The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal sparked a movement on social media that called for users to delete their Facebook accounts. This moment of outrage became the focal point in an existing discussion around social media that has tended to focus mainly on the harms it can facilitate: from online bullying and mental ill-health, to the rise of “fake news”, to concerns around privacy and nefarious uses of personal data for private gain and political influence.
By focusing only on the privacy concerns of Facebook use, however, the #DeleteFacebook boycott ignores the vital role Facebook plays in the lives of many Indigenous peoples globally. As Jenni Monet recently argued, for Native Americans, for instance, deleting Facebook would be like “pulling the plug at the party, rendering total darkness, and…deafening silence”.
As Monet argues, social media is a particularly powerful resource for populations that are disadvantaged economically, socially, culturally and politically. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, who globally tend to fare worse on many social metrics—income, education, life expectancy, political representation, cultural safety—social media can help facilitate vital networks of support, care and knowledge. A growing body of research has shown that Indigenous people’s engagements with social media cannot simply be equated with those of the broader national community.
A new report released last week, ‘Social Media Mob: Being Indigenous Online’, offers the most comprehensive account of Indigenous Australians’ social media practices to date. The national Australian Research Council-funded research, which included qualitative interviews with participants from every state and territory and an online survey, unpacks the complex role social media plays in the lives of Indigenous people. When asked, how would they feel if we no longer had Facebook, participants responded by stating, “Ah, there would be a sense of loss. Most definitely” and “So yeah, I’d feel quite disorientated nowadays. Unless we had a time machine that went back to the nineties when none of us had it”
The report offers insight into six key themes that emerged through our research: Indigenous identities, online communities, cultural practices, racism and violence, help-seeking, and political activism. It shows that while social media plays an indispensable role in the lives of many Indigenous people, they must also navigate many different tensions between the benefits and dangers of social media. Most importantly, it shows many of these tensions are specific to Indigenous Australians.
My Aboriginality is the focal point of my identity both in society and online. Specifically on Facebook, my photos and page/groups and friends all highlight my Aboriginality
One of the findings revealed that, for many Indigenous people social media allows them to feel more connected with their own sense of identity. As one respondent stated, "My Aboriginality is the focal point of my identity both in society and online. Specifically on Facebook, my photos and page/groups and friends all highlight my Aboriginality” and another, “I learn a lot about Aboriginality online from cultural groups and posts”. For some participants, Facebook constituted the primary or only point of contact to community, "‘Facebook is the only interaction I have with the community sometimes," said on female participant.
‘Being Indigenous online’, however, can also be a source of real anxiety. More than half of the people we talked to state they had been selective with what they had posted online out of fear that others may respond negatively, with racism or violence. Likewise the majority sometimes chose not to identify as Indigenous. As one participant explained, “it’s sometimes safer to not identify as Aboriginal due to discrimination and prejudice”.
Over half of the participants in the study stated they were sometimes selective about what they posted in regard to their identity. Many spoke about the racism and abuse they experienced from non-Indigenous people, which was mostly related to their identity and in particular skin colour. For example, one participant commented, “I’m not too open about my Indigenous background because I’m light skinned and have found that people pass judgement and make assumptions about my entitlements”.
It’s sometimes safer to not identify as Aboriginal due to discrimination and prejudice.
Others spoke about the challenges they faced from other Indigenous people about their identity. One participant explained, “Apparently I’m not black enough for some. It’s their problem not mine”. Participants spoke about their anxiety of being questioned by other Indigenous people online and at times with hostility. Some participants said it was a traumatic experience that had an impact on their wellbeing.
Racism remains a major issue for Indigenous people online. One survey respondent explained that this could take many forms, “Often in the comment section of a news article on Aboriginal people is the worst. Massive stereotyping of Aboriginal people. Racist memes being shared. YouTube videos taken without permission of Aboriginal people”. Many participants claimed they had been tagged into racist memes that depicted Indigenous people in a derogatory manner, supposedly as a joke.
We, the authors of the report, found more than a third of survey respondents had personally been subjected to direct racism. As one participant explained, however: “…to witness racism directed at Aboriginal peoples is to experience racism, so any racist or stereotypical remark is something shared by us all”. More seriously again, 21 per cent had received threats by other users on social media, and 17 per cent indicated these had impacted their ‘offline’ lives.
This new report offers insights into the lived experiences of Indigenous people’s engagements on social media. Although not an exhaustive account, we are aware that people’s everyday experiences are complex. Through this research and the generosity of the project’s participants the report does offer conceptual snapshots of the impact that social media is currently having on Indigenous people’s experiences of themselves and their communities. Like Monet points out, Indigenous people have always been early adopters of technology and have used online technologies to be politically active and to benefit our communities. Like Native Americans, Indigenous Australia won’t be deleting Facebook anytime soon.
Bronwyn Carlson is a Professor of Indigenous Studies, Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University. Follow Bronwyn @
Ryan Frazer is the Associate Research Fellow with the Department of Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University. PhD candidate with the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong