Home Affairs' online team referred over 1,500 violent or extremist items for take-down

The department said the content it refers to social media platforms is beyond the actions the platforms themselves already take regarding the removal of items that incite hate or violence, or promotes terrorist ideals.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Department of Home Affairs has a dedicated team to find content on social media sites that promotes hate, incites violence, or points to terrorist propaganda. The team then works with social media platforms to have that content removed.

In the 12 months to 31 March 2021, 1,559 pieces of terrorist and violent extremist content were referred. 95% of that, or 1,486 items, were in the religiously motivated violent extremism space. 3%, or 51 pieces of content, were defined as being ideologically motivated violent extremist material. The remaining 2% was not defined.

The team has a budget of around AU$3 million.

Appearing before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) as part of its inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia, Dr Richard Johnson, first assistant secretary of Home Affairs' Social Cohesion team, said this isn't necessarily reflective of the amount of content that's out there, as the platforms themselves engage in their own takedown procedures.

But there are some platforms that don't have a referral function, which Johnson said points usually to the nature of those particular sites.

While the Home Affairs team deals with the more mainstream platforms -- such as Facebook and Instagram and Twitter -- it also engages the likes of Telegram and 4chan.

"We have referred material before, whether we're successful very much depends on the nature of the platform, how they're operating in a particular jurisdiction, and also the ethos of the particular platform," he clarified.

Senators were concerned the 1,559 figure was at odds with other statistics they have seen.

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"Firstly, platforms themselves do a lot of work in the first instance, to remove such materials. Not all platforms do. Secondly, we work in the open source ... space. So we're not seeing everything that's on the internet -- we're not working in encrypted chat rooms, etc," he said. "Thirdly … some of the material falls short of the thresholds in the first instance. Some of the platforms that host some of the material just don't have a referral function. So part of their raison d'etre, so to speak, is to host such content."

Johnson said violent extremist material in particular is what the team is looking for, but it also tracks down the likes of manifestos or content that advocates or instructs on how to commit a terrorist offence.

"The online team is principally about understanding the narrative focal points … it's certainly not tracking individuals in that sense," Johnson said, responding to questioning on whether an individual displaying symbolism, such as a radical flag, on their own personal Facebook page.

That work, he said, falls more in the hands of the teams that work with community leaders, as one example, in prevention activities and material that is counter to extreme ideological perspectives individuals might be exposed to.

One such program run on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs by Icon Agency is Rapt!. Rapt!, its website says, celebrates the many ways Muslim Australians contribute to society and its culture, by sharing stories and reflecting on different beliefs and opinions. With a presence already on Facebook and Instagram, as well as the web, Johnson said a YouTube channel will launch soon.

Johnson was asked by Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally in her capacity as a PJCIS member how the department is helping people understand, for example, what "shitposting" is.

"We've run a couple of digi-engage forums for young people to specifically take them through what they're seeing on the internet, what some of the tropes are ... there's ironic nodes that some of these groups use, for example, how to see it, to recognise it, and even to engage with it in an attempt to challenge it, if that's appropriate," Johnson said. "So we've got a capability set of work that we do precisely for that on the online environment."

With Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade counter terrorism ambassador Roger Noble pointing to the "dark web" as making violent and extremist material more accessible in his testimony earlier in the day, Home Affairs was asked what legislation would help law enforcement activities in the space.

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Chris Teal, Home Affairs deputy secretary of social cohesion and citizenship and also the counter-terrorism and counter foreign interference coordinator, told Senators the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Bill 2020 is of need, as is the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 and the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (International Production Orders) Bill 2020.

"One of the flow-ons from Dr Johnson's evidence is that a lot of this is occurring out of sight, on the dark web … one of the reasons I would contend that the numbers are as they are in relation to takedowns is because we're on what I think is known as the surface web and apparently there's a bad thing underneath it," he said. "I think that the numbers that we've been talking about is not demonstrative of what's out there. It's demonstrative of what we can see."

"The International Production Orders legislation currently before the Parliamentary Joint Committee will create a step change in the way in which Australia can request information directly from US companies and the evidence that Dr Johnson outlined about some of the companies that we work with … this will short circuit what is a very long process in mutual recognition and mutual exchange of information processes," explained first assistant secretary of Home Affairs' Cyber, Digital and Technology Policy team, Hamish Hansford.

"The committee will consider that our marching orders on that legislation," PJCIS chair Senator James Paterson declared.

Appearing earlier in the day before the PCJIS, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General of Security Mike Burgess said the security legislation before Parliament would certainly help law enforcement, but said ASIO was content with the powers it is awarded under the Telecommunications and other Legislation Amendment (Assistance & Access) Act 2018 (TOLA Act).

"With TOLA, our investments in our capability to deal with this evolving -- I'm satisfied at this point in time, we have the right legal mechanisms in place for my agency, noting my federal police colleagues have other needs that they're prosecuting the case for now," Burgess said.


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