Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Social Media and Extremism Forum, Australian Security Research Centre, ANU

Can I start by thanking Cath Brinkley, the Director of the Australian Security Research Centre for the invitation to address you this morning.

It is my great pleasure to be here today representing the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon. George Brandis QC.

Can I also add my acknowledgement of country.

I am here today to officially launch the Social Media and Extremism Forum.

It is very good to see participants here today from all sectors of society – academia, emergency services, community organisations, industry and the media-because it shows we are determined to work together to address the significant threat that we all face.

I would particularly like to acknowledge the presence of Mr Stepan Kerkyasharian AO, former chairman of the NSW Community Relations Commission and President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board and Mr Richard Spencer, Head of Digitial at iSentia.

The rise of social media has provided a wealth of opportunities to quickly and easily access limitless information. However, this benefit can also be exploited by terrorists to the detriment of our national security.

Only a few years ago many in the Australian community may have described the threat posed by terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda as a distant, offshore and clandestine problem.

However, the recent tactics employed by organisations such as ISIL or Daesch have fundamentally altered the playing field.

ISIL has built upon the direct messaging and recruiting strategies pioneered by other terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaeda, by empowering its followers to independently provide ideological and material support for its cause.

The online environment has no borders and propaganda from conflict zones is reaching directly into our homes and families through simple online searches.

Every day, ISIL or its followers create upwards of 100,000 pieces of online propaganda that glorify terrorist violence and oppose Australia’s inherent values and freedoms – inclusion, democracy and social values.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the lies peddled in terrorist propaganda, the purpose of which is to convince people to support the ISIL cause.

This process is known as radicalisation. I also consider it a form of grooming.

Traditionally, the first introductions to extremist ideology generally happen offline where recruits and extremist sympathisers target vulnerable individuals.

But the internet is a catalyst and a tool that exponentially expands the potential recruitment pool.

Unfortunately, the increasing numbers of Australians seeking to join ISIL show that these online strategies are bearing fruit.

At the moment, much of this terrorist propaganda goes largely uncontested. This is not because of a lack of effort, but because we are not speaking in the same places as those being radicalised.

So what can be done? Should we block the content? Contest the ideas? The Australian Government believes a combination is required.

This threat is not one government can tackle alone. Successfully countering it will require close partnerships between government and the community, the private sector and academia.

We recognise that the dynamic and open nature of the online environment means that takedown efforts alone are not sufficient to counter terrorist propaganda online

Firstly, there are legitimate debates about the bounds of free speech. Secondly, there are technical and logistical challenges concerning the relationship between private companies and the public interest.

The Australian Government also acknowledges that in some cases takedowns are ineffective or counterproductive. For example, if a blocked site is blocked, an alternative site can quickly emerge.

However, this is not to say that efforts to block some content are futile.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution has shown that account suspensions do have concrete effects in limiting the reach and scope of ISIL activities on social media.

As a general proposition, there is an imperative to pursue takedowns where there is extremely graphic content or where there is instructional information that may promote further attacks.

The broader issue, however, is that the majority of the content that we need to counter will not meet the legal thresholds for takedown (for example, because it does specifically advocate violence), but nonetheless creates an environment that fosters the growth of extremist sentiment.

The vast majority of Australians unequivocally condemn violence, however, there are a multitude of online spaces where these messages are not being heard.

This disproportionately affects our youth.

Young people have had their lives shaped largely by their online interactions.

They are therefore the most receptive audience for extremist messaging delivered via the internet, and have less exposure to alternative perspectives.

Waiting until at-risk individuals develop into high threats is not an adequate response – we need to be able to prevent radicalisation from occurring and intervene with individuals who have started down that path to help them move away from ideologies of hatred and violence.

As many of you will know, last year we pledged $630 million to combat the threat of terrorism in Australia.

We reformed Australia’s Counter Terrorism governance arrangements and passed key legislation to help disrupt the organisation, financing, facilitation and flow of Australian foreign terrorist fighters.

As part of this package, the Australian Government continued work to address the threat of online radicalisation. This is an ongoing challenge that requires a multifaceted approach.

We recently established a channel for people to report adverse or criminal online content. The ‘Report Online Extremism’ function will send reports through the National Security Hotline to law enforcement and security agencies, as well as the Attorney-General’s Department.

