Racism in the digital age is having a profound impact on the health and well-being of Indigenous Australian's and if we don't act fast the digital divide is only going to get bigger.
Luke Briscoe

11 Jun 2020 - 6:57 AM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2020 - 9:29 AM

Mobile Media has created a platform for mass communications changing the way humans both communicate and access information. It is estimated that 91% of the world’s population own mobile and the global smartphone consumption is on the increase. Furthermore, 1.8 Billion people worldwide are on Social Networks and 1 billion people visit the YouTube site every month. The United Nations consider the Internet a human right and some say it is a major human achievement since the industrial revolution.

However, even though mobile devices have changed many social norms for the better, some social issues like racism still remain. Racism and stereotyping towards Indigenous people in Australian films dates back to as far as silent films in the 1920s and is ever-present in an array of film and media platforms today. “The portrayal of First Nations peoples as being primitive, violent and devious, or passive and submissive, have become widespread in movies and TV programs and in literature ranging from books to comic strips.” These depictions of First Nations peoples have become a comfortable frame of reference for media.

Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975 protects everyone from discrimination on the basis of race. However, very little is done to enforce racial discrimination under this law online and in the media. The 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody revealed that ‘the racism, stereotyping of Indigenous peoples and inaccurate reporting of the media has a devastating impact on the lives of First Nations people and has caused distress and even suicide in some communities’.

Because of the interconnectedness that social media provides this mass communication is polarizing racism and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples in the media and has a drastic impact on Aboriginal peoples achieving social and economic prosperity in the digital age.

The Australia Human Rights Commission is currently researching the many issues that current and future technology and AI may bring including issues with First Nations and Women's rights.

Racism in the Media and the Shpere of Influence 

‘Media plays an important role in shaping our views of the world. Media reinforce our values and norms and perpetuates certain ways of seeing the world and peoples within that world.’ News media are re-noun for stereotyping and typecasting and is one very common and effective way in which racism is perpetuated in mainstream media. Thus, there is a preponderance of representations of Indigenous Peoples within circumscribed categories, for example, athletics, entertainment, and crime. ‘Stereotypes are one-dimensional. They only highlight specific characteristics and these are often used to typify whole groups of people. Other elements, absent from the stereotypes, are similarly absent from the media this leads to a situation where assumptions are made about people on the basis of stereotyping.’

From print to electronic media, the racialization of groups continues in a number of different ways. For example, the statement "The suspect was a black male....” Or, "the suspect is a Chinese man." Alternatively, if the racial identity is absent, the cultural background tends to be mentioned, for example, "The body of the baby found in the ravine revealed her to be of South Asian origin." This association of cultural identity with a crime indicates that the cultural heritage is to blame for the way in which the person acted.

Another technique used frequently by the media is the heavy reliance on official interpretations of events concerning or involving ethnic minorities/people of colour. In these cases, the people themselves are often not allowed to talk. Instead, an official, who is usually non-Indigenous, speaks on their behalf. The repeated positioning of non-Indigenous as victims, unable to speak on their own behalf, lends to the perception that they are passive, knowledgeable, and ignorant of English language skills.

In some cases, the news media turn to particular individuals within the communities and position them as spokespeople. This indicates that the community itself is monolithic and that one person, chosen by the media, is seen to represent a community's opinions. Most communities are not monolithic entities but highly diverse in the range of opinions and interpretations that exist is negated by the mainstream media. For the media, the focus is on getting a story out and doing it in the most expedient way possible.

When Aboriginal Peoples’ are able to make comments and speak, their words are often surrounded by quotations, or preceded by words such as "alleged." The implication here is that their stories or perspectives are dubious.

In print media news editorials, a common technique is to juxtapose different stories dealing with people of colour on the same page. Hence, there may be a story about a particular government program designed to aid immigrant women. Right next to it may be a story about a man of colour being arrested for some crime. Following this, there may be a story about a Third World country that highlights its poverty or lack of order. Taken together, all these stories communicate certain representations about people of colour - representations which indicate their inferiority, lawlessness, and their inability to progress without having a helping hand from the dominant societies. These stories, in a cumulative manner, legitimize a paternalistic attitude. They communicate that these people are not like us; that they need our help; and that they are inherently incapable of governing themselves.

