28 Apr 2022

White supremacism biggest source of illegal content - DIA report

6:10 pm on 28 April 2022

White identity-motivated extremism continues to be the leading driver of online content investigated and shut down by Internal Affairs (DIA).

Department of Internal Affairs

Internal Affairs Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

DIA today released its first annual report into online violent extremism content, covering 2021.

The report is in part a result of the Christchurch Call - efforts by governments to eliminate such content online led by New Zealand and France after the 15 March attacks on Christchurch mosques in 2019 - and aims to produce a yearly snapshot of the volume of content investigated and removed.

It shows white supremacism accounted for the largest portion of investigated content by far.

Nearly three years after the mosque terror attack, the massacre livestream continued to be shared and promoted, particularly by white supremacists, it found.

DIA said it highlighted the huge impact the attacks continued to have on New Zealand's online violent extremist environment.

Twitter was the biggest source of content referred to the department, and the biggest source of content deemed illegal which it then sought to have removed. However, Twitter did act on all cases of content flagged for removal by DIA.

The second-highest amount of content came from BitChute, a video-hosting service initially set up in the United Kingdom, known for accommodating far-right individuals and conspiracy theorists and hosting hate speech. BitChute had the highest amount of objectionable content that DIA was "unable to progress" removal for.

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Photo: Department of Internal Affairs

Internal Affairs' director of digital safety Jared Mullen heads the unit and said the big companies were fairly responsive.

"If our agency contacts them and lets them know that there is something on their platform which contravenes our law, most of the time it also contravenes their own terms of services so they're very happy in most instances to take that down.

He said smaller and emerging platforms - and particularly those that have been established more as a haven for extreme ideas and extreme speech - were harder to deal with but could be handled through international partners.

"In those circumstances what we've been able to do is work with authorities overseas ... we've had quite good success in getting stuff taken down internationally even when it's not posted by one of the big platforms or in New Zealand."

There was a big spike in the amount of content investigated in May with 162 urls investigated, which DIA said was attributed to referrals from other agencies.

There were also smaller spikes in August (112) and September (105), with relatively lower numbers in October through December partly due to less proactive scanning by the department in the holiday months.

DIA's proactive scanning was the biggest source of material, with 261 urls, followed by other government agencies (141), public referrals (131) and non-government organisations (108).

The ratio of material found to be objectionable was also much higher in the first half of the year, with more material found to non-objectionable than objectionable in quarters three and four.

The report said DIA also expected monthly referral numbers to be "consistently higher" in 2022. Mullen said he believed it was part of a trend.

"As online extremism and extremist thought makes more of an inroad into people's lives, as content varies and proliferates there are more channels for it to be present on, so we expect to be across that and to be experiencing continual increases as a result."

Federation of Islamic Associations chair Abdur Razzaq said the "insightful" report was a major wake-up call for policy makers, politicians and the public, and added considerable value.

"This is amazing baseline data, and as far as I know it hasn't been done anywhere else in the world, so this is Kiwiana at its best," he said.

The report reflected what his community had been experiencing, he said.

"We wrote in our Royal Commission [submission], that was in 2019, that the trend for increasing right-wing extremism ... had been rising since 2016."

The report found 303 of the 614 links were related to white supremacy, compared to just 31 that were faith motivated.

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Photo: Department of Internal Affairs

"And this is only for a small sample, first year, we know the right-wing extremism has increased," Razzaq said.

He said it was very timely considering the implementation of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks; DIA's review of hateful content, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's developing Confronting Violent Extremism Strategy and National Security Strategy, and perhaps most important, the hate speech legislation.

"We can no longer delay our hate speech [laws], look - the royal commission clearly stated there's a direct link between hate speech and hate crime, and we know hate speech is mediated through online, we've seen it time and time again and this report confirms it."

He said it should not become a political football.

"It's not an election issue, this is an issue of safety and security and wellbeing of the tangata whenua and the tangata tiriti, and that is what this report has done.

"Unfortunately many of our policy makers are still in the old mindset, they have to be in the future mindset and that, this report will hopefully do."

Mullen said he was very happy with the work the unit had done, and would continue to do.

"I think we are making a difference to the online safety of New Zealanders and more than that I think we're able to be a line in the sand, a bit of a yardstick ... about what's acceptable and what's not for New Zealanders online."

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