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Jacqui Lambie and the limits of Remix Culture

October 2014

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Image credit: Austin Kleon

On September 18, far-right British nationalist party Britain First posted an image to their Facebook page. Like most of the images shared by Britain First, and many of the images shared to Facebook in general, the photograph did not appear to be original, but pulled from a Google Image Search, with text superimposed to modify its meaning. In this case, the image depicted a woman in a pastel blue burqa grasping a handgun, accompanied by text reading, ‘Terror attack level: Severe – an attack is highly likely; For security reasons it’s now time to ban the burqa’.

We know now what the administrators of the Britain First page presumably didn’t at the time: that the woman in the burqa was Malalai Kakar, the first female graduate of the Kandahar Police Academy in the south of Afghanistan and a women’s rights advocate, who was murdered by the Taliban in 2008. The image was subsequently shared by Palmer United Senator Jacqui Lambie, after which the photographer who took the picture contacted the ABC, arguing that Malalai’s image had been ‘desecrated’ on Lambie’s page. In response, Lambie refused to delete the shared post, arguing that Kakar would have agreed with the repurposing of the image.

If it’s true that, as Lawrence Lessig has suggested, we’re living in a ‘Remix Culture’, did anybody really do anything wrong? Is there any real difference, after all, between the actions of Britain First (and, indirectly, Lambie), and Reddit users appropriating photographs of absolute strangers to create Advice Animal macros, Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis releasing albums on which every sound is sampled and radically decontextualized, those on the left disseminating digitally-manipulated photos of Tony Abbott, or redubbing, culture jamming or political supercutting?

There may be a difference, but let’s not pretend this is anything new. The combination of Google Image Search, Photoshop, and Facebook is a powerful one, providing web users with the ability to seek out swaths of copyrighted visual material, rip and manipulate these pictures so the original source is obscured, then share the freshly ‘remixed’ images to a broad audience with no real fear of legal action. Every moment of every day, the Facebook News Feed offers up a nearly endless stream of illegally disseminated visual content, which the original creators have no knowledge of and for which they receive no compensation. Facebook users are rarely clearly warned not to post content they don’t own on the network, and it is nearly impossible to report copyrighted or misappropriated content on the site: attempting to flag an image as copyrighted leads the user down a labyrinthine path in which they are repeatedly dissuaded from filing a claim.

In the case of the misappropriated Malalai Kakar image, it’s easy to see how this particular chain of events transpired. An administrator of the Britain First page searched Google Images for ‘Burqa gun‘ and, without much thought, dragged the first image on the page into their preferred desktop image editor. Haven’t thousands of others done the same? Just as Facebook subtly encourages users to fill their feeds with visual content they don’t own, Google Images is structured to enable images to be easily downloaded devoid of all context. Instead of attributing creators or siginalling how the picture was originally used, every image on Google Images is simply accompanied by low-contrast text reading ‘Images may be subject to copyright’, with no further information about fair use or how to contact a creator to obtain consent. Google Image Search becomes a smorgasbord of ready-to-remix visuals that somebody, somewhere must have created, but with no clear indication as to who that somebody might be.

On some level, we all have some trouble understanding why Google Images exists or how, exactly, it should be used. I’ve met more than one magazine editor who believes that once a photograph is accessible via Google Image Search, it automatically becomes part of our shared visual language, part of a de facto “commons” open to reuse and remixing by all. The ability to search for ‘Burqa gun’ on Google Images and immediately gain access to an endless grid of burqa-clad women holding handguns makes it easy to mistake Google Images for a stock photo website, with every real woman in every real photo mistaken for just another model striking a pose. In the age of Google Image Search, it seems as though the only way to prevent accidental misuse of an image would involve baking everything the viewer might need to know about a photograph right into the image itself, but this seems impractical. How could photographer Lana Slezic have constructed her portrait of Malalai Kakar to make it clear that Kakar was a police officer? Or even that Kakar had a complex relationship to the wearing of the garment, let alone – obviously – that she was later assassinated. Few images are able to effectively convey this volume of information, and even fewer as compressed jpeg thumbnails. Google Images strips away the backstory and simply presents Kakar, alongside many others, as a part of a broad catalogue of unknown Muslim women wielding weapons.

In Steal Like an ArtistAustin Kleon distinguishes between ‘good theft’ and ‘bad theft’. ‘Good theft’, according to Kleon, involves honor, study, credit, and stealing from many (ideally nabbing from such a vast pool of work that it becomes impossible to identify individual expropriations), while ‘bad theft’ involves degrading, skimming, plagiarisation, and blatantly stealing from a single source. Putting aside one’s politics for a moment, this is what makes Britain First’s use of the Kakar portrait a bad remix. If Britain First had attempted to create a similar picture by reworking imagery from a vast number of sources, the same political point could have been made without misusing the work of others.

Ultimately, though, our entire online system is now set up to make bad remixes possible. Britain First gained attention because it is effortless to remix and redistribute an image of an assassinated Afghanistan policewoman in which that woman is presented as a terrorist. Moreover, our entrenched misunderstanding of online copyright and our obsession with Remix Culture has led us to a situation in which the original photographer is unable to assert her right to ownership over the image she created, and unable to take action to have her misappropriated work rapidly removed from a social network that continues to enable others to share it.

At the same time, our misunderstanding of the differences between creators, remixers, and curators has led many to mistakenly direct the brunt of their anger at Lambie, who really did nothing but visit another Facebook page and click “share”. If we want to hold web users accountable for liking or retweeting misleading, bogus, or doctored imagery, then we all need to commit to rigorously fact-checking everything we decide to engage with online. This is probably a good idea, but virtually none of us have the time to obsessively question the origins of a photograph before we “like” it – we simply take it on trust that the original uploader did that work for us.

In RemixLawrence Lessig writes about a woman who found a piece of her music reworked by a remixer who had ‘totally destroyed the meaning’ of her track. To Lessig’s relief, the woman ‘described how the experience had totally changed how she thought about creating music… the sound had taken on new meaning.’ Our online systems are designed to facilitate this kind of reworking of meaning, and the results can be fascinating and weird and wonderful. At the same time, though, the idea that remixing simply involves the addition, modification, or relocation of meaning can lead us to overlook the consequence that in the online space, remixing just as often results in the erasure of necessary context that must be painfully reconstructed – if anybody bothers to reconstruct it at all.

Don’t Look: The emergence of Streisand criticism

October 2014

Streisand_EstateAbove: Barbra Streisand’s beach house

In the wake of the recent nude celebrity photo leak, I noticed something strange about the ways different publications skewed their coverage. Tabloid-style publications tended to be honest about their motives, referring to the situation as “scandalous” and often reproducing portions of the images outright in a bid to appeal to readers’ basest impulses. The behaviour of left-leaning broadsheet-style outlets, however, was more complex, generating page-view profit by promoting the images while denouncing tabloids for engaging in the very same practice.

In broadsheet-aligned Forbes, for example, a piece about the stolen photographsgenerated over two million views. The piece begins with a list of nine women whose photographs have been stolen, then proceeds to discuss, ‘without going into sordid details’, which of the women’s photographs have been confirmed as real. Later in the piece, the author links to five sets of images of Hollywood actresses that ‘sadly’ focus on titillating the male viewer. The article’s explicit intention was to argue that the ‘burden of moral guilt [is] on those who chose to consume said stolen property for titillation and/or gratification’. Yet despite their desire to condemn the vulgar coverage of tabloid publications, almost every hyperlink in the piece simply directed the reader more easily to that same coverage.

The same day, Daily Life published a piece by Clementine Ford titled “This is why you shouldn’t click on the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence”. This article quickly generated over a million pageviews, for a whole host of reasons, but it is worth noting that the first paragraph contains a link to an image in which dozens of the women are named. On Junkee, a piece titled “Blame The Hackers, Sure, But Blame The Tabloids Too” was accompanied by exactly the kinds of images the author decries.

These kinds of pieces can be understood as akin to offense criticism, but they tend to go somewhat further. Offence criticism generally operates under the assumption that you’ve already consumed a piece of media, and attempts to explain why that content is so problematic that it should generate sustained outrage, ideally through sharing of a proliferation of thinkpieces about the content via social media channels. It is a self-sustaining form of criticism that primarily benefits advertisers on online news outlets.

