“Australia-first” laws to target hate speech and trolling on social media have been introduced, but experts say law enforcement has a long way to go in catching up to harassment issues online.
By Josh Butler
Cover 📷: Getty
Victorian MP Fiona Patten is behind a push to update the state’s anti-vilification laws, broadening the legislation to include hate speech focusing on characteristics like gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.
Patter, the leader of the Reason Party — formerly the Sex Party — said the laws currently only cover racial and religious vilification, but that widening the scope of the legislation was in hopes of stopping online trolling, harassment and abuse.
“Hate speech lives and breeds in social media feeds and the comments sections of news articles. Women are shamed and bullied through the everyday mediums that we use to consume media and communicate,” Patten said of her reasons for introducing the Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019.
“This Bill draws a clear line as to the racist, homophobic and gendered hate speech that we will not tolerate in Victoria. It is time that we take personal responsibility for what we say online. Our laws have not kept up with technology and this Bill helps amend that.”
Social media experts have agreed with this, saying that current laws governing speech, and protecting people online, are out of date.
“In Victoria and Australia, the main laws we have when people experience online harassment is the offence of using a carriage service to menace or harass. But that was not designed for the digital age,” Dr Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in media at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, told 10 daily.
“It’s about time we started to address legislation around trolling. It is not adequately covered by existing laws. We also need to educate police about how to handle cases like this.”
Some victims of trolling, abuse or ‘doxxing’ — where someone’s personal details including phone numbers or addresses are maliciously posted online, with the intention of that person being harassed by others — have reported police or other authorities not taking their concerns seriously.
Some states have been updating laws or introducing new ones to capture online issues, but experts say more needs to be done.
Recent statistics have shone further light on Australia’s cyber abuse problems. Hundreds of thousands of children are harassed each year playing online games; social media comments are overwhelmingly more negative toward women than men; and the cost of online abuse — including loss of income and medical expenses — has been conservatively estimated at nearly $4 billion a year.
Barnet said police sometimes “don’t understand” how such online abuse can bleed into the real world, and affect a person’s mental or physical health.
“It is something to take seriously,” she said.
Dr Andre Oboler, law lecturer at La Trobe University and CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, said extending laws to cover gender-based abuse was an important step in combating online harassment.
“The hate directed against women almost always makes use of gendered based hate. The messages of hate often include sexual references and messages relating to sexual violence are common. Such comments are often designed to drive women off the platform all together,” Oboler told 10 daily.
“In some cases they are part of an coordinated and constant bombardment which comes from many different users and therefore makes it far harder to take effective technical action such as blocking the perpetrators.”
Gender Equity Victoria backed the bill, calling it “necessary” to better protect women on the internet.
“Systematic political change needs to occur in order for women and other marginalised groups to be safe both on and offline,” GEN VIC chair Kit McMahon said.
“We know that to end violence against women, we need to prevent it before it occurs. Alongside this Bill, we need greater investment in preventing the online abuse before it occurs.”
— Gender Equity Victoria (@genderequityvic) August 28, 2019
Tama Leaver, associate professor in internet studies at Curtin University, said vile abuse often comes from accounts operating anonymously, or under pseudonyms — making it difficult to track down the perpetrators or bring them to justice.
“Finding someone to point the laws at is one of the biggest hurdles,” he told 10 daily, saying social media giants like Facebook or Twitter were often reluctant to unmask their users.
“Even when an anonymous account can be linked to a person, there’s wiggle room for them to say they weren’t in control of the account, or were hacked. Proving it was definitely that person at that time, is hard.”
Oboler said he agreed, but that enacting laws — even if they were difficult to enforce — was an important symbolic step.
“The law sends a strong signal about the values of our society and what is and is not acceptable in our community. It does this regardless of how often it is actually used,” he explained.
“The law against serious religious vilification, passed in 2001, was used for the first time in 2017. Adding new laws against other forms of hate speech won’t necessarily lead to many prosecutions… but it will send a positive signal.”
Oboler added that other racial and religious vilification laws in Victoria have a “high threshold” before criminal action can be pursued, but saw Patten’s proposal as a positive step.
Leaver said he, too, believed updating laws could work, but called law reform without wider social education “a blunt and slow-moving tool”.
“Some laws might be appropriate, but this is a much longer game. We have some digital literacy programs in schools and elsewhere, but it’s not enough yet. We need a lot more time and energy into when young people graduate, that they have understanding of the impact that online discussion and abuse can have on people,” he said.
“We pay some attention to that now, but you look at how often these things come up, a lot more needs to be done.”
Patten said she had hopes her proposal would find support in the Victoria state parliament.
“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. With this legislation, there will now be someone at the gate saying to trolls – ‘you shall not pass’,” she said.