Nomad 1 2021: The Wrap Report

Last night the 2021 Night Nomads kicked off with a bang – with our first event focussed on ‘Eliminating Hate Speech Online’.

We’re nothing if not dramatic when it comes to the Night Nomads. This mini-series is now in its third edition where we keep exploring the sometimes dark, always provocative, undercurrents which are impacting our digital lives.

Like hate speech.

It doesn’t matter who we are or what we believe in, we’ve all felt the pain of hurtful comments whether they were directed at us personally or at people like us.

Many will say it’s an unintended consequence of our digital lives – that hate is more obviously in our face. However, last night was all about moving beyond our current reality into a utopian digital future where online hate speech is non-existent.

With such a huge topic at hand, it only seemed right to deploy some of our city’s finest and brightest digital minds to lead the conversation.

  • David Douglas – Postdoctoral Fellow, CSIRO
  • Katharine Gelber – Head of School, Professor of Politics & Public Policy, The University of Queensland
  • Jesse Hughes – New media artist and technologist
  • Scott McDougall – Commissioner, Queensland Human Rights
  • Cat Matson – Manager, Economic & Community Development , Ipswich City Council (Moderator)

And whilst our international borders may still be closed, we were privileged to receive an opening provocation by Jillian York – Director for International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation (Berlin).

And provocation it was with three key points which really stood out:

  1. We cannot rely on technology to solve online hate speech. We need to tackle hate speech at the root of the problem which includes education, outreach programs and public campaigns
  2. Moderation is almost impossible and if we rely on technology such as AI and machine learning, we risk removing other speech which is really important such as counter speech
  3. It is very concerning how law makers around the world and corporations are trying to control this problem, as decisions are being made without much input from civil society.

And with that it was over to the panel to continue the discussion.

First… actually defining hate speech. 

Katharine said that whilst hate speech is defined differently across different jurisdictions, a broad and easy definition to work from was that if certain speech is systemically targeting and causing harm to a marginalised or vulnerable group – that is what we should consider hate speech.

To simply consider anything nasty said online is far too broad – it’s simply not feasible to want to stop being mean to each other by calling it hate speech.

When challenged by the audience on “one person’s hate speech may just be another person’s opinion” the above definition held true.

Whilst everyone is entitled to their own opinion and can think their own thing, if that opinion is then being used to cause harm to another, that becomes hate speech.

Scott also pointed out that respectful discussion is a skill that needs to be taught. Whilst as a child you have the luxury of pleading ignorance, as an adult you need to exercise your opinions responsibly.

From here there was a good discussion on the role technology plays in inciting hate speech.

General consensus from the panel was that hate speech is not fundamentally a technology problem, but rather a human problem.

However, technology is certainly amplifying the issue and Jesse pointed out the difference in the level of conversation on reddit vs Facebook, where the latter offers up profile pictures and other insights into individuals lives. This is often the cause of further nastiness and hate speech, something which simply does not happen on reddit because you do not know what the person looks like.

Discussion was also given to the fact that whilst technology offered some solutions to the problems, it then raises other people problems. Whilst I can delete you on Facebook, if I then have to see you at work the next day, the problem has not really gone away.

Enter the “mute for 30 days” button!

At this point the segues came thick and fast with many more points raise for consideration (by both the panel and our incredible audience). Some of the nuggets included:

  • Is the cry of hate speech an excuse to shut down conversations?
  • Zuckerberg did not ever set up to incite this level of hate – he just wanted to rank the hot girls on campus (which, while entirely misogynistic and not okay, doesn’t fit into our definition of hate speech). Can we really blame him for where we have gotten to?
  • Turning on the blinders and simply ignoring conversations or not following certain people actually just narrows your silo and places you in an echo chamber – the speech is still out there. Ignorance is not necessarily the answer.
  • Social platforms are not social platforms – they are huge advertising factories.  And Kath say we should stop buying into the clickbait and give them our data.
  • Do we need a national human rights act? Scott says yes we do, but it’s not the answer to this problem.
  • Do we trust the tech overlords to make the rules? Scott would trust an authority created on behalf of the people more than a tech organisation. Amen.
  • It’s really hard to regulate what has not yet been made.

And with that we were already running inevitably overtime so it was done to one final question from Cat on what a utopian digital future might look like:

  • David: It would be interesting. It would be a return to the original dreams of the internet; a tool through which people around the world could free themselves of prejudice. If you could gain control of the hate speech, maybe the original vision would re-emerge. The world has been made by people. And we now have the choice to make it differently and we influence tech to benefit us rather than harm us.
  • Kat: The internet would be a forum for the exchange of ideas where the response is meaningful. It would also be a place where facts, evidence and expertise matters.
  • Scott: There is no human rights commissioner because you don’t need one.
  • Jesse: Woke-Zedders (Woke Gen Zed-ers)!!! The way young people engage with tech is genuinely different. We already are seeing younger people moderate each other – they really are walking forward in the world like care bares hand in hand. Awwww

At the end of the day – the roots of hate have existed since the dawn of humanity. The amplification that online provides is concerning but younger generations are taking control and sorting it out for us. And that is a relief.

And with that we sail towards Nomad #2 next week – RIP Online Advertising.

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