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 report titled Politely Racist  released on Thursday 20 May 2021 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.

Muslim Australians were portrayed negatively in a disproportionate manner, with 78% (80 pieces of social commentary) of the total (102) media pieces about Muslim people being negative, and only 22% (22 media pieces) being inclusive or neutral. The majority of these opinion pieces were published by News Corp-owned newspapers, while other media agencies barely discussed Muslim Australians in their columns or current affairs.
The analysis raises the question about whether comments sections act as breeding grounds for disseminating racist ideas. 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.
While more in-depth analyses of this nature are required to evaluate all aspects of the negative impact of poorly moderated opinion sharing, our findings present preliminary insights into the importance of regulatory mechanisms of a more nuanced nature at both institutional and policy levels.
Journalists need to embrace complexity when discussing polarising topics, over a ‘both sides’ approach. Complicating the narratives helps people ask more questions, come up with higher quality ideas and lessens polarisation.

Politely Racist is unique in that it explores and unravels the role played by online newspaper comment sections in perpetuating, normalising, and consolidating racist and Islamophobic ideas. Previous ATN studies found 53% of race-related social commentary articles which we monitored over 26 months contained overt or covert racism. This jumped to 78% when the piece was discussing Muslim people.

Key findings include:

  • Discussions taking place in these comment sections encourage opinion polarisation

  • Comment sections are a cradle for racist discourse where discriminatory ideas are polite enough in tone to pass moderation

  • The majority of commenters tend to voice their personal viewpoints without referring to any facts either related to the article content or their viewpoint.

All Together Now’s key recommendations include:

  • Journalists need to consider more closely the effect of their work.
  • All news organisations need to cultivate and maintain an anti-racist culture within their workplaces.
  • Mainstream media organisations need to increase cultural diversity across all parts of their operations.
  • The Federal Government and the media industry need to invest in media literacy education for audiences.
  • The Federal Government needs to continue financial support for public journalism.
  • All sectors of society need to invest in opportunities for independent journalism.