Online tools and social media platforms in particular, are recognised as important for social movements to achieve political goals, and as an avenue of political engagement and self-expression for members of marginalised communities (Anderson et al., 2018) and although activism on social media platforms has been criticized as weak, “push-button activism” (Landzelius, cited in Petray 2011, p. 934), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use these platforms to express culture, establish kinship, and improve sociopolitical outcomes. The abilities they confer of ease, timeliness, scale, and efficiency of communication are unmatched by their offline counterparts and allow for increased awareness on a direct, local level as well as the potential to bring global awareness to specific issues. By examining Indigenous social media usage practices, with an emphasis on Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander usage of Facebook, this paper seeks to: (I) investigate how the platform is used to extend culture, kinship and community, (II) examine how it is used to improve sociopolitical outcomes, (III) address some of the questions raised about the nature of support for effective political activism at the intersection of off/online activism and social theory/practice and (IV) examine aspects of successful activism and map their applicability Facebook as an effective tool.
Elders and Kinship: Key Cultural Practice Moves to Facebook
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use social media platforms to extend offline culture and kinship and strengthen community; this is especially true for Facebook, where Indigenous Australian usage rates are significantly higher than that of the general population, with the most engaged users among the youth (Rice et al., 2016). In examining Indigenous community structures there are a number of significant aspects that particulary stand out, with a notable example being the primacy of Elders. “Traditionally, Elders have played a pivotal role in community wellbeing and more recently, the active participation of Elders in the governance of their community has shown to produce a number of benefits, including reversal of cultural erosion.” (Busija et al., 2018). Contemporarily, Elders are leading fixtures in supportive community activities both activistic and general, such as spending time on boards battling for political and cultural rights, and rounding up and returning truanting children to school. This is reflected online, as Australian Indigenous activist leaders utilise sites like Facebook heavily in order to both publicly affirm their identities and to inform and coordinate their activist activities (Petray, 2011), although there is also a notable technical gap that can require assistance to bridge in the older generations. Another central difference of Indigenous community structures to consider is the role of kinship ties and the importance of family. This has been succintly summarised by Ningali Lawford, an Indigenous actor from Western Australia: “Family is our life, family is our culture, family is language, family is everything to us” (O’Casey, cited in Warburton & Chambers, 2008, p. 4). Major benefits can be seen in Facebook’s use as a means of tracking down and reuniting family members that were lost through the Stolen Generations, as well as the practice of using closed groups to transmit and disseminate sensitive cultural information such as stories and language (Carlson & Frazer, 2018). An interesting observation also emerges about the potential inappropriateness of the use of the term kinship at the intersection of mapping a foreign language to a native concept when we see how this applies in a broader cultural context:
What is different, though, about cultural burning, is that it starts from taking a holistic approach with the understanding that everything is interconnected: plants, animals, insects, humans, the weather. Westerners call it an ecosystem, indigenous Australians term it “kinship,” an acknowledgement that the bonds between species are emotional, in addition to functional. (Betigeri, 2020, p1)
Communication is key to maintaining and enhancing emotional bonds and social relations, especially those aforementioned, and it has been shown that particularly in remote communites,where the strain of distance on maintaining meaningful contact is exacerbated, Aboriginal people are “dependent on Facebook as a means of instant and affordable communication” (Callinan, 2014). It has also been acknowledged by Lumby that: “Facebook acts as a modern site for kinship connectivity and continuity” (Lumby, 2010). As we can see, by limiting the impacts of distance, disconnectedness and cost while providing appropriate virtual spaces, key aspects of Indigenous communities and culture are expanded, enhanced and strengthened through the use of Facebook.
