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How should media outlets handle racist comments?

This year for Invasion Day, my family and I attended the inaugural Newcastle Invasion Day Rally.

It was organised by a friend of mine, Amy Thunig, (along with co-organisers Tim Buchanan and Lynda-June Coe) who pulled the event together in less than three weeks. It was attended by a lot of mob that I know, it was great to see so many people, some of whom I haven’t seen in years. It was a fairly standard affair; I suck as guessing crowd sizes, but maybe 2000 people or so, a few speakers, a march around the block with signs and chants, a big feed provided for all, then dancers and activities in the afternoon. All in all it was exactly what you want a local community event to be.

Behind the scenes, the event was only possible due to the tireless work of volunteers who made the day run so smoothly – teams of people who were cooking, serving, running First Aid, Elder care and more. As someone who has organised my share of events in the past, I know how time consuming and exhausting it can be to deal with the logistics of such an event. Getting people to the right place at the right time, finding and training up a team of volunteer marshals, booking space and equipment, organising food, liaising with police, media and community, and putting out fires on the day as unexpected things that you never could have planned for make themselves apparent.

The event was entirely First Nations led, with an all Indigenous speaker line up, and was met positively by the community on the day, with higher than anticipated attendance. Nothing out of the ordinary for what you’d expect of an event of this kind, but that’s not what you’d think if you read the barrage of racist comments on a Facebook post about the event posted by ABC Newcastle. You’d have to assume either that the rally was a pro-white genocide event, which isn’t a thing except in the minds of various white supremacists, or that ABC Newcastle has a shit tonne of super racist followers on their page.

I have worked for ABC and NITV, and of course IndigenousX, so am no stranger to seeing posts get bombarded by racist vitriol. It can be horrifying, seemingly never ending, and it can definitely rake a toll on moderators who need to read every racist comment before deciding whether to leave it, reply, delete, or ban the user.

ABC Newcastle took a different approach though, one which I have not seen before in my years of working in media, they deleted the post. And since they didn’t bother to do an actual article about the event, which isn’t great either, but instead only made a Facebook post about it, once it was deleted it was like the event never even happened in the eyes of the local ABC.

My first response on hearing this was “Why would you ever let the racists win like this? What kind of message is that sending to the local Indigenous community, the event organisers and attendees, and importantly, what message is it sending to the racists? That if they complain enough they can have content removed from the National Broadcaster?”

I was equally unimpressed when the following day ABC Newcastle did a radio interview with an accompanying plug which read:

“Do you experience racism in your life? If so, how do you deal with it? After a Facebook post on the ABC Newcastle page had to be taken down due to an influx of racist comments, it got us thinking about the racism that still exists in our community and how it can be overcome.”

Yes, I experience racism in my life, and one way I definitely don’t deal with it is catering to racists. That is definitely not how racism can be overcome.

Co-Organiser Amy Thunig commented “I was so surprised when I found out they had deleted their already limited coverage of the rally. It had been a super positive event for and by the local community, pulled together without funding, with a much higher than expected attendance rate. When I saw that they had removed any trace of the rally from their page, I felt they had not only erased our work, and the community sentiment, but they were rewarding the behaviour of those who spew racial vilification online. What a terrible precedent for them to set and message to send to our community here. I felt their decision to then only reference the rally in a radio discussion focused on racism really took away from the positive, strong message and community turn out of the actual rally”.

I’m not convinced that this was an issue Newcastle ABC should be turning around to milk content from. It’s an internal conversation they need to have about their moderation practices, about whether or not they are willing to ban racists from their pages, about why they didn’t actually do a story about such an important local event but instead only did a Facebook post, and about what is the ABC’s stance on racism in the community and in particular, within their own audience? Making content is the same thing as making change.

And if you are going to make content about how people can respond to racism, then you need to get some anti-racist practitioners on to discuss this instead of crowdsourcing solutions through call-ins and texts and inviting a local community member on and expect them to be able to solve it for you.

IT IS NOT THE JOB OF ABORIGINAL PEOPLE TO SOLVE YOUR RACISM PROBLEM!

Also, it’s noteworthy that this interview hasn’t been posted on Facebook. What is the point of having this conversation if the people who need to hear it, e.g. the racists who bombarded the original post, are never going to know that it even occurred?

As this response is something I haven’t heard of happening at the ABC before, I did some digging into ABC documents which might cover this, such as ‘Operating Official ABC Social media and Accounts’ and ‘Removing Online Content’. I found several references to deleting User Generated Content (UGC), such as Facebook comments, but I found no reference to deleting ABC content because of racists or trolls.

There was one interesting section in the Operating Official ABC Social media and Accounts document though, titled Dealing with comments and ‘trolls’. It states that:

There are a range of approaches on how best to deal with trolls. Some advocate depriving them of oxygen by deleting their comments and blocking them from your account. Others take a more assertive view, engaging them in argument and retweeting offensive posts for all to see. The ABC does not have an official position on a single approach to dealing with aggressive behaviour on official sites, but would recommend in general that you should (there’s are numerous dot point after this, but the most relevant one is:

  • Do not respond to abusive, obscene or racist comments other than through the usual moderation procedures.

But since the ‘usual moderation procedures’ gives no real insight into how to respond to these sort of comments it’s a bit moot.

In all of the documents I read, I was able to find all sorts of reasons for deleting comments, but no reference to deleting ABC content because of user comments.  It is also worrying to learn that “The ABC does not have an official position on a single approach to dealing with aggressive behaviour on official sites.”

It’s odd that they took this approach on this instance, because it’s actually very common for ABC pages to be flooded with racist comments that usually just sit there festering.

An obvious example of best practice would be ‘Dan from Optus’ who received some attention in 2016 for his calm and polite shutting down of racist trolling on Facebook after an Optus store in Sydney had signs written in Arabic.

It is completely unacceptable that the ABC don’t know how to handle racism and trolling on their social media accounts, or that they provide no real support to staff responsible for moderation through their policy documents.

This was Newcastle’s first Invasion Day rally in god knows how long, and it has local and national relevance to the broader debate about Invasion Day, and the racism in Australia that drives so many aspects of what Indigenous protests are about. To remove this post, which should have been an article, instead of deleting and banning the racists, sends all the wrong messages to all the wrong people.

It tells Indigenous people and supporters that the protest doesn’t matter. It tells racists that they can influence ABC editorial decisions through trolling, and it tells the wider Newcastle community nothing whatsoever if they don’t know this happened – nothing to see here, there was no protest, there is no problem with racism, everything is fine.

As the ABC itself says, “There are a range of approaches on how best to deal with trolls”, so it’s time they took ownership, showed leadership, and decided once and for all on what approach they are going to use.

Hire more moderation staff, delete and ban users, respond to them saying that racism will not be tolerated, something, anything, but deleting ABC content and erasing Indigenous stories is not an acceptable option.

Editor Note: ABC Newcastle was approached for comment but did not reply by time of publishing.

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