The glut of broadsheet thinkpieces about the nude celebrity photographs had a slightly different effect. As the focus of the outrage is on content that the reader is encouraged not to consume, the sharing of these pieces of criticism inadvertently promotes the unscrupulous content in the name of fostering outraged responses to it. But what if the reader of the thinkpiece had come to it unaware of the reprobate content? In this case, the thinkpiece serves a strange dual purpose; both serving up links the reader can use to seek out the unseemly content, while repeatedly imploring the reader not to do so.

Urging others to look away is almost always ineffective. A decade ago, Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress the dissemination of a picture of her beach house. Until Streisand sued, almost nobody accessed the photo; in the month following the highly-publicised lawsuit, the photographer’s site would go on to receive close to half a million unique hits. In the years since, many others have found themselves burned by the “Streisand effect”, not recognising that attempting to convince others not to seek out a piece of media will only cause that media to rank more highly online.

In terms of what might be called “Streisand offence criticism”, it’s worth questioning whether or not publishers recognise what they are doing. The authors of individual pieces of Streisand offence criticism are almost certainly genuine in their intentions to turn readers away from offensive content. Publishers, however, must more clearly realise the true implications of running these kinds of articles. If the goal were really to draw attention away from offensive content, after all, the prudent move would be to publish nothing examining such content whatsoever. Not even a high-minded broadsheet, though, can simply turn away potential traffic. In the digital space, in which page views are of real short-term import and a “serious” publication’s reputation must be protected in the long-term, how to deal with morally discomfiting content becomes a serious business issue.

Streisand offence criticism has emerged as a perfect smokescreen. It allows such publications to publish articles that will draw in those looking for salacious and objectionable news on a “scandal”, while also ensuring the publication is never seen as endorsing or promoting the unscrupulous content readers are being ostensibly directed away from. This kind of criticism allows publishers to play a sleight of hand game, in which page views are boosted off the back of salacious content that appears to be principled and high-minded. If the reader or author never recognises the game is being played, all the better.

Streisand offence criticism extends in all directions, but it tends to be clearly designated: most pieces of Streisand offence crit are either prefaced by ‘Don’t’, or feature some sort of negatively expressed directive.  The Guardian, for example, recently published a piece titled “Don’t fat-shame Clive Palmer”, which allowed it to subtly promote a slew of pieces of media which do fat-shame Palmer. As with much of this kind of criticism, the Palmer piece is complex. It has almost certainly been orchestrated to gain social media traction by those who do enjoy making fun of Palmer, but it also allows the publication to deny culpability by suggesting that the piece was published as comprehensive instruction on how a reader should not behave.

Ultimately, the logic of offense criticism dictates that it must eventually turn upon itself. This is why coverage of the nude celebrity photo leak so quickly turned away from criticism of those responsible for leaking the photographs, and toward a meta-discussion in which the tabloids were criticised for their coverage of the issue. Now I am criticising the broadsheets, and somebody else will almost certainly criticise me. The criticism must move up the chain, until we are all both outraged and condemned. Maybe we should just be quiet.

The Rise of the High-Minded Startup

October 2014

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On every page of Ello, the self-described ‘simple, beautiful and ad-free’ social network, is a link to their “manifesto”. ‘Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads,’ the document reads. ‘You are the product that’s bought and sold. We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency.’

The manifesto is key to understanding the relative success of Ello, which has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users despite offering a wafer-thin feature set that doesn’t even match the original functionality of the Thefacebook hacked together by Mark Zuckerberg a decade ago. Very little about Ello itself is notable: it doesn’t require users to disclose their real names, a policy Facebook briefly and contentiously implemented recently, but neither do Twitter or Tumblr, or most other social media services. The manifesto, then, is the only real differentiator between Ello and its competitors.

A manifesto like Ello’s – which grasps desperately at profundity but collapses into trite meaninglessness (does anyone not believe in audacity or beauty or simplicity?) – allows the startup to benefit from associations with past manifesto-based socio-political-artistic movements, and encourages new users to identify themselves as revolutionaries. The fact that Ello’s manifesto is, at its core, simply a collection of vague truisms (a social network should be ‘a place to connect, create and celebrate life’) only makes it more powerful, as it allows Ello users to believe they are taking a stand without worrying they might be required to stand for anything in particular. Following in a long tradition, the Ello manifesto draws attention to a great injustice (social networks make use of customer data to display targeted advertisements), but stops short of detailing how, exactly, any new, more just régime would avoid eventually corrupting itself. Indeed, were Ello to eventually displace Facebook (which seems unlikely), the investment they have already received nearly guarantees they would need to compromise on their hazy, inspirational, not-quite-promises very quickly. Investors have a habit of caring very little about morality and very much about cashing out as quickly as possible.

