By Bruno Santoro
Although social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are used by Indigenous people to express culture, establish kinship, and as a means of self-representation, these platforms are not always effective tools for exerting political influence, action and communicating the Indigenous ‘voice’.
This paper discusses the use of Web 2.0 platforms and networks by Indigenous communities in Australia for Indigenous cultural expression, identity, the recording of oral traditions, and more specifically, political and social media activism. However, although social media helps establish identity and supports cultural expression, Indigenous communities still fail to be heard, in terms of exerting any significant political influence. Ultimately, the Indigenous political “voice” can be rendered ineffective in effecting significant and positive political reform, despite the affordances and communicative advantages provided by these digital platforms and online networks. This technology should make political action easier, providing a means for Indigenous political power to have a meaningful impact and influence policy making. However mediatized political influences and their inherent power structures work to disperse this indigenous political power, (also ironically), by using the same technology. This paper will also discuss the reasons for this.
Indigenous Communities on Social Media
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are powerful tools for Indigenous people to express culture, establish and explore a sense of identity, strengthen kinship ties and find connectiveness with Country; all vital aspects of Indigenous culture. Such use of social network sites is acknowledged by Lumby (2007) who notes that, in addition to “rekindling a sense of community” for users, “Facebook provides possibilities for extending community, for establishing connectiveness, cultural belonging, and networking aspects of pre-contact culture” (p.69).
Importantly, Lumby (2007) makes the distinction that with Facebook and Indigenous users, the platform is used as a “tool of self-representation” (p.73), which allows users to construct and build identity. Ironically, Lumby ends her paper by saying that Facebook offers both the tools for creating the “ideal Indigenous self, but it can also act as a tool for the destruction of Indigeneity”, (p.73), because of the constraining effects of how authenticity is established in this online network, that regulates what it means to be indigenous and who can and can’t claim indigeneity.
Conversely, in a contrasting perspective, as discussed by Townsend, P (2015), Facebook serves as an effective tool for learning, communication and community-building by teachers and students of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tertiary students. While themed around the use of mobile devices, Townsend’s paper outlines the importance of this digital platform and what it represents for Indigenous people who use this network to establish a “co-operative approach to study” (p.11) and provided three primary functions for this community: “academic support, administered procedures and personal encouragement” (p.11). These qualities and positive outcomes provided by the affordances of these online platforms and the subsequent online network which emerges, again do not always transcend into an effective voice of influence in the political or media sphere however, as I will discuss in the next section.
Political and Social Activism Online
It is interesting to mention a reference of feminist writer Betty McLellan, as cited by Petray (2011, p.935), stating “Virtual activism actually benefits those in power, as activists have been systematically excluded from mainstream media and other areas controlled by power elites, and this means dissidents will offer no challenge in the real world”. In an increasingly mediatized political environment, this statement bears some truth and is another central piece of research I will use to support my arguments.
In a paper by Dreher, et al, (2016) which acknowledges the innovative and pioneering use of digital technology by Indigenous people, the writers focus on Indigenous participatory networks and their responses to particular government legislative measures and the differing nature of two specific campaigns; one government-sponsored and the other, driven by online Indigenous networks, which had very different outcomes, in the context of both campaigns being organised heavily relying on social media platforms.
As explained by Dreher, et. al (2016) and outlined by various authors cited in this paper who all seem to agree, that “the proliferation of Indigenous media productions offers unprecedented opportunities for Indigenous peoples to express their opinions and debate issues”, however, as argued by Dreher, et. al, research has shown, that this democratic participation “does not always guarantee that diverse voices will actually be heard” by political and media circles of key influence (p.25).
The Voice Unheard
The first example I will discuss is the #sosblakaustralia campaign, which was a grassroots response to political policy measures. This campaign was a display of a solid community-based social media activism, which achieved global reach and recognition. This campaign began as a protest in Western Australia against the forced closure of a significant number of remote Indigenous communities, and further reflected Indigenous community concerns that the government was moving toward implementing legislation which would “force Indigenous people into the mainstream economy” (Dreher, et. al, 2016, p.33). The drivers of this grassroots, bottom-up campaign also consisted of dissenters against the misaligned “Recognise” campaign, contrarily, a government-sponsored campaign.
