SARAH BLAKE: Sydney is a city on edge and social media is making it worse

Headshot of Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake
The Nightly
4 Min Read
A riot started after the knife attack in Wakeley, adding to the growing tensions across Sydney.
A riot started after the knife attack in Wakeley, adding to the growing tensions across Sydney. Credit: 7NEWS

A teenager accused of a terror attack on a bishop and a priest in Sydney’s west, churchgoers seeking their own rough justice, a seething mob rioting and lashing out at police who were there to keep them safe.

Just two days earlier, mass murderer Joel Cauchi unleashed horror on families and shoppers at Westfield Bondi Junction, targeting mainly women and children in a knife spree that has generated headlines around the world.

On Tuesday morning, police were deployed outside mosques across Sydney out of fear of more violence.

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All of it has confirmed what many in Sydney have been saying: this is a city on edge.

“These are difficult times,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday.

“I understand that people are feeling uneasy. And that’s understandable, given the atrocity that occurred on Saturday and then this incident last night.”

Even before Monday’s church attack on Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel — during mass at the Christ The Good Shepherd Church in Wakeley — there was an unease in Sydney that belied the glorious autumn days in which the city has been revelling.

On a shadowy footpath outside an eastern suburbs police station in the dark hours after Saturday’s horrific shopping centre stabbings, a small media pack debated whether the motivation was terror related.

So much was unknown before the first police briefing. But what was clear that here was an attack at the geographic heart of Sydney’s Jewish community during a time of historically heightened tensions in Australia and overseas in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel and the ensuing war in the Middle East.

Monday night’s knife assault that authorities are treating as a terrorist attack.
Monday night’s knife assault that authorities are treating as a terrorist attack. Credit: Supplied

On Saturday evening, social media was — as always — alive with speculation, viral falsehoods and race-baiting, trolls laying the blame on both Jews and Muslims for a frenzy that revived memories of the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege.

Cauchi’s rampage was discounted as a terrorist attack, but in the end, what drove the mentally ill 40-year-old to kill six people and attack 12 with a long blade in a 15-minute frenzy may prove to be as vile a reason as religious extremism.

His youngest victim was a nine-month-old baby girl whose mother died protecting her, and police are investigating whether Cauchi was ideologically motivated in overwhelmingly targeting women.

His parents confirmed he possessed some of the traits of those known as Incels — the involuntary celibate misogynists who worship at the alter of those such as the depraved Andrew Tate and haunt online messageboards spewing hatred of women.

“He wanted a girlfriend and he had no social skills, and he was frustrated out of his brain,” Cauchi’s parents said in Toowoomba, Queensland, on Monday.

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb confirmed this was a line of inquiry for investigators.

“It’s obvious to me and it’s obvious to detectives that it seems to be an area of interest that the offender had focused on women and avoided the men,” Ms Webb said.

And while an alleged attack by a radical Islamist and a woman-hating schizophrenic may seem poles apart, they are united by the fact that both were broadly disseminated — in real time — on social media and are now packaged into easily digestible, highly shareable videos on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.

Photo shows the knifeman running through Bondi Junction Westfield. Twitter
Joel Cauchi during his deadly knife rampage at Westfield Bondi Junction. Credit: Supplied

That the social media giants are profiting off this misery in propagating these outrages is as inarguable as it is disgusting. And it’s past time for things to change.

“We remain concerned about the role of social media, including the publication of videos that can be very harmful, particularly for younger people who have access,” Mr Albanese said.

A day earlier, he told ABC radio: “It is a scourge in many ways, social media.

“(There is a) lack of responsibility, it must be said as well, of some of the social media operators that we know about allowing content to be circulated which is clearly misinformation.”

Mr Albanese said his Government would “continue to use what powers are at our disposal to demand that material will be taken down”. But we know these sites and their overseas owners are slow to act and even happy to ignore the urgings from authorities to have them remove offensive material.

Last month, eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant put the big social media companies — Google (owner of YouTube), Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Telegram, WhatsApp, Reddit and the former Twitter known now as X — again on notice, demanding they do more to stop the proliferation of violent extremist material and activity on their platforms.

They’ve all been sent legal notices demanding they show what steps they’re taking to protect Australians from online extremism. But while they may eventually face further enforcement action or fines if they don’t comply, none of this happening quickly enough.

In the meantime, we are paying too high a price to these purveyors of lies and hatred. And none of it is helping soothe the febrile state our precious city finds itself in.

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