The manifesto-based startup represents a shift in how we understand online services. Where, previously, startups won and lost based – at least in part – on the strength of their so-called elevator pitches (‘What’s the problem? What’s the solution, and how are you going to execute it better than your competitors?’), the new crop of manifesto-based startups seem to be emerging as nascent lifestyle brands, their product or service itself existing in order to justify the worldview which in turn justifies it. The startup Holstee is perhaps the purest example of this trend: the startup appears to exist primarily to sell posters and cards and decals and prints of its own manifesto, creating an endless uroboric loop in which the user/buyer is encouraged to, buy the manifesto in order to ‘Live your dream and share your passion’.

In 2014, it is no longer possible for new startups to compete straightforwardly with established players in most fields; the lead of the incumbents is too great. A carefully-constructed manifesto, however, seems to offer a sly way around this need to truly compete, allowing founders to obscure a new service’s crude or derivative feature set behind an inspirational, jargon-filled call-to-arms. No new mobile photo-sharing startup could possibly compete with Instagram, for example, which has a polished user interface, unlimited storage, massive userbase, and stable servers. This is why, when VSCO launched their Instagram competitor in February, they did so in the form of a tautological manifesto in which they suggested that they ‘rebel’ against the notion that ‘an artist’s creative process and purpose often are lost among the belief that clout within social networks equals quality work’. Exactly what this means isn’t particularly clear, which might be the point.

Some startup manifestos are better than others. Last year, when MacDowell Writing Fellow Craig Mod launched his narrative-sharing service Hi, he did so by way of a 2,800 word manifesto in which he outlined a set of beliefs about ‘how digital creative tools could and should function’. Mod’s manifesto included the notion that we need ‘a system encouraging the habit of seeing’. The entire essay is well worth reading – Mod’s ideas of ‘creativity zones’ and ‘layered levels of publishing’ may initially seem hazy, but he does a good job of attempting to explain what he means via references to other works.

The Ello manifesto, meanwhile, is probably the worst of them all: overly broad, provocative, and deliberately slippery. The Ello team suggests they ‘believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership’, which raises significant questions as to what this kind of ‘partnership’ might look like and how it might operate. The Ello service as it currently exists does not offer many clues, which is probably why the manifesto is presented front and centre: the service itself is really just vaporware, the manifesto encouraging us to sketch out an imagined version of Ello that might exist one day, in the far future, once we have transferred our loyalty from Facebook and granted the Ello team ownership of all our data. At the same time, the structure of the manifesto ensures that Ello will never be held responsible if plans change. After all, in Ello’s decidely less utopian privacy policy, there is the proviso that, ‘Ello does not have any affiliated companies right now. But if we do in the future, we may share some information with them.’

In a way, the rise of the manifesto-based startup can probably be explained by Silicon Valley’s current obsession with the ‘’. Manifesto-based startups like Ello loudly declare that the future will be safer, simpler, more secure, more equal, more beautiful, or more audacious than the present. These declarations are convincing, largely because we so desperately want to be convinced, but they carry no weight: if these startups actually knew how to construct these futures, we’d already be there.

Little common ground and less understanding at pro-life conference

October 2014

In the lead-up to the World Congress of Families’ Melbourne ‘regional’ event, it was unclear whether convener Babette Francis was a Machiavellian manipulator or simply a woman who’d found herself in way over her head. From the outside, it certainly looked as though the conference was falling apart: after the original venue pulled out, the conference was relocated to a church in Glen Iris, then to East Brunswick, and then it appeared as though no church would be willing to host the thing at all. In the week before the event was due to take place, it was rumored that no insurance or security had been organised. Then, the very day before the conference, both Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews and Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark decided to drop off the speaker’s roster.