Social media as a mass communication tool has empowered Indigenous communities around the world to form options and debates on social issues and scrutinize the media portrayal of Indigenous peoples. Through mobile media, Indigenous voices are heard and community groups have protested against the media's treatment of their issues. Indigenous peoples have voiced concerns for more positive coverage of Indigenous issues. However, positive media varies in definition across social norms.

Ten years ago many media outlets might still have rejected the idea of an anti-discrimination code as a form of censorship. Today's editors are beginning to understand that journalists cannot be the only professionals in society without a code of ethics and without some form of critical monitoring. They also realize that the top-to-bottom law of effective social change also applies to the media. It depends on their leadership and a good example of whether reporters and audiences will follow.

The Long History of Racism in Media 

Within Australia, Aboriginal Peoples’ have been negatively portrayed in films since the silent era of the 1920s. Films from this time about Aboriginal societies were made from a European viewpoint. They were also condescending in their view of Indigenous Australians. Fictional film, dramas, and feature films, often portrayed Aboriginal Peoples’ as threatening, but also represented them as mysterious or playful. However Indigenous peoples’ in both types of films were portrayed as primitive and inferior to the white settlers.

In recent years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander media have captured the hearts and minds of audiences all around the world and played a part in the broader Australian economic and cultural development in the screen industry. In 2010, Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae took more than $7 million at the Australian box office, and in 2009 Warwick Thornton won the Cannes Camera d’Or for Samson & Delilah. Programs such as First Australians, RAN and The Circuit has won numerous national and international awards.

Despite these successes, the reality is that Indigenous culture behind the screen and Indigenous faces on screen are not inclusive of Indigenous Peoples’ in Australia. Representation, particularly in news and current affairs, does not reflect the full diversity of Australia’s Indigenous peoples’ and experiences.

It is telling that Reconciliation Australia’s “Barometer” identifies that only 9% of Indigenous respondents and 16% of non-Indigenous respondents agree that the media provides a balanced view of Indigenous Australia. The survey also identifies that the general community’s attitudes to Indigenous peoples come from secondary sources like the media, rather than from personal experience.

The Indigenous Broadcasting and Media Review stated that ‘the entire media sector can and should do better in terms of the Indigenous representation, media training, and offers of ongoing employment after training.’

Stereotyping Indigenous in Media  

Aboriginal Screen Writers have observed that within cinema that racial minority member is only acceptable if her/his cultural or racial characteristics can be 'bleached' out. In other words, if it is completely downplayed or removed from the scene and totally assimilated into the dominant society. If this is the only gateway to acceptance, then it means that people of colour have to distance themselves from their cultures, and their realities. An integral part of that reality is the burden of racism especially since it impedes an individual's life chances in the area of employment, housing, services, and everyday interactions.

A prominent Aboriginal writer, Dr Anita Heiss stated, ‘I write stories that are real for me and the world I live in. And in my world, the Indigenous people I know are politically active, they are strong in identity, they understand the commitment to community, many of them are women with careers, some with children, some not, and all of them desiring some form of companionship. But of course, not all Aboriginal women are like that, so writers need to decide what their character’s role is in their novel.”

Computer games are another form of racial vilification that is emerging through the Internet. These include racist computer games with titles such as Ethnic Cleansing, Concentration Camp, Nigger Hunt, and Shoot the Blacks. These games are marketed and sold via the Internet, and segments of them can be downloaded and sampled by Internet users. Currently, there are approximately 20 racist computer games advertised or distributed via the Internet, most of which are marketed by American racist sites.

Much needs to be done to ensure that Indigenous peoples’ are not stereotyped within the story world as the sphere of influence will have an ongoing negative impact and continue to feed the racial hatred that already exists.

Indigenous Prosperity in the Digital Age 

Marketing of digital devices has always be focused on wealthy males and only in recent years have started targeting females who are the largest social media users. Marketing campaigns for Indigenous peoples in the digital age have focused on Indigenous societies to integrate and assimilate within the dominant societies and strive for a higher economic base. Government policies on Indigenous digital advancements are focused on deficit models such as the digital divide. Policies such as closing the gap in the digital divide don’t allow for communities to make their own choices in the digital age. 

Indigenous Peoples’ use of digital technology explores the real connection to the natural world and the economic opportunities that link their traditional cultural knowledge that has been in place for thousands of years to a digital reality.