Structural racism cannot be overcome by community building on social media platforms. #sosblakaustralia began as a Facebook post and rapidly went viral, despite the slow internet connection of the remote Aboriginal community it originated from, the Wangkatjungka. Protests started appearing across the world, the campaign now mobilised both on and offline. Nonetheless, this campaign and its effects were largely ignored by media and political institutions, or completely downplayed. Any political or media commentary on the campaign only worked to provide a distraction from its key premise, and painted the campaign in a negative light, such as shown with comments made by the Melbourne Lord Mayor that the protests held in Melbourne were disruptive and problematic.
More so, Melbourne’s largest media outlet reported the protest as a selfish act by rabble, which disrupted traffic (p. 33). Evidence would suggest, and forms the explanation for my argument, that while #sosblakaustralia exemplifies the use of social media as a tool for organisation and mobilization, the mediatization of political communication in Australia, is the main constraint which renders the Indigenous voice as unheard.
From the “Top-down” perspective, the motives and outcomes of the government-empowered “Recognise” campaign were far different. The Recognise campaign was marketed on Facebook and other social media platforms to gain awareness and support for an intended referendum for Indigenous people to formally gain recognition in the Constitution. The campaign prompted subsequent adversary pages and campaigns by dissenting voices in the Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) communities.
Celeste Liddle, a prominent opinion writer criticized the campaign as no more than a top-down attempt to sideline and distract from stagnating discussions on land rights and other hotly-debated policy measures (Dreher, et. al, 2016, p.31). Liddle also argued that the dissenting voices against the Recognise campaign were either not heard or were not listened to. Dreher et. al concludes their paper by stating another concern with mainstream media amplifying already loud voices, as opposed to an institution that allows a diverse range of voices to be heard on democratic issues such as constitutional reform.
Even in this context, the Indigenous voice was not only unheard, but drowned out by the inherent power structures that exists in Australian media and political landscapes and is a different but equally damaging result of mediatized policy making. Why is this the case? What makes it so? I attempt to explain this in the next section
Political and Media “Listening”
Valuable to my research was another paper by Dreher et. al (2015), which discusses the concept of political “Listening” and Indigenous participatory media. The question is posed here, of how to make Indigenous voices be heard in institutional democracy. “Indigenous people have more media access than ever, but there is a danger of creating echo chambers if decision-makers do not hear them (p.58). In an increasingly mediatized political environment, policy makers align closely to a narrow range of mainstream media and listen to only a very few voices of Indigenous prominence.
There is, however, one relevant example of when a diverse range of Indigenous voices, debating, discussing and sometimes protesting, Indigenous issues, views and perspectives on a dynamic range of topics, in an online context, is heard by those in positions of influence and power. This is shown with the pioneering Indigenous media platform, @IndigenousX. @IndigenousX” mission, as stated on their website, is simply “to create a media landscape where Indigenous people can share their knowledge, opinions and experiences with a wide audience across the world.” (N. Nyaagu, 2014).
A term used by Dudgeoun, et al. (2013) in their case study of @IndigenousX in the context of community-led innovation in digital media, is the concept of “participatory journalism”. The nature of the communications and perspectives expressed on @IndigenousX reflect this, being a form of political and social based Indigenous affairs reporting. The emergence of @IndigenousX seeks to influence change in the journalistic and political landscape, by trying to fill the absence of “journalistic education” on Indigenous affairs. @IndigenousX does this by giving voice to a diverse range of Indigenous perspectives, essentially, an alternative form of journalism, which finds a global audience and has an impact in some form politically or socially. Dudgeoun et al. cites a lack of empirical data to research further on what impacts the emergence of platforms such as @IndigenousX has had on public and political debates, if key policy makers and influencers pay attention, or if the Indigenous voice falls once again on deaf ears as a result.
However, in a study by The Media and Indigenous Policy project, evidence was found that when mainstream media did listen to the Indigenous voice, through such communicative and authoritative means that platforms such as @IndigenousX provide, this did have a tangible impact on policy discussions and outcomes. This insight also suggested and highlighted how key policy and decision-makers were reliant on mainstream media to act as a prompt to direct attention to the Indigenous sphere (Dreher, et al. 2015. P.63). Dreher et. al conclude their paper by asking, with the affordances and opportunities provided by Indigenous online networks and Web 2.0 platforms as communicative tools, how much do these participatory media forms challenge and reconfigure “listening” on the part of the powerful (p.63)?