All of this screams incompetence on the part of Francis and her small team or organisers, or at very least naïveté. The conference was initially advertised as ‘Free Admission, All Welcome’, and those that contacted Francis immediately following the announcement of the event were registered without vetting. In early July, though, the event was picked up by satirist and LGBTQI rights advocate Pauline Pantsdown, who encouraged protesters to send through bogus RSVPs to book out the conference with non-attendees. Francis, half-recognising what had happened, then grew suspicious of anybody attempting to register who could not provide a reference from a church group or pro-life organisation. Of course, several of those who registered early on were protesters, and Francis unwittingly included them in a clandestine mailing list in which they were notified of venue changes and of the need to protect the conference from the amorphous group of WCF detractors Francis repeatedly termed “the ferals”.

Still, I began to suspect that Francis was savvier than she was letting on – or, at least, her ineptitude when it came to conference organisation was working in her favour. After all, the larger multi-day World Congress of Families international event took place in Sydney last year, and received virtually no media attention, even though it, too, included Kevin Andrews as a speaker, as well as several sessions in support of Russia’s anti-LGBTQI policies. While Pantsdown deserves a modicum of credit for getting WCF Melbourne in the news, the event received sustained media attention largely because Francis’ behavior was inconsistent and unpredictable. Francis would make claims on national radio linking pro-choice activism to the impending collapse of struggling small businesses, and in her individual dealings with journalists in the lead up to the event, would ask them to perform strange tasks in order to prove they could be trusted. Babette Francis’ messages tended to be so off-the-handle that they almost demanded to be screen-capped and republished on Facebook and snarky, left-leaning pop culture outlets like Junkee.

It was impossible to tell whether or not Francis was relishing all the attention, though, because it was impossible to tell what the point of WCF Melbourne was in the first place. Was the event designed to raise the profile of pro-life advocates? If so, in many ways it succeeded. In the leadup to the event, several major news outlets interviewed conference supporters, trying to give them just enough rope to, in the most pro-life way possible, hang themselves. On Channel Ten’s The Project Senator Erik Abetz was grilled by Mia Freedman on the Thursday before WCF about whether or not he believed the “scientific non-information” being promoted by presenter Angela Lanfranchi, linking induced abortion to an increased risk of breast cancer. This may be the first time, at least in recent history, that the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis has received any airtime on Australian television. Even though Freedman attempted to make the point that the hypothesis was “conclusively and scientifically incorrect in the same way that linking immunisations and autism are incorrect”, she may now need to bear some responsibility for promoting the hypothesis to a mainstream Australian audience. The fact that ‘Angela Lanfranchi’ now has a reasonable level of name recognition in Australia in the wake of WCF speaks to the fact that any publicity is good publicity – which Francis and her cohort probably deserve at least some credit for having recognised.

All that said, one of the strange things about these kinds of conferences is how generally ineffectual they are. The Abetz-Freedman segment on The Project was probably more effective at spreading the pro-life message to a new audience than the conference itself, which seemed explicitly designed only to appeal to the converted. Indeed, after Babette Francis began getting anxious about the “ferals” in the lead-up to the event, the only way to guarantee yourself a seat was to prove you already shared the beliefs of the WCF speakers in their entirety. “Why are you interested in our event if you are not associated with any pro-life group or church?” Francis asked me a week before the event. When I told her I was interested because I wanted to attend because I was “open-minded” and interested in exploring new perspectives, Francis was unconvinced. “We are very suspicious of anyone from Carlton who is not connected to a pro-life or pro-family organisation,” she told me, before offering to post me a copy of her newsletter.

Strangely, after I did actually manage to make it in, one of the repeated refrains from audience members I spoke to was how disappointed they were that members of the left seemed unwilling to truly engage the religious right in respectful, intelligent conversation. “If they really wanted to challenge our ideas, why wouldn’t they come here, wait until question time, and then pose a question in a logical fashion?” asked Teresa Martin, State President at Cherish Life Queensland. I noted that this was fair enough, because I honestly suspected at least some of the members of WCF would have truly enjoyed a civil conversation with detractors. A well-put question may have even caused some members of the WCF to soften their views! However, I also noted that this kind of polite dialogue wasn’t exactly possible, not at all, considering that anybody who couldn’t prove a connection to a pro-life group was being forced to stand outside, prevented from entering Catch the Fire Ministries’ Hallam compound by fifty police officers.

Teresa nodded, then pointed at the front of the stage. “Were you here this morning?”

I shook my head. “Sort of. I was outside. It was hard for me to get in.” Still, I knew what she was going to tell me about.

