Monday, 24 February 2020
Almost one year ago an Australian armed with semiautomatic weapons walked into two Christchurch mosques and murdered 51 people. As we approach the 12-month anniversary of this atrocity we need to ask what has changed. Almost one year later, what exactly is the government doing differently to stop this happening again, to stop an Australian again murdering dozens in the name of white supremacy, to stop this happening in our own country? Sadly, I believe that the honest answer is: not enough.
Far Right terrorism was growing before the Christchurch attacks and has grown since. The latest report from the Global Terrorism Index says there has been a 320 per cent increase in far Right terror in the past five years. In the United States, since September 11, far Right terrorists have now killed more people on American soil than jihadists. We've seen political figures murdered by far Right terrorists in the UK, Holland and Germany. There has been a sharp and alarming increase in far Right terror in Germany, including last week's atrocity in which nine migrants were murdered.
We also know that these far Right terrorists are frequently radicalised online. We know that the impressionable and marginalised are groomed on mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and then directed to alternative platforms where extreme views are tolerated, platforms like VK, Telegram and the former 8chan. These views can then be manipulated into murder. The manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist was heavy with the alt-Right slang and tropes that are born online, a smug mixture of irony, sarcasm and hatred particular to modern white supremacists. Maybe to some the alt-Right voice seems just like obnoxious provocation or trolling, but it's precisely the same rhetorical posture that convinced an Australian man to slaughter 51 men, women and children as they knelt in prayer and which inspired copycat attacks in El Paso, Poway and Baerum.
Two months after the Christchurch massacre, the New Zealand and French governments co-authored the Christchurch Call to Action, a global plan to stop this radicalisation machine. The major tech companies signed up, as did many countries around the world, including Australia. There have been positive developments since. Facebook's decision to ban the praise, support and representation of white nationalism from its platform was particularly welcome. The violent abhorrent material legislation was also a welcome step to stop the most revolting weaponisation of the internet, the sharing and live streaming of atrocities by the terrorists themselves. Overall, a year later, Australia has failed to honour the Christchurch call.
The Christchurch call recognises that there are no technology silver bullets for fighting the rise of far Right terrorism online. It offered a holistic response to the threat that demanded changes to the way online platforms operated, yes, but also changes to social cohesion initiatives, countering violent extremism programs, media literacy and law enforcement. The call sought five commitments from governments and 12 joint commitments from online service providers. Answers to questions on notice from the last round of Senate estimates suggest the Australian government's disappointing lack of follow-through on these commitments. The very first commitment in the Christchurch call is to:
Counter the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism by strengthening the resilience and inclusiveness of our societies to enable them to resist terrorist and violent extremist ideologies …
But answers to questions on notice reveal the government has invested less than $2 million a year in CVE intervention programs since 2013-14. The government also says it has spent just under $6 million a year on countering violent extremism programs since 2013-14. Both funding streams are directed at all potential drivers of radicalisation to violence, and it's unclear how much, if any, is targeting white supremacy. The government claims its social cohesion package responds to this commitment, but these programs are overwhelmingly aimed at multicultural communities, not those vulnerable to white nationalism.
The Christchurch call asks governments to work together with online service providers to work with civil society to counter violent extremism in all its forms, including through the development and promotion of positive alternatives and countermessaging. In response, the Department of Home Affairs tells that the government 'undertakes a range of activities to promote positive alternatives and counter the messaging in violent extremist propaganda.' A range of activities. The government couldn't even give a single example of what they were doing in this space. Governments and online service providers are also asked to work together to develop effective interventions based on sharing information and to support research and academic efforts to better understand, prevent and counter terrorist and violent extremism content online. Again, the government is unable to point to a single initiative it is pursuing to achieve this. Instead it points to its Report of the Australian Taskforce to Combat Terrorist and Extreme Violent Material Online and tells us that it's the platform's responsibility.
Well, the task force hasn't met since June 2019 and there has been no public report since—nor has there been a testing event simulating government and industry responses to a terrorist scenario as per recommendation 4.1 of the task force report. There's been no funding of research to better understand and prevent white nationalist radicalisation online in Australia. The government is not a member of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism advisory committee, and we don't know whether a single far-right organisation has been shared with online service providers consistent with recommendation 4.3 of the task force report.