The Australian Government has also invested in projects that raise awareness about online radicalisation, including educating people on how to recognise when someone’s online behaviour may be contributing to the risk of radicalisation.

But given the scale of the problem, we know we need to do more online to challenge the propaganda being promoted by terrorist groups.

That is why the Government recently announced a further investment of $21 million in new funding to address online radicalisation and reduce the impact of terrorists’ use of social media.

The investment will help people to develop the digital skills needed to critically assess terrorists’ claims and promote alternative messages online.

These measures include:

  • establishing a real-time social media monitoring and reporting capability to better understand extremist narratives and the ways those narratives affect Australians;
  • developing counter narratives that challenge the assertions, inconsistencies and false claims of extremist groups;
  • developing alternate narratives that highlight Australian social values, diversity, democracy and unity;
  • empowering community and civil society voices to combat terrorist narratives, and
  • reducing access to extremist material online.

There are four key points I would like to make in relation to this new program.

Firstly, and most importantly, we will only succeed in challenging these extremist narratives if government, civil society, academia, the media and industry work together.

The people who most need to hear counter-narratives do not necessarily see government-issued information as credible.

Effective counter-narratives need to be delivered by voices that are closest to the audiences we need to reach. They should be genuine, realistic and personal.

This is why a key work stream of the Australian Government’s new program focuses on empowering community voices to deliver counter narratives.

This is work with which all Australians can be involved. We need to encourage everyone to challenge extremism when and where they see it.

Secondly, we need to provide communications knowledge and expertise to aid these community voices. This is particularly true when it comes to social media expertise.

The pace of technological change, social trends, and changing external political factors means that those countering terrorist narratives must continuously adapt their responses to ensure they remain relevant.

The Australian Government intends to help community voices and other partners stay abreast of these changes by providing them with information from our new social media monitoring capability.

This capability needs to be augmented by academia. They are uniquely positioned to provide both in-depth and long term analysis of the ever evolving online tactics employed by ISIL and their like.

So too must industry play their part as they are an enormous repository of specialist information, including social media expertise.

Simply put we all need to make sure those challenging extremist messages have access to the right tools at the right time.

Thirdly, I need to make the point that responses to this threat are not just about delivering a ‘counter-narrative’.

It is also about articulating a cohesive message about what Australia stands for and what it has to offer. This is our ideology. This is our narrative.

It is about promoting stories of inclusion and respect.

It is about creating narratives that pierce the echo chamber in which extremist discussions often take place, where no-one is exposed to an alternative point of view.

The Australian Government has already begun work to actively promote positive messaging through our dedicated Living Safe Together website.

This website promotes positive community news and provides a platform for community and religious leaders to express positive messages about Australia’s inherent values and freedoms – inclusion, democracy and social values.

We have also partnered with various organisations to help them deliver their own stories.

For example, ‘The Dury’s Out’ is a short film created by young people from Muslim communities with the assistance from government and non-government groups including: the Islamic Museum of Australia; The Islamic Council of Victoria; Victoria University; Monash University; the Australian Attorney-General’s Department; the Australian Federal Police and Youth Victoria.

The aim of the project was to raise awareness of efforts to counter violent extremism in the broader community and promote understanding and inclusion. The production process also provided opportunities for young Australian Muslims to provide their views and improve their skills in telling their own stories.

As UK Home Secretary Theresa May recently observed at the Washington summit on Countering Violent Extremism:
‘In promoting the values we believe in, we can set the boundaries and limits of the extremist arguments – on our terms, not theirs.’

Finally, I would like to reiterate the pivotal role social cohesion plays in any efforts to counter extremism. This is particularly important to me in my role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services as I have responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services which includes social cohesion.

Australia is a successfully diverse and cohesive modern society. We are a leading example in the world on measures of social cohesion.

Nevertheless, recent events highlight that we need to be vigilant in addressing areas of concern so that these measures do not deteriorate.

We must address the whole spectrum of extremism.

Terrorist groups like ISIL are only one facet of the extremist problem – we must address all forms of extremism no matter what the basis: non-violent or violent, issues-driven, ideological or ethnic.

Our efforts are aimed at behaviours and intentions, regardless of who is involved. We are committed to maintaining the safety and security of all Australians.

I hope that my comments today have provided a useful framework for discussion at the conference and that I have highlighted to you the importance non-government actors will play in the ongoing efforts to combat online extremism.

I now declare the conference open.

Thank you.