“There was a protester on stage, wearing all white, and then she spilled red paint all over her crotch,” Teresa said, shaking her head. This was why we couldn’t let just anybody in, Teresa was insinuating.

The protester was an artist named Phaedra Press, and I had seen her from the street as security had ejected her from the compound.

“I poured blood on myself in front of Fred Nile!” I remember Phaedra exclaiming, once back out on the street, back in with her throng, in possession of the communal megaphone. “We tried to cause an evacuation, but those guys in there don’t even have bloody smoke detectors!”

I remember laughing; it was impossible not to. One of the others who’d been ejected from the venue was a young woman named CJ, who had dressed in a frumpy op-shop frock in order to ‘pass for a Christian’. At times that morning, it had actually seemed as though police were automatically ushering through men and women in conservative dress, as though it was only our uniforms that really divided us, but CJ told me that her entry into the conference was legitimate: she had made her way onto Babette Francis’ secret email list.

At lunch time, I’d walked back up to the gate and spoken to CJ through the chain link fence. She had long since changed back into her civvies.

“Oh, we wanted to show that ‘this is what a backyard abortion looks like’,” she’d told me when I’d asked what had motivated the morning stunt. At the time, though I didn’t mention this to CJ, I wondered whether conference attendees would understand. It seemed, to me, to be sending a confusing message.

“She just reenacted exactly what an abortion is,” Teresa Martin said, shrugging sadly, when I had asked her to provide me with her interpretation of Phaedra’s protest. As I suspected, because Phaedra’s stunt had been so shocking, horrifying, and devoid of context, Teresa and other conference-goers had not recognising that what Phaedra had been attempting to demonstrate was that legalised abortion can prevent major injury and abortion-related deaths. To Teresa, and, it seemed, most members of the audience, all Phaedra had demonstrated was that abortion, whether legal or not, is a process in which you “allow that area to be battered and bruised.”

I imagined an alternate world in which Phaedra, or somebody else, had managed to make their way into the conference, and instead of pouring paint on her crotch in front of Fred Nile, had decided to ask Nile, or Teresa Martin, or any of the conference presenters or audience members, to comment on statistics linking the legalisation of abortion to fewer maternal deaths.

I also thought of the young Christian couple with two small children in tow that I had been keeping my eyes trained on all morning. I was still on the outside when they had attempted to enter the church compound, and had been standing near them as they walked up to the gate. “Why are you bringing your children here, you bigots?!” several of the protesters had shouted, as the police swept in and created a human wall to protect them. I closed my eyes right there and let myself imagine I was, like one of the children, just seven years old and hearing strangers dressed in funny clothing hurling inexplicable abuse at both of my parents. These children, I realised, would remember this moment forever, but it would almost certainly just turn them inward and make it more likely they would end up sharing their parents’ moral opinions. I wondered how much more effective it would have been if the young couple had been politely approached by a protester and calmly engaged in conversation. After all, there was a good question to be asked: why did this couple decide it was a good idea to bring small children to an event in which early sessions dealt with both abortion and euthanasia? Perhaps the couple would have benefitted from somebody who could have explained, gently, why this perhaps wasn’t entirely appropriate.

The media, I hoped, might be able to bridge the gap between protesters and conference attendees, perhaps by trying to find some point of common ground. Wouldn’t it be an interesting project for a reporter to figure out how the people on the outside and the people on the inside were really kind of the same? Internally, of course, many conference attendees were simply baffled by the protesters, and couldn’t conceptualise what exactly they were even complaining about.

Predictably, within the conference, almost everyone seemed apprehensive around journalists, suspicious, or outright dismissive. I initially considered trying to interview a pleasant-looking young man sitting in my row, until I noticed that the words written across his black shirt read “Don’t trust anyone who reads mainstream news”.

“A pretty young lady came and asked me about the protesters,” I heard one older man say to another. I could immediately tell he was talking about one of the journos. “I’m not going to play into their hands! What do they want me to say: ‘they’re all idiots’?”