Surveying the Sociopolitical Battlescape
Facebook is also used by activists to improve sociopolitical outcomes for their communities. The context of Indigenous activism in Australia could be described as a litany of the ongoing effects of colonialism. ‘Terra Nullius’, the Sydney Smallpox Epidemic of 1789, the Great Black Line, the Myall Creek Massacre, the Apartheid Beta Test in Queensland aka the Aboriginal Protection Act, Stolen Generations, Deaths in Custody, The Northern Territory ‘Intervention’, etc. With that in mind, broader social issues facing Indigenous Australians also find expression online, “with traumatic events in the public domain acting as reminders of ongoing colonialism” (Carlson et al., 2017). Taking this into account it is no surprise that a recent study on Indigenous social media usage by Carlson and Frazer found that “88% of survey respondents had seen examples of racism towards Indigenous people on social media”, “almost all participants had seen anti-black racism on Facebook” and because of this “many participants avoided ‘identifying’ as Indigenous online” (Carlson & Frazer, 2018). This supports the argument that being Indigenous online is inherently political (Petray, 2013), and could possibly account for high rates of Indigenous activistic activity on social media. Active push back against racism has always been a fundamental activity for activists and the online environment provides ample opportunities for these users-cum-activists to engage with detractors, with the provision of relevant, contradictory information being a frequently employed strategy. This can be seen as an attempt at bridging the gap with both the wider community on Facebook, and that of the wider Australian community of platform users. The platform is also recognised as a popluar method for engaging in community politics, particularly with regard to responsbilities and obligations surrounding Sorry Business, which can be punitivlely enforced and prove difficult to fulfil due to the distances involved (Carlson & Frazer, 2016). There are abnormally high death rates amongst the Aboriginal population, particularly in remote communities, and death is a far more common occurrence with surveyed funeral attendance levels speaking volumes:
Our funeral attendance survey indicated non-Aboriginal people were eight times less likely to have attended a funeral in the last two years than Aboriginal people. More than half of Aboriginal respondents attended seven or more funerals; more than one third between 12 and 30 funerals in the same period. (Anderson et al., 2012, p. 26)
Considering the key cultural, communal and political importance of Sorry Business, the ability afforded to engage with it online via Facebook can been seen to be of significant value for those that utilise it. Social media is also a valuable utility in issues surrounding Indigenous Australians’ willingness to seek formal assistance, Indigenous people use their online networks as a more palatable, informal work-around for things such as problems with wellbeing and access to legal services. Carlson and Frazer found that “Indigenous people are engaging with Facebook both to seek and to offer help for issues relating to self-harm and suicide.” (Carlson & Frazer, 2018), with online support networks actively, internally monitoring wellbeing and providing support for those percieved to be at-risk. Engaging with Indigeneity online is an inherently political activity, with Facebook being a valuable tool for activists to fight against and ameliorate a diverse range of sociopolitical problems facing their communities.
Criticism and Case-Studies
Activism on social media platforms has recieved criticism for being weak and ineffectual, with the underlying reasoning being rooted in a number of social theories of virtual community and examples seen in social case studies. The dominant, relevant, recurring theme on the theory side, is the centrality of the individual as stated by Delanty in his overview of the major theories in the field: “The virtual community … where a new kind of individualism has emerged around ephemeral realities and de-massified social relations.” (Delanty, 2018, p. 205). This is typified by Wellman’s theory of networked individualism where “Rather than identifying with a single, close-knit community, each networked individual sits at the center of a set of personal networks” (Kendall, 2011, p. 311). This maps well in terms of systems generally (email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.), and is seemingly an unavoidable effect of the necessarily user-centric design of systems that can scale globally, that are primarily concerned with connecting individuals to one another. While not the only relevant theories, the key connecting thread between them is the thinness of the networks that compose them, which is to say that the connections that govern them are defined by being weakly connected, inorganic and unladen of responsibility and/or obligation (Delanty, 2018). Manifestations of this have been variously described as “slacktivism” (Mozorov, cited in Carlson & Frazer, 2016) and ‘push-button’ activism because social media allows people to send signals of support for issues, without having any real stakes or being involved in any substantive sense in them, with it being attributable