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‘Politely Racist’: Report shows online comment sections normalise Islamophobia

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A new study from All Together Now (ATN), an Australian not-for-profit organisation promoting racial equity, found comment sections on racialised opinion pieces in Australia’s mainstream media are increasingly polarising readers and perpetuating Islamophobia. The study, titled Politely Racist explores online reader comments in response to negatively racialised opinion pieces about Muslim people and unravels the role played by comment sections in perpetuating, normalising and consolidating racist ideas.

From September 2020 to January 2021, ATN analysed comments posted by readers responding to 29 articles that contained negative opinions about Muslim Australians in three leading newspapers: The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Most of the comments in The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun agree with the content of the negatively racialised opinion pieces (71% and 63% respectively). In contrast, The Sydney Morning Herald, which tends to publish a higher number of racially inclusive opinion pieces than other outlets, appears to have an audience that disagrees with the content of negatively racialised opinion pieces, with only 17% of comments agreeing.

According to the study, discussions taking place in these comment sections encourage opinion polarisation, further entrenching readers’ discriminatory views. The research found when like-minded people start discussing a particular topic and share their similar opinions, they tend to end up having opinions that are more extreme compared to their views before the discussion began.

“Comment sections are a cradle for racist discourse where freely exchanged discriminatory ideas are polite enough in tone to pass moderation, but racist in content,” the report highlighted.

The majority of commenters tend to voice their personal viewpoints without referring to any facts either related to the article content or their viewpoint. On average, around 85% percent of comments included new viewpoint(s) relevant to article content, whilst only 2% of comments referred to new facts relevant to the article.

Politely Racist also found racist discourse is interwoven with mainstream societal themes discussed in the articles and further disseminated in comments sections. This shows racist ideas are not fringe or confined to radical online spaces. Previous ATN studies found 53% of race-related social commentary monitored over 26 months contain overt or covert racism. This jumped to 78% when the piece was discussing Muslim people.

Priscilla Brice, Managing Director at All Together Now commented: “The impact race-related media pieces have on people is tangible, and our report shows the dangerously polarising effect they can have.

“The fundamental issue here is a lack of complexity when discussing race and racism. Evidence shows that people who are exposed to nuanced media content are less likely to become polarised in their beliefs. Good journalists and commentators need to cultivate better conversations by abandoning binary, simplistic presentations of complex topics such as race, and by embracing nuance.”

“Beyond the media themselves, the Australian Government needs to fund a national anti-racism strategy that uses and builds on the important work already being done by communities, not-for-profit organisations, activists and researchers.

“Most importantly, any government-led anti-racism strategy needs to be collaborative and strengthened by all the important voices in civil society that have been doing this work for many years,” Brice said.