By: Alison Mau
OPINION: As someone very learned said this week – if you have to ask what the issue with hate speech is, then the issue is that you’ve never been a target of hate speech.
Those were Massey University Professor Paul Spoonley’s words to a trans-tasman conference on online safety, where 50 speakers over two days discussed how to be active online without falling down the rabbit holes of hate, racism, misogyny and graphic, violent pornography that all too often await you.
Social media was a major topic with presenters from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube explaining how they tackle these issues. All very engaging, and all undeniably important. But among the keynotes and the Q&As, a time bomb was quietly ticking. Just before lunch, in front of about 50 people gathered for a break-out workshop on culture and context online, author Lani Wendt Young stepped up to the mic.
Lani is an award-winning writer, publisher and journalist of Samoan and Maori heritage. She’s mind-bogglingly accomplished; has written a series of young adult fiction, has a popular blog, and was named the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate. She is also one of New Zealand’s most consistently and viciously attacked women online.
It all started in a fairly humdrum manner back in early 2018, she says, when she and her business partner wrote a report for their website, about a Facebook page that had been reported and taken down. For whatever reason, those associated with the page blamed Wendt Young for their ban.
Since then, she says a network of Samoan speakers around the world have subjected her to the most appalling threats and abuse. These things are too vile to repeat in full here, but they include death threats, and threats of gang and bestial rape. They are calculated to frighten and to shame her, and as these depraved and cowardly people have become bolder they have targeted her family, and her children.
I was sitting within centimetres of Wendt Young and saw her begin to shake as she spoke, her voice trembling slightly. The threats that others might be able to brush off, she told us, are much more plausible in a Pacific Island community. When a faceless person writes that they’ve told their family to look out for you on the street and harm you, they’re not talking about a couple of siblings – they’re talking about potentially dozens of whanau.
“These are people I could be walking next to,” she told me. She now tries to have someone with her in public at all times. She does not feel safe to travel alone.
Wendt Young is a strong woman, and does not see herself as a helpless victim. She contacted Facebook early on, but says they would not, or could not, act under their community standards policies. She approached police in Samoa, and in New Zealand. She was told perhaps she should just change her name, or maybe don’t use the internet? Either way, nothing we can do.
Eventually she found Netsafe, New Zealand’s online safety organisation. They found a better-informed police officer to work with. They went to Facebook on her behalf, were turned down, appealed, and finally got Facebook to take down the offending pages.
But they were back, she says – in very close to their original form – three weeks later.
Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker told me the failings of the current system seem simple – Facebook did not act because much of the abuse was in Samoan. They’re also often looking at an issue with blinkers on, he says. A post that does not look abusive at face value may be referencing a previous, more explicit post, and therefore perpetuating the harm.
“We would know that it’s harmful, because there’s a relationship between Lani and ourselves, but Facebook would not.”
Facebook’s Benjamin McConaghy says it has now brought native Samoan speakers onto the case and will be having another look at the content Lani has provided. He also told me a revamped bullying policy that will better cover public figures like Lani will be released in the next few weeks.
But he says Facebook had acted where and when it could. At issue was whether the threats towards Lani reached Facebook’s measure as “credible threats”. To be considered a credible threat, a post usually includes specifics; a weapon mentioned, for example, or a time and location.
Our laws do not give Netsafe the power to penalise a social media platform like Facebook, and there are experts who think they should. At the conference this week, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards called the lack of political and legislative action an “abdication of responsibility”.
Of course, Facebook does not want to be regulated, and how big a stick could New Zealand feasibly wave at one of the world’s biggest tech companies anyway? Netsafe has a pretty good strike rate – 66 per cent of cases they take up are resolved with the help of the Harmful Digital Communications Act.
That must be very cold comfort for someone like Lani Wendt Young. Cases like hers – the gnarliest of cases, the outliers – remain stubbornly, distressingly hard to solve.