Several journalists were filing pieces throughout the day, and I hoped that they would, at very least, make sure not to slip up with matters of fact. After all, if the ideas put forth by WCF presenters are truly ridiculous, there should be no need to distort them to make them seem even more ludicrous. Near the very end of the day, several journos from a major online publication left, and I checked my RSS feed to seek out the last piece one of them had filed. I exhaled, deeply. One journalist had misrepresented Angela Lanfranchi by suggesting that Lanfranchi had, during her speech, only cited studies involving rats to support her breast cancer-abortion link thesis. This was simply false: Lanfranchi had presented a swath of research, including at least one recent study involving several hundred Chinese women. I had little doubt that the majority of the studies Lanfranchi presented had flaws or had been misinterpreted, but it seemed strange to attempt to so blatantly misrepresent Lanfranchi in order to turn her into an object of easier ridicule.

After the journalist had left, I realised the eyes of many of the audience members were trained upon me. I was one of the only writers that had managed to stick it out until the final session, and now I realised that at least some of the conference-goers were using their phones to read how the press was reporting events. At the end of the last session, in which Larry D. Jacobs, Managing Director of the WCF, had flippantly agreed that denying pain relief to Russian women was potentially a good idea, an audience member had taken the roving microphone and told all conference-goers about how Lanfranchi’s session had been misreported.

“This is the media; destructive people; everything they twist and turn!” two women sitting directly behind me lamented.

The woman sitting behind me, believing I worked for the same online publication, peered at my notebook. She could see that the last note I had taken was ‘brushed off idea of pain relief being withheld to Russian women seeking abortion’.

“Are you going to report it like that?” she said. “Do you write for them?”

I considered what was happening: with news outlets treating the World Congress of Families as farcical, as a setup for a series of jokes, attendees were simply being led to further distrust any information that did not come filtered through pro-life media channels. During one speech, a speaker mentioned the Sydney Morning Herald to snickers from the audience. At another point, a speaker sardonically urged journalists in the room to interview audience members to ask them whether they were afraid of being in a hall full of violent people. There was no major news publication conference attendees felt they could trust: The Australian predictably offered the most sympathetic coverage, but limited their coverage to the protest, with only fleeting mention of the content covered at the conference itself.

A bubble was forming, or maybe it had formed long ago. Unable to engage in dialogue with anybody but themselves, these people were being led further and further from the political centre.

When I made my way out of the World Congress of Families, all the police and protesters had left. Earlier, I’d spoken to Sam Castro, from the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance, who had explained that the protesters’ intention was always to leave early.

“We rid the event of every elected representative,” she’d told me, “Our goals have already been achieved.”

An elderly woman stepped out of the church compound, its gates now wide open, and looked at the graffiti that had been scribbled across the road.

“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it”, somebody had written in red chalk. “Bigots are really shit,” somebody had written in green.

The woman looked at the messages, baffled. I could tell she had so little engagement with the outside world that these messages made no sense to her.

Noting that the protesters had left, the old woman smiled, perhaps assuming this meant they had been forcibly removed by the police. “We have won the victory in Jesus’ name,” she muttered, before shuffling off down the road, back to her car.

Humour overrules hate speech

October 2014

On the ‘Take back Australia’ Facebook Page, there is an image that has been ripped from an album cover by metal band Cainomen. In it, a beast that bears a resemblance to the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise grasps a Caucasian sniper’s shoulder. Blood dribbles from the alien’s mouth, trickling onto the soldier’s helmet. ‘Those with the towels on their heads!’ the superimposed text reads. ‘I want them first! I’ve been waiting for them … ’

This image – which seems designed explicitly to incite violence against an identifiable religious group – has been reported many times, as has the ‘Take back Australia’ Page itself. The image has been cited for ‘annoying and distasteful humor’ and ‘harassment’, but more than a week later, the picture remains on the social network. Every user that has filed a report now has a message in their ‘Support Dashboard’ informing them that their complaint has been rejected because the image ‘doesn’t violate [Facebook’s] Community Standards’.

‘Keep reporting. They remove it eventually,’ one user suggested, in response to another user expressing frustration at their content removal requests failing. ‘Basically the first few times it reports it goes to bots. Then if you bitch enough it gets taken down.’

The idea that repeatedly reporting offensive content to Facebook constitutes an effective form of political action, however, may be a flawed one. After all, if a piece of content is reported once and that report is rejected, why would repeatedly flagging the same content lead Facebook to take action?

