Q&A with Dr Anjalee de Silva

WLIA Fellow, expert on hate speech against women and related law and policy reform, local government Councillor.

Dr Anjalee de Silva  is a Lecturer at Melbourne Law School, The University of Melbourne. She is an expert in administrative, anti-discrimination, and free speech and media law and theory, with a focus on harmful speech and its regulation, especially in online contexts.  In particular, her work examines vilification or ‘hate speech’ directed at and about women, as well as the role of law in deterring, regulating, and mitigating the harms of such speech.  

Outside academia, Anjalee is a local government Councillor on Monash City Council, where she also serves on the Gender Equity Advisory Committee. 

We spoke with Dr de Silva about what’s been keeping her busy, hopeful and entertained recently.

Hi Anjalee, thanks for chatting with us today.

We’d love to know what is occupying your time and brain space at the moment?

I’m doing a lot of thinking about how platforms are responding and ought to respond to harmful speech, especially when it’s directed at women. My focus is on how platforms amplify this speech and accommodate its resultant harms due to their infrastructures and affordances, including their algorithmic models, which are core to their business models.

It’s very concerning when you realise that these platforms aren’t just benign publishers. They are intricately linked to the problem, almost sponsoring polarising speech in a commercially-incentivised way.

And when most of the existing regulatory measures favour self-regulation – partly because law and policy haven’t been able to effectively catch up with a lot of technological advances – it makes you realise how embedded the problem is.

Is there anyone responding well to this?

There are some platforms starting to think about what they can do from a user-centric, victim-centric point of view to make women’s experiences on their platforms better. But I’m sceptical about whether anyone is doing a holistically effective job.

Hate speech is not just about women having hate speech directed at them. In those cases, it’s easy for platforms to intervene, block or mute the users. What’s concerning is how hate speech and attitudes that underlie it often brings together networks of people who harbour these views – and polarise and radicalise them further in ways that harm women in the real world.

For example, incel (‘involuntary celibate’) communities thrive on the internet. We know that when this kind of speech is prevalent, attitudes, beliefs and social norms shift in ways that harm women in material ways

A lot of these far-right extremist and fascist online groups do seem to have links to misogyny or homophobia or racism or islamophobia or antisemitism. It’s very rare that it’s just one thing. We need to keep studying some of this language and how it builds these networks, as well as talking to each other about where the crossovers might be.

There’s also the broader social question of how do you then talk to these people in ways that bring them back from the brink. That’s the bigger social question, which I’m lucky to not have to engage with too much because I’m a lawyer! Harm to women is in and of itself a huge issue. But out of this comes the question – why are people being radicalised in this way? Particularly younger men? And what can we do to speak to them in ways that counterspeak against some of the hate that they’re hearing?

I’ve written a little bit about how to engage in effective counterspeech. But it’s difficult. It’s like unringing a bell. All of the information that’s available on how language works suggests that it’s actually really tough to undo some of the harms of this kind of speech in any real way. So you can protect victims from it in various ways, but it is really difficult to actually change the social norms back from where they end up because of this kind of language and these kinds of conversations in these groups. And it ought not to be the responsibility of target group members either, because they’ve got enough on their plates. So who is responsible for it? Is it the state? If so, there are a lot of free speech considerations.n

What keeps you up at night?

Doing my thesis, I distinctly remember only being able to do two or three hours of research and writing a day because of the number of graphic threats of sexual violence I was having to read and process as part of my work.

These days, there’s a particular hurt that comes from being attacked by people who are supposed to be on your side of politics. Women are let down on multiple fronts, and it can be disheartening and hurtful to experience virulent attacks from people whose values you may have expected would align with yours. There’s a sense that we’re really getting it from all sides. There’s a sense of distress and deep disillusionment that comes from being treated in abusive and gendered ways by those you expected would know better.

And what’s giving you hope?

There is a lot to be hopeful about. I think even the fact that we’re having these kinds of conversations is really hopeful for me. Even a decade ago, we wouldn’t have thought of hate speech as being a central part of women’s experiences in public life.

It gives me hope that we’re getting better and better at diagnosing the problem, even if we don’t have precise answers as to how to fix it yet. I think that the more we have these conversations, the more pressure there is on platforms and other key actors (including commercial pressure) to live up to women’s expectations about how they ought to be treated and protected when using their services and products.

When I started my PhD in 2016 there was very little written about this. There were very few academics or policymakers talking about it. There has been a real growth in dialogue between women about the problem in a range of sectors, in academia, politics, policymaking and the not-for-profit sector. Things are definitely moving. And they’re probably moving in the right direction. Keeping up with technological advances is a whole other challenge.nnFinally, what are you reading or listening to that you’re enjoying and would recommend?

During my maternity leave, I got into vintage Agatha Christie books. They’re so readable and enjoyable, even though they’re absolutely products of their times and have much in them that’s problematic.

I’ve been reading quite a few parenting books that relate to attachment theory. We’re all a product of those really early years. And I think the the psychology around attachment theory is quite related to the work I do and why people end up talking to each other in the ways they do.

In terms of reading related to my work, I’ve been diving into platform governance and the online disinhibition effect. This effect, highlighted by psychologist John Suler, delves into why our online behaviours can differ drastically from our behaviours as part of face-to-face interactions. I’m revisiting it because it’s fascinating to take some of this socio-legal work that I do and link it up with the psychology of why we behave in the ways we do (as per my previous comment on attachment theory). The internet is not just a different forum on which we exist, but in many ways it fundamentally changes the ways in which we interact with each other. Without catastrophising, it’s at least partly a new state of affairs and we need to treat it as such.

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