and inherent, to an extent, to the design of the system itself (Petray, 2011). This has also been termed by more mainstream pundits as ‘virtue-signalling’. Two case studies that have been held as examples are those of the #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA campaign, and the e-petition in favour of the charges being dropped against Lex Wotton after the riot that followed the death of Mulrunji (Cameron Doomagee) while in the “care” of Chris Hurley on Palm Island, Queensland in 2004. #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA was a response to the proposed forces closures of Western Australian remote Aboriginal communities because of funding disputes between the state and federal governments. It was initially composed of a website (Cook, 2015) and Facebook page, which were rapidly followed by a Twitter account and staked out the communities wishes to engage and collaborate with the government on solutions to the unwanted closures. It is outside the scope of this paper to investigate more fully, but apart from some apparent success with memetically based information warfare against the institutional narratives around the issues there have not been any apparent substantive policy changes that can be attributed to it (Carlson & Frazer, 2016). The literature surrounding Lex Wotton covers the setting up of an e-petition in favour of dropping his charges which attracted total of 404 signatures from around the globe and had no apparent effect (Petray, 2011). Around four years after the riot he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. A following class action law-suit that was filed in relation to the events of the riot and subsequent police response was also resolved in 2018 in favour of the residents of Palm Island, with the Queensland government having to pay $30m and apologise to the residents (Davidson, 2018). There has been substantial criticism by social theorists on the efficacy of online activism that has a basis in recognised theories, which has been borne out on numerous occaisons in case studies.
The Pace of Political Change vs Social Media
The reality of effective sociopolitical change is that it is slow, but social media is proving to be a valuable aid. When examining meaningful wins for ATSI activists we can see that things do not change quickly or without fighting every step of the way. One of the most illustrative examples is the Mabo High Court decision in 1992 (Mabo v Queensland (No. 2), 1992) where it took over two hundred years for the foundational doctrine of terra nullius to be overturned. Even interpreted far more charitably, if the time of contention is counted from the that of the far lesser known Milirrpum v Nabalco pty Ltd (1971), which is the only other comprehensive attempt at challenging it (Lavery, 2017) (where, incidentally and somewhat ironically, it wasn’t even considered), there is still a gap of around twenty one years, which is longer than Facebook’s entire lifetime (Phillips, 2017). Even the surprisingly positive outcome in the class action surrounding the death of Mulrunji was fourteen years in the making. Courts, legislative bodies and societal attitudes are not known for their speed when it comes to meaningful, long-term change. Dealing with these systems does not entail being conducive to quick or easy fixes, which tend to be the solutions du jour peddled the world over on social media platforms with Facebook being no exception. On a positive note, these platforms do provide a valuable aid in evening the asymmetry of the battlefield with regard to informational warfare around institutional and false narratives about ATSI people and as far as Facebook in particular is concerned, if its usage trends continue along the same upward trajectory (McQuarter, 2014), those of old media continue to decline(Westcott et al., 2018), and the younger ranks of Indegenous users continue to hone their digital media savvy(Rice et al., 2016), it is only a matter of time until it goes from a useful tool to an essential one. Upon examining some of the timeframes involved with meaningful activist outcomes and using them as a background to contrast the relative infancy and growth of social media platforms against their utility, they can be seen to be becoming increasingly essential.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are enthusiastically moving into online spaces and are using Facebook as much as a tool of cultural promulgation and dissemination as of social interaction. With the high rates of activism being as much a product of being Indigenous online as any other attributable factor, even arguably moreso, Indigenous people are using it to effectively push back on established misinformation and institutional disinformation. Social media activism has credibly been critcised as falling short when not used appropriately or as an end in and of itself to effect change. It is also apparent that the pace of developments around meaningful activistic successes and that of social media are at odds, but social media tools and Facebook in particular are increasingly useful aids in that regard. Moving forward it can be safely said that it, or whatever might take its place in future will be indispensible to success in the activist realm.
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