FactCheck Q&A: what has the Children’s eSafety Commissioner done in its first year to tackle cyberbullying?

Minister for Communications and Arts, Mitch Fifield, speaking on Q&A on August 23, 2016. Q&A

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Excerpt from Q&A, August 23, 2016.

[The Children’s eSafety Commissioner] also is a cop on the beat when it comes to cyberbullying and they’ve investigated about 11,000 cases of cyberbullying. The eSafety Commissioner has the power to direct a social media organisation to take down offensive material and if they don’t, there are penalties of up to $17,000 per day for the social media organisation. – Minister for Communications and Arts, Mitch Fifield, speaking on Q&A, August 23, 2016.

Revelations that boys have been sharing pornographic pictures of underage girls online have refocused attention on how best to tackle online harassment, bullying and abuse.

When asked about the issue on Q&A, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said that the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner had investigated about 11,000 cases of cyberbullying and can order social media organisations to take down offensive material – or face fines of up to $17,000 per day.

Is that correct?

Checking the source

When asked for a source to support his statement, a spokeswoman for the minister pointed to the commissioner’s 12-month report and gave more detail on the agency’s capacity to issue penalties.

The spokesperson’s full response can be read here.

When The Conversation asked the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner how many fines had been issued since the passage of its enabling legislation, a spokesperson for the commissioner said:

The Office of the children’s eSafety Commissioner handled over 11,000 complaints across its investigation functions, which include prohibited online content and cyberbullying. For more information on this please see our media release issued at our 12-month mark. To date we have issued no penalty notices as we have worked collaboratively with our social media partners in getting material removed, without the need for formal powers.

The commissioner’s website notes that in the 12 months to July 2016, there were 186 complaints of “serious cyberbullying” affecting under 18s, with 71% of these cases targeting girls. 15-year-olds are the primary targets of reported cyberbullying material.

The agency said that reports involved factors such as:

  • 73% Nasty comments and/or serious name calling
  • 26% Offensive or upsetting pictures or videos
  • 21% Threats of violence
  • 21% Fake and/or impersonator accounts
  • 7% Hacking of social media accounts
  • 7% Unwanted contact
  • 3% Hate pages

In its 12-month report card, the agency said:

We conducted 11,121 online content investigations and worked with our global partners to remove 7,465 URLs of child sexual abuse material. All items actioned in one to two days.

Of the child sexual abuse material, 95% of the victims were girls and 5% boys.

So Mitch Fifield’s figures are correct, but he mistakenly conflated the term “cyberbullying” with the Children’s eSafety Commissioner’s full range of investigative responsibilities.

The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner looked at about 11,000 URLs (more commonly known as web addresses) in the last year and removed 7,465 URLs of child sexual abuse material.

It’s inaccurate to describe such cases as “cyberbullying”. In fact, there were 186 complaints of “serious cyberbullying” affecting under 18s in the 12-month period to July 2016.

Penalties

The legislation that led to the creation of the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner notes that:

A person must comply with a requirement under a social media service notice to the extent that the person is capable of doing so. Civil penalty: 100 penalty units.

It is true that the agency has the power to direct social media organisations to take offensive material down and issue daily penalties until they do.

That said, Fifield’s figure of up to $17,000 per day is out of date. This figure was accurate when the bill was proposed, but a change to the Crimes Act 1914 has since increased Commonwealth penalty units from $170 to $180.

The maximum daily penalty is now $18,000. The agency has said it is yet to actually issue any penalties.

Lastly, it is worth noting that Mitch Fifield’s comments on Q&A were in response to a question from the audience about what could be done to afford Australian women more protection from online harassment.

Whilst the questioner asked about adult women, the minister’s response relates to the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, whose powers of investigation are constrained to cases involving young people under the age of 18.

The scale of cyberbullying and online harassment

It can be challenging to get a sense of how pervasive cyberbullying or online harassment are, because these terms are quite broad. It encapsulates everything from name-calling to stalking and threats of sexual assault.

