to engagement in our democratic systems as speaking up can make one a target. It increases social isolation as people withdraw from online spaces that make them feel unwelcome after being repeatedly confronted with hate targeting their identity. There are of course other platforms and spaces within platforms, but this creates fragmentation of society.
Pulling all this back together and undoing the damage will take time. The problem is exacerbated by the increased difficulty many charities will face as high unemployment makes it more difficult to raise funds. Some organisations doing critical work, including the Online Hate Prevention Institute, are simply not being funded by government for our work. It’s not sustainable. If government simply funds those they have funded in the past, they will have failed to adjust to the new reality.
The Victorian Parliament is holding an inquiry into anti-vilification laws. The inquiry started well before the pandemic, but the Parliamentary Committee is now gathering data on online vilification and COVID-19. The Online Hate Prevention Institute has appeared before the inquiry and we are now preparing new material to update them on the impact of COVID-19.
Prior to the pandemic, the Federal Government was working on a new Online Safety Act giving new powers and responsibilities to the eSafety Commission. The new Act might expand the Commissioner’s powers so she can order removal of cyberbullying content directed against an adult. While very welcome, in our submission we noted that this leaves a gap where hate vilifying an entire ethnicity or community is unprotected and there is no easy way to order platforms to remove it. To close this gap, we suggested the Race Discrimination Commissioner from the Australian Human Rights Commission could be given a power to refer specific content to the eSafety Commissioner, and the eSafety Commissioner might then be able to order it removed. While not part of the initial proposal, the revised Online Safety Act could provide a way for the Federal Government to act to reduce the growing harm.
At this time, the most urgent thing government can do to flatten the curve as online hate itself goes viral, is to fund the work that is monitoring the rise of hate and working to prevent it. This is a crisis and while long term strategies including better education in schools may be beneficial to society, they are not the solution we need immediately. Such an approach can be compared to running a national campaign to improve personal fitness as a COVID-19 response. A healthier population would be less at risk of complications and the morbidity of COVID-19 decades from now would be lowered – but data from testing and interventions like vaccines are needed far more urgently in the midst of the crisis. We need active monitoring of the online hate and intervention activities to confront and exposes the lies, conspiracy theories and messages peddling hate. The Online Hate Prevention Institute is carrying out this work as best we can, but it is a fraction of what we could do if government stepped in with funding.
The cost of doing too little now will be a lessening in the cohesion of our society which will take far more investment to correct. Lower social cohesion will lead to higher costs in areas like mental health and the justice system. Reduced civic participation will lead to a greater burden needing to be assumed by government. There will also be negative impacts on the economy which will further hamper the recovery. Our multicultural society is an asset we can’t take for granted.
Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and Honorary Associate in the La Trobe Law School.