Indigenous peoples have been amazingly adaptive and creative with new media technologies, applying them to their own lifeways and maintaining cultural boundaries rather than simply assimilating into the dominant social order. Communities that survived the cataclysmic forces of colonization are now telling their stories and constructing new forms of cultural power in the digital age.

Indigenous groups, perhaps more than anyone, have realized there is no going back. Traditional culture cannot be maintained in isolation from an entirely interconnected global condition. In recent years, these communities and their allies have used the Internet and digital media to disclose conditions of oppression and the ecological damage being done to their lands by corporations.

There are concerns about the level of cultural safety to ensuring Scared Traditional Knowledge will not be exploited, which has been held with family groups for over 100 generations. Traditional knowledge has had great economic advancement for First Nation Peoples in industries that range from tourism, agricultural entertainment, arts, media, and communications through to the biotechnology industry.

Access to the Internet and Information Communications and Technologies is important to ensuring the quality of life within the 21st Century. Some suggest that the Internet and other information Communications and Technologies are somehow transforming society, improving our mutual understanding, eliminating power differentials, realizing a truly free and democratic world society, and other benefits.

In order to realize the market potential of the Indigenous digital economy, the government and industries need to work with Aboriginal communities to identify and invest in opportunities through a digital economy that will enable sustainable economic independence for Australia’s First Nations Peoples. Economic participation will depend on the supply and demand of an online industry. It is estimated that the Australian Indigenous visual arts industry brings $400 million to the economy each year. Indigenous arts provide opportunities for economic independence in First Nation communities and the internet and ICT’s are making it possible to establish online businesses in the remote regions of Australia.

However, Australia has done well to exploit and rip off the arts and culture of its First Nations Peoples. Furthermore, Australian’s underestimate the social and economic value of First Nation arts. Governments have drastically cut funding to services that ensure artist rights are maintained such as the Indigenous Arts Code.

In the past 20 years, Australia’s First Nations Peoples have called for the government to develop laws and policies to protect cultural and intellectual property rights, as the western intellectual property system does not acknowledge communal ownership of cultural expressions and knowledge passed down through generations. As a result, Indigenous traditional knowledge expressed through art and culture is at risk of exploitation.

The National Indigenous Cultural Authority model proposes the creation of an independent organization that can support the facilitation of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property rights by providing tools, contracts, monitoring and codes/protocols, as well as the implementation of a certification process using a registered trademark, to allow consumer identification of National Indigenous Cultural Authority endorsed cultural products and services.

The model for a National Indigenous Cultural Authority recognises the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to manage their Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property, through free, prior and informed consent, and on mutually agreed on terms, consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Racism in the media continues to have a disastrous impact on Aboriginal people. Aboriginal Peoples have suffered the loss of their lands; have been alienated from their culture and as a result of colonisation many communities are subject to poverty and industrial pollution. Racism is also deadly. Not only are Aboriginal youth committing suicide six times the national average due to racism prorogated by the media, films, and games, racism impairs relationships and produces social conflict. Generally, racism affects the quality of life in our society. Yet it is distressing how the media remain unaware or apathetic about the history and nature of colonisation and racism.

Where to from here?

Almost one-quarter of racial hatred complaints to the Commission in 2010-2011 focused on material conveyed over the Internet, including through email, webpages, and chat-rooms.

Social media and social marketing provide opportunities to harness the positive potential of the internet, to educate the community about racism and how to respond to it, and to empower internet users to participate in positive social change.

The Commission is currently collaborating with industry and other stakeholders to develop new approaches. A priority is to build on previous work of the Commission to improve industry, regulatory, and community responses to cyber-racism. It's also important to report racism as if there is no record of racism it doesn't exist.

Australia has not dealt with racism effectively in the media and many continue to deny that racism even exists, blaming Aboriginal peoples for their socio-economic marginalization. The Australian Government must all be vigilant to ensure that the ideals of the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia is an International signatory too, are put into practice, both in everyday life and in our social and institutional arrangements.


- Luke Briscoe is a proud Kuku-Yalanji man from Far North Queensland. He is a Digital Producer at NITV and founded the company INDIGI LAB to create innovative projects and STEM initiatives for social and environmental change.