A 2014 study prepared for the Department of Communications estimated that:

the prevalence for being cyberbullied ‘over a 12-month period’ would be in the vicinity of 20% of young Australians aged 8–17.

A Pew Internet survey of 2,489 internet users in the United States revealed that 40% of respondents had experienced a form of online harassment. This ranged from offensive name-calling to threats of harm, stalking, sustained and/or sexual harassment. This survey found that young women, in particular, experience severe forms of harassment at disproportionately high levels.

The Children’s eSafety Commissioner’s supporting roles

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner provides useful tools, support, and education for people who have been targeted by cyberbullies and online harassers. These resources are helpful and approachable, although they lack the level of technical detail provided by resources like Speak Up & Stay Safe®, and Crash Override Network.

The Office has also delivered a range of teaching programs to young people and school teachers, as well as establishing advice and support portals with their iParent and eSafetyWomen initiatives.

While the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner provides some resources for adults, they do not investigate reports relating to adults. Adults are advised to report to another government initiative, the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN).

Finally, the commissioner is also charged with the removal of offensive and illegal content, including child sexual abuse material, or gratuitous, exploitative and offensive depictions of violence or sexual violence.

Verdict

Mitch Fifield’s statement that the Children’s eSafety Commissioner “investigated about 11,000 cases of cyberbullying” is not accurate. The minister has mistakenly conflated the term “cyberbullying” with the Children’s eSafety Commissioner’s full range of investigative responsibilities.

In fact, the agency conducted 11,121 online content investigations and removed 7,465 URLs of child sexual abuse material. There were 186 complaints of “serious cyberbullying” affecting under 18s in the 12-month period to July 2016.

The minister’s statement that “The eSafety Commissioner has the power to direct a social media organisation to take down offensive material”, and impose fines of up to $17,000 per day for non-cooperation is essentially true, but the figure is outdated. As of July 2015, the commissioner can impose fines of up to $18,000 per day.

In practice, the agency is yet to impose any penalties. Organisations have opted to collaborate with the commissioner’s office to take down prohibited content. – Andrew Quodling


Review

The minister is wrong to say there were investigations into 11,000 examples of cyberbullying. In fact, according to the commissioner’s own website, they helped to resolve 186 complaints of serious cyberbullying for under 18s.

And although the commissioner’s office now provides advice for women as well as children, it only investigates complaints concerning children.

The commissioner’s report says it conducted 11,121 online content investigations and removed 7,465 URLs of child sexual abuse material. This sounds like a lot of investigations, but remember that a single site can house many URLs.

And while the office of the eSafety Commissioner and the minister’s spokesperson both say the agency handled over 11,000 complaints, in fact that does not line up with the language used in the Commissioner’s 12-month report card.

It says it conducted 11,121 content investigations. It is possible that all of these investigations originated as complaints from the public, but it’s also possible some or many were initiated by the office of the commissioner itself or its overseas partners.

The fact that the commissioner’s office received only 186 complaints of cyberbullying means either people don’t realise they can report the bullying to the office, or it’s not as widespread as might be suggested.

I helped conduct a large research project on sexting and young people in Australia. There were two key findings that might be of interest here - and I do caution that sexting is very different to cyberbullying, but that an image that has been “sexted” can become a tool of a cyberbully.

The first is that sexting is widespread among young people; around 40-50% of 13 to 15 year olds have sent a nude or semi-nude selfie. But most happens consensually and only a small proportion of children who ever receive an image send it to a third party for whom it was not intended.

Also, few participants report being pressured to send an image, although there is a serious gendered double standard in the way girls who send images are treated (and shamed) compared with boys. This is not the way sexting is generally reported but dealing with these facts is important for minimising harm.

Without trying to understate the level of damage that sexting gone wrong (or cyberbullying) can have on young lives, we must stick to the facts and not overcook the danger, nature or prevalence of either. – Murray Lee


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