A possum-skin quilt built from squares etched with messages about the promise of the treaty process.
The First Peoples’ Assembly has written to Facebook urging it to improve its moderation of racist abuse online.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

Victoria’s Aboriginal treaty body has called on Facebook parent company Meta to better control racist abuse online, as it counters a surge of hate speech.

Key points:

  • The Assembly fears racist abuse is being fanned by the increasingly polarised national debate on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament
  • It says it has gone from blocking about two people a day for racist abuse to 50
  • In an open letter, it has urged Facebook to overhaul its community standards

In an open letter, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria called on Meta to “start taking responsibility” for what happens on its platforms, accusing the social media giant of allowing highly offensive racial slurs within its community guidelines.

“In Australia racial vilification is deemed hate speech. It is unlawful in public places,” the Assembly said in the letter.

The letter cited two highly offensive, racist slurs used against Aboriginal people and said when it reported them on the Facebook platform there was “no action”.

“When we’ve reported these posts to Facebook, we’re told this behaviour doesn’t go against Facebook’s community standards,” the Assembly said.

It urged Meta to update its community standards and stop “putting the onus on us to defend ourselves against a tidal wave of racism”.

The Assembly’s head of communications, Kokatha woman Amy Rust, said that in recent weeks the number of people her team had blocked for racist abuse had risen from about one or two a day to 50.

“There’s no doubt the increase we’re copping at the moment is linked to the constant political debate about the Voice to Parliament and the kind of dog whistling that we get from the conservative side of politics has a flow-on effect,” she said.

“It emboldens people. It makes them think that the hate speech that they’re thinking and feeling … it must be okay for them to say. 

“I’m feeling worn down. I’m feeling exhausted. This shouldn’t have to be my day job, that I have to sift through racist material.”

An Assembly spokesperson said Meta Australia had acknowledged the concerns raised in the open letter and a meeting was being organised to discuss the issues.

In a statement, a Meta spokesperson said the company was committed to “working with First Nations peoples to better understand their concerns and to help them navigate their experience on social media”.

“Racism is a serious problem that goes beyond any single organisation,” they said.

“All of us — tech companies, governments, civil society, and people — have a responsibility to address this shared challenge.”

Call for Meta to better understand racism in Australia

The Assembly — which is currently holding elections ahead of historic treaty negotiations expected this year — has also launched an online petition calling for Meta’s “pissweak policies when it comes to racism” to be reviewed.

Meta has been under pressure from some users over the past few years to strengthen its moderation protections for minority communities.

The social media giant’s website states it does not allow hate speech on Facebook, to avoid an “environment of intimidation and exclusion”.

Small possum-skin cloaks emblazoned with an Aboriginal artwork line the red seats of Victorian Parliament's Upper House chamber.
The First Peoples’ Assembly has called on Facebook to update its community guidelines.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

“We define hate speech as a direct attack against people – rather than concepts or institutions – on the basis of what we call protected characteristics: race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity and serious disease,” the guidelines state.

Ms Rust questioned whether those making decisions about community standards fully understood the Australian context of racist abuse against Aboriginal communities.

“So perhaps Facebook needs to have a little bit of cultural awareness in that space to understand that what they’re saying isn’t racist and doesn’t breach community standards, perhaps not in America but actually does here in Australia,” she said.

‘Daunting’ prospect of further abuse as Voice debate flares

In the wake of ABC presenter Stan Grant stepping down from his role citing racism earlier this week, Ms Rust said a lot of First Nations people were feeling similar pain.

“It’s Stan Grant, it’s me, it’s kids at school. Racism is increasing across the country right now,” Ms Rust said.

“I’ve even had encounters just this week myself, in person, where people have been racist and abusive for no other reason than I drive a car with Aboriginal culture proudly displayed on the sides of it.

“It’s daunting and a bit scary.”

The national debate around the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has become increasingly polarised — and the federal government set aside $10 million in this year’s budget to support the mental health of Indigenous communities grappling with “hurtful” elements of the debate.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton this week claimed the proposal would have an “Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others”, a claim Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney described as “disinformation” and scare-mongering.

Source – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-05-26/aboriginal-treaty-first-peoples-assembly-facebook-racist-abuse/102394960