Facebook’s moderation policy is difficult to unpack, in large part because Facebook likes to pretend the social network is not a moderated space at all. But it seems as though the number of removal requests a piece of content receives does not significantly influence the likelihood it will be scrubbed from the site. On the contrary, with the exception of material that very clearly breaches Facebook’s guidelines (nudity, spam, graphic violence, threats directed at individuals), content tends to be only removed as a result of advertiser discomfort, something that’s also the main factor shifting Facebook’s guidelines.

For example, last year, Facebook took a stand against gender-based hate speech, but only after carmaker Nissan announced they would withdraw advertising from the social network.

In the wake of the Nissan boycott and Facebook’s subsequent commitment to improving its moderation criteria, it is certainly true that Pages with titles like ‘Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs’ no longer have much chance of long-term survival on Facebook. Nonetheless, hate speech on the social network is still rife. Facebook’s shifting guidelines simply change the rules of the game, with players adopting increasingly nuanced strategies to ensure their content resists removal in the face of repeated complaints. The resilience of the ‘Take back Australia’ Page, for example, which was created in 2012 (but, apparently, ‘Founded on January 26, 1788’), suggests that its anonymous administrators recognise how to use Facebook to promulgate content that, while often offensive and deliberately provocative, cannot justifiably be removed by the social network’s moderation teams.

For several years, for example, shrewd hate group Page administrators have had access to a ‘cheat sheet’ in the form of a leaked internal document intended as an operational manual for Facebook’s outsourced content moderators. Made public by moderators frustrated at being underpaid for their work, this document details how Facebook Page administrators can craft content that moderators cannot remove. One particular page lists which forms of ‘hate content’ should be ‘confirmed’ (removed from the site in response to a complaint), with the important addendum that ‘humor overrules hate speech’. Another page lists all forms of offensive content that moderators must leave untouched on the site (including certain kinds of ‘attacks against protected categories’ and uncaptioned images of animal and human abuse).

The ‘humour provision’ appears to be the one most keenly exploited by hate group administrators. Because Facebook’s moderators (at least at the lowest level) can do nothing more than follow the instructions outlined in their operational manual, if a piece of offensive content can be seen to have any humour value whatsoever, a complaint related to it will almost always be rejected. An image straightforwardly inciting Facebook users to murder Muslims will, for instance, be rapidly removed but if this sentiment is rephrased using a straightforward, easily identifiable joke structure, Facebook’s moderators – most of whom must dispatch reports as quickly as possible to meet their quota – will have no choice but to reject any user complaints relating to it.

Above all else, Facebook moderators are trained to swiftly identify genitalia and jokes: the former being cause to remove content, the latter being cause to retain it. This neatly explains why an image with the text, ‘‘Why did the Muslim cross the road?’ I thought to myself as my foot hit the accelerator’, has been hosted on Facebook for almost two years. It also explains, to some degree, why the image of the alien and the soldier apparently does not breach Facebook’s Community Standards – it looks like something somebodysomewherejust might find hilarious.

‘A lot of the trauma in bullying victims is the mocking they endure. It’s like [‘Take back Australia’ are] really going out of their way to provoke some kind of reaction, you know?’ one Facebook user tells me. While this is true, what seems to differentiate ‘Take back Australia’ from less durable hate group Pages is the precise balance struck between poor-taste ‘humour’ and apparent deep sincerity. When the ‘Aboriginal memes’ Page was removed in January, it was difficult for anybody to muster the enthusiasm to level serious charges of bias or censorship at Facebook, because the content being scrubbed was simply vulgar.

In the case of a hate group Page like ‘Take back Australia’, however, the content oscillates between tasteless anti-Islamic jokes, heartfelt paeans to deceased diggers, and indignant reports of Facebook censoring ‘patriotic’ content elsewhere on the social network. The combination appears to make the Page resilient, with individual pieces of offensive content protected by the ‘humour provision’, and the Page itself protected by the presence of images of fallen soldiers, which no Facebook moderator would dare remove.

Does Facebook care about regulating hate speech? It’s hard to say for sure, but at Facebook’s end it must seem less a free speech issue than a technical one. A rogue nipple or some pubic hair is easy to spot (even by an algorithm), but what exactly can be said to constitute ‘fighting words’ or ‘race baiting’ is less immediately obvious, especially when you may have less than ten seconds to make the call. Moderating complex content requires real workers, and anything that requires real workers simply doesn’t scale. Perhaps hate speech isn’t a joke at Facebook – it’s just logistically easier to treat it that way.