Blocking 8Chan Just 'Baby Steps' In Fighting Racist Extremism, Experts Say
Blocking Australians from seeing abhorrent videos from mass violence events is just "baby steps" in dealing with online extremism, experts have warned, with the government urged to do more to prevent such incidents occurring.
Australians would be blocked from viewing sites with a history of sharing violent material during mass violence events, under a new plan outlined by Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the weekend.
Sites "hosting harmful and extreme content from terrorists" would be blocked during such incidents similar to the Christchurch mosque attack in March, where a gunman live-streamed a shooting massacre which left more than 50 dead.
That video was first shared to Facebook, then shared around other websites. The initial video was seen less than 4000 times, but Facebook said it blocked some 1.5 million copies in the first 24 hours after the attack alone.
The shooter's alleged manifesto, however, was posted to online forums including 8chan, hosted on file-sharing websites, then further spread through social media and some news outlets.
Under the new federal framework, telecommunications providers would block Australians accessing unsavoury websites during attacks, in much the same way they did in the wake of Christchurch, where websites hosting the shooter's video were temporarily inaccessible.
A new 24/7 crisis coordination centre, to monitor terrorist and extremist incidents, would notify the eSafety Commissioner for "rapid assessments" of material being shared during the unfolding events.
Decisions to block websites will be made "on a case by case basis to keep Australians safe online while upholding important internet freedoms", according to a statement from the government.
In a second announcement, made at the G7 summit in France, the OECD group of nations will fund a project to "develop Voluntary Transparency Reporting Protocols on preventing, detecting, and removing terrorist and violent extremist content from online platforms" like Facebook and Twitter.
It also adds to previous 'abhorrent content' laws introduced to parliament, making it an offence for platforms to fail to remove violent content, and builds on the 'Christchurch Call', an agreement from nearly 20 countries to better address extremism online.
Extremism researchers spoken to by 10 daily have cautiously welcomed, but say more must be done.
"I'm not convinced that during an incident, having people seeing the post and manifesto on 8chan versus seeing it on a media outlet makes much of a difference," said Andre Oboler, a senior law lecturer at La Trobe University and CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute.
"If the same material is available in mainstream press and Google, blocking 8chan isn't solving anything. It's more about shutting down platforms before the attack happens, so people don't get radicalised."
Oboler said the government "has to be congratulated" for taking action on the issue, but said more should be done to address online hate and extremism in its early stages to prevent attacks, rather than simply responding when they happen.
He said at least two mass shooting attacks -- the El Paso shooting this month, and the Poway synagogue attack in April -- were directly influenced not by the Christchurch suspect's video, but his written manifesto, which was shared widely on social media and some news websites.
"This stuff rapidly spreads elsewhere. The post on 8chan was down within minutes... but it was then posted on mainstream media sites. Just blocking those sites wont solve the problem," Oboler said.
"What can we do to reduce the incitement that links to such violence? How can we reduce theglorification of people carrying out the attacks so they don't inspire others?"
Jordan McSwiney, a PHD researcher at the University of Sydney focusing on far-right politics and social media, called the government plans "the right kind of baby steps".
"Overall, it's largely pretty performative and ineffective in as far as combating or preventing radicalisation. It will do very little for that. You won't get these videos off the internet," he told 10 daily.
"Nobody wants this content on the net. This may make it harder for the average punter to come across this, but if you want to find it, you'll be able to."
McSwiney said it was not hard to get around geoblocking of the sort that Australian internet providers would use in these instances, and that much of the sharing was being done on mainstream social media pages anyway -- which the government has already said it won't look to censor.
In any case, he said the rise of 'alt-tech' platforms -- created by alt-right and far-right supporters, to house more controversial content which is banned by mainstream platforms -- could allow people to get around any new barriers enacted by tech giants.
Labor MP Tim Watts, the shadow assistant minister for communications, told 10 daily the government's plans were largely "sensible" but also called for broader action to root out extremism.
"We already have a cyber blocking regime for copyright laws, so it's sensible we tackle violent extremism this way too. But we shouldn't kid ourselves that tech is a silver bullet here. There's a holistic issue in tackling violent extremism before attacks occur," Watts said.
"White nationalism, just one stream of extremism, was responsible for 50 murders in the US last year, plus murders of politicians in Poland and the U.K.. It's a real threat for Australia, and people who perpetrate these attacks are often radicalised online.
"Site blocking is just one of the measures of the Christchurch Call. What the government has announced is well and good, but we need to be looking at deradicalisation, interventions, anti-racism programs, counter narratives to these violent ideologies. I'm yet to see what initiatives the government has on these."
Oboler, too, called for further cooperation between agencies to better address threats.
"We need proper consultation of experts to work through what can be done, what the consequences will be and what the options are," he said.
"Australia is already playing a significant global role but we could do so much more if we coordinated government to work with platforms and civil society groups that have the expertise."
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