“We’ve reached a tipping point societally,” Ms Inman Grant said. “Technology is becoming integrated into our everyday lives … and people are tired of the negativity, they’re tired of the targeted hate.”
The research found one in seven adults had been targeted by online hate speech in the 12 months to August 2019. A further one in four had witnessed it happen to someone else.
People identifying as LGBTQI or as Indigenous experienced online hate speech at more than double the national average.
The survey found online hate speech was most likely to occur between strangers via established social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram or everyday applications such as email.
Nearly two out of three people who experienced online abuse did not take any action such as blocking the contact or reporting it. Yet more than half reported a negative impact such as mental or emotional stress, relationship problems or reputational damage.
“There’s a recognition that online sticks and stones can break your bones and have a real mental wellbeing impact on people,” Ms Inman Grant said.
Ginger Gorman, cyber-hate expert and author of the book Troll Hunting, said people were more prepared to take online hate seriously following events such as the Christchurch massacre.
“We’ve seen hate crimes and terrorism really closely linked to predator trolling,” she said. “It has created a seismic shift in the way that the public views this – it’s not just people being mean online, it very clearly has real-life impacts.”
The eSafety research found 23 per cent of Australians believe you should be able to say whatever you like online. This group was mainly white, male, heterosexual and aged between 30 and 40.
Gorman said most predator trolls were young men with white supremacist leanings who were “deliberately trying to put themselves at the top of the food chain”.
In 2017, for Gorman’s book, the Australia Institute estimated the national economic cost of cyberhate at $3.7 billion, an aggregate based on health costs and time off work.
Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber-Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher is consulting over a new Online Safety Act.
The government proposes a new cyber-abuse scheme for adults with its own take-down regime and civil penalties, as well as strengthening criminal penalties for serious cases. The eSafety Commissioner already has powers over material directed at children.
“People quite rightly expect the government to consider the varied and complex issues driving certain online behaviours,” Mr Fletcher said. “That’s why we are developing sensible, proportionate and pragmatic policy responses.”
The eSafety research was commissioned separately, before Mr Fletcher announced his plans in December.
Survey participants defined “online hate” as anything negative directed at another person but Ms Inman Grant said legislation would need a higher bar.
“We don’t want too low of a threshold,” she said. “People to a certain degree need to develop a bit of resilience.”
Ms Inman Grant said fixing the problem would also require the social networks to adopt an approach of “safety by design”, making protections a core part of the product.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.