‘Operating in plain sight’: Tech giants to front extremism inquiry
A parliamentary inquiry into extremism will scrutinise Facebook and Twitter’s role in allowing far-right groups to promote their activities online and recruit new members.
National security experts are calling on the Australian and United States governments to regulate tech giants so that they ban more harmful content and change their algorithms promoting extremist material.
Alleged members of a far-right extremist group seen at Halls Gap and the Grampians.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) has launched an inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia and will begin hearings in the coming weeks.
Tech giants will be asked to front the inquiry, which was referred to the PJCIS by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in December after a long-running campaign by Labor.
The threat of violent right-wing extremism is growing in Australia, with spy agency ASIO last year revealing it now accounted for between 30 and 40 per cent of its priority counter-terrorism caseload.
The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that dozens of far-right extremists gathered in the Grampians and Halls Gap over the Australia Day weekend this year, chanting white supremacist slogans and raising their arms in Nazi salutes.
The role of tech giants in failing to remove harmful content and promoting extremist material has been exposed by the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 and the deadly attack on the US Capitol in January.
Facebook and Twitter have removed a number of posts from former President Donald Trump and suspended his accounts in the wake of the riots.
PJCIS chair, Liberal senator James Paterson, said he believed social media companies had set a standard by moving on Mr Trump.
“I am looking forward to hearing from social media companies about how they now swiftly address all instances of incitement to violence on their platforms given the very strong stance they’ve taken against errant tweets and posts from the former president of the United States,” Senator Paterson said.
A new report by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, to be released on Tuesday, argues Australia and the US should consider measures to ensure tech giants are not promoting extremist material online and targeting vulnerable people.
The report’s author, USSC research associate Elliott Brennan, said the current regulation of the internet was “not fit-for-purpose” and there was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” coming down the line to revisit regulation.
He said this should include improving the transparency of algorithms and the responsibility tech giants have as publishers.
“It’s more than apparent what has been proliferating on the internet is not helpful to democracy. It doesn’t even have to be about censorship, it has to be about not promoting this to vulnerable people,” he said.
”It is clear big tech and democracy need to hash out how they’re working together, it’s not a relationship that has been helpful the last couple of years.”
Opposition home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally, who is a member of the PJCIS and was instrumental in urging the government to establish the inquiry, said tech giants had a significant role in countering right-wing extremism online.
“Many of the right-wing extremists operate in plain sight – they operate on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook,” she told the National Security College’s podcast. “And if you look at the US Capitol attacks none of us should be surprised by them because in many ways they were openly recruiting and promoting the actions they were seeking to carry out online.”
“Right-wing extremist groups will often seek to use those platforms to recruit people in, and then transfer them to encrypted messaging services where they then fuel and seek to radicalise towards violence.”
ASIO chief Mike Burgess last year said the “right-wing extremist threat is real and it is growing”, revealing small cells were regularly meeting in suburbs across Australia to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons and train in combat.
Mr Burgess will deliver his annual threat assessment on Thursday in a major speech at ASIO’s headquarters.
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