It is evident Indigenous online networks and communities innovate and utilise Web 2.0 technologies, social media platforms and other digital communicative means, as tools which act for the continuation and evolution of Indigenous culture into the 21st century. For Indigenous people, the digital space is one where art, oral traditions, history, Country and Political and social activism form part of a self-representation of Indigenous identity and voice which works both on and offline. However, in spite of these digital affordances, in an era of mediatized political landscapes, embedded power structures within media and political institutions dictate when it is appropriate to “listen”; a process which seems undeterred by any grassroots campaigns, such as #sosblakaustralia, which gain much attention but somehow fail to deliver an outcome which shows a real social or political change.
More research is needed to find evidence of what influence, if any, @IndigenousX” and other similar platforms such as Facebook have had in allowing the Indigenous voice to be heard, and if these processes have had any real effect on real social and political change. Has the Indigenous voice truly been “heard”? Who is really “listening”? In the context of Indigenous online networks, social media and political activism, this would be an area for further discussion and an opportunity for further research, outside the scope of this paper.
Use of online social networks and participation in virtual communities by Indigenous people supports cultural and artistic expression, connectedness with kinship, country and history and helps provide a means of establishing identity, a form of self-representation. However, these online platforms and tools to communicate do not always correlate to the Indigenous voice being heard in forums of political influence. Inherent power structures in political and media institutions and the influence of media over policy-making empower Indigenous voice when it is deemed in the interests of those entities.
Otherwise, those in positions of power fail to listen to that voice regardless of the digitally-amplified means by which Indigenous views and perspectives can be expressed and reach large and sometimes global audiences. Finally, any academic paper which includes the terms “participatory media” would not be complete without a reference from the authoritative works of Henry Jenkins (2006).
Jenkins (p.181) highlights that “the evolution of most media has been shaped through interactions between the distributed power of grassroots participatory media and concentrated power of corporate/governmental media.” In this context, as participatory media continues to change, mutate and evolve the journalistic landscape (@IndigenousX) in the digital era, altering inherent power structures of mainstream media and political institutions, there may be a light on the horizon as far as the Indigenous voice being listened to, by key influencers of political and social reform. A voice which has been communicated effectively through Indigenous online networks and digital platforms, and most importantly, a voice that is heard.
Dreher, T. McCallum, K., & Waller, L. (2015). The listening key: Unlocking the democratic potential of Indigenous participatory media. Media International Australia, 2(154). 57-66. https://search-informit-com-au.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/fullText;dn=996352055258674;res=IELLCC
Dreher, T., Mccallum, K., Waller, L. (2016). Indigenous voices and mediatized policy- making in the digital age. Information, Communication & Society. 19(1). 23-39. https://www-tandfonline-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1093534
Dudgeon, P. Pearson, L. Sweet, M. (2013). @IndigenousX: A case study of community-led innovation in digital media. Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy. (149). 104-111. https://catalogue.curtin.edu.au/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=TN_informit740160072838693&context=PC&vid=CUR_ALMA&lang=en_US&search_scope=CurtinBlended&adaptor=primo_central_multiple_fe&tab=default_tab&query=any,contains,indigenousx%20&offset=0
Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York University Press. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/reader.action?docID=865571#
Lumby, B. (2007). Cyber-Indigeneity: Urban Indigenous Identity on Facebook. Australian Journal of Indigenous Education. 39(S1). 68-75. https://www-cambridge-org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/core/journals/australian-journal-of-indigenous-education/article/cyberindigeneity-urban-indigenous-identity-on-facebook/9BBA64DF242254BFFBF78D53F416A4AE
Nyaagu, N. (2014). About Us. Indigenousx.com.au. https://indigenousx.com.au/about/
Petray, L T. (2011). Protest 2.0: online interactions and Aboriginal activists. Media, Culture & Society. 33(6). 923-940. https://journals-sagepub-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/doi/abs/10.1177/0163443711411009
Townsend, P B. (2015). Mob learning – digital communities for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tertiary students. Journal of Economic & Social Policy. 17(2).https://search-informit-com-au.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/search;res=IELAPA;search=FTI=yes%20AND%20IS=1325-2224%20AND%20VRF=17%20AND%20IRF=2%20AND%20PY=2015%20AND%20PG=20