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Photo by Getty Images
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ĀteaMarch 7, 2019

Why social media is not a safe place for indigenous people

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

A new study analysing the number of racist versus supportive comments in two large online forums reveals some sobering facts about Māori experiences online.

To illustrate the difference in the Māori and Western/Pākehā worldviews about the power of speech, it’s worth looking at two different whakataukī or proverbs.

The first is the old adage that while ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, words will never hurt me’. The idea is that words can do no damage, but for Māori, we say ‘He tao rākau, e taea te karo; he tao kōrero, e kore e taea te karo’ – the taiaha can be pushed aside but words cut straight to the heart.

For us, a culture steeped in oral tradition, words matter.

That’s why it broke my heart to learn that on average, Māori who are active on Facebook will encounter nearly five times as many different racist ways of thinking for each kind comment. Comments like ‘Maybe we should roast her on the spit…  Bet she tastes like a Koni Koni with that pinky flesh! Mmmm bacon!’’ hurled at Māori musician and social commentator Lizzie Marvelly is a prime example.

The internet has made it possible to easily connect with friends and whānau, sell and purchase goods and services, raise money for charity, and even hail a ride or meal to your front door. It’s also provided a powerful and relatively cheap way for groups and individuals to spread hate and abuse at speed and scale, and without transparency.

Predictably, the man who left the comment about Marvelly used a fake profile picture.

Online hate is, sadly, common and widespread. One in ten New Zealanders experienced online hate last year. One in three Māori endured online racial abuseOnline hate statistics are worse for people of colour, young people, LGBTQI+ folk and women. Especially women who express political opinions online. Recent research into understanding and addressing trolling shows that online abuse festers when there’s a motivated troll abuser, a reactive target(s) and the absence of a capable guardian.

Is Facebook a capable guardian?

Across the ditch, researchers looked at the role social media plays in the lives of indigenous Australians and found that almost all of its participants had seen anti-black racism on Facebook or Twitter.

Social media is not a safe place for indigenous people.

If you go to YouTube and type in something as innocuous as ‘NZ history’, one of the top results will be an hour-long video peddling the claim seven foot tall, red-headed Celtic people built astrological stone monuments before Māori arrived in Aotearoa. The video was removed from TVNZ for being inaccurate. On YouTube, it has half a million views. Type in the word ‘Māori’ into YouTube and you’ll be presented with a video titled ‘Top 10 TERRIFYING Facts About MAORI WARRIORS’ with almost five million views. The video is full of mistruths and painful pronunciation.

How does misinformation get so many views? Surely YouTube don’t have an agenda to disrupt race relations in New Zealand?

The answer: money.

YouTube’s business model is built on selling ads, which means they want us watching more and more videos. The algorithm is trained to keep us hooked by presenting increasingly extreme or sensational content. Alarming when you consider New Zealanders now spend more time watching videos on YouTube and Facebook than reading the news.

Graham Cameron writes about the idea of whakawhānaungatanga instead of censorship. He argues that defending the rights of racist people to say or spread whatever they want is implicitly defending their ‘right’ to damage our communities and relationships. Therefore, limiting racist speech (or reach) is less about censorship and more about upholding whānaungatanga.

Pinterest recently made the decision to stop misinformation about vaccinations on their platform. A user can still post an anti-vaxx image, but Pinterest will not reward them with free viral distribution or search returns. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook would do well to follow suit.

It’s easy to look at issues like online hate and jump to relatively simplistic solutions. Delete your account. Educate the kids. Reduce screen time. But in a world where over-65-year-olds are the most likely group to share misinformation and millions of us now rely on the internet for information, connection, and employment, those simple solutions will not suffice.

The tech and social media giants that permeate so much of our lives must become more capable guardians. It’s not like they can’t afford to: Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth is 60 times more than the combined GDP of Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands.

Our government ministers need to make sure that happens.

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