Aust politics and social media

This was my last essay for NET102 (Internet and Everyday life). What can I say? I’m an #auspol junkie.

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The advent of the internet and web technologies has changed the nature of political activity in Australia. The citizenry now has the capacity to challenge existing power structures as, increasingly, technology and society intersect in people’s everyday lives. This essay will discuss how the internet reinscribes democratic expression and political participation by providing opportunities for instantaneous feedback, debate and collective action within communities.

The ubiquitous nature of the internet has compelled political parties to try a variety of approaches in order to appear democratic. In recent years, the Australian government set up a “…Gov 2.0 taskforce …to look at incorporating social media technologies to aid deliberative democracy” (Narayan, 2013, p. 46). The website (http://gov2.net.au/) for this initiative was active in late 2009.1 At present, no such equivalent for citizens to provide feedback to the federal government is clearly apparent. One could assume that the current federal government does not wish to pursue a dialogue with the populace and make themselves “…more open, transparent, digital, mobile and citizen-centric” (p. 46). Commentary on the Abbott government’s lack of transparency from the Australian media has been evident (Tiffen, 2014). This is unfortunate as, if employed wisely, the internet can enable democracies to operate successfully by providing opportunities for “…online voting, online citizen deliberation panels, …email[ing] elected representatives and …greatly enhanc[ing] access to information from a more diverse range of sources” (Flew, 2014, p. 201).

It is evident, however, that the Australian government has attempted to get in touch with the people online. This was particularly noticeable during the 2007 federal election campaign. The Coalition government tried to enter debate via online media and Web 2.0 technologies. Prime Minister Howard’s contribution via YouTube (JohnHoward2007, 2007) was directed towards the Australian public in a traditional manner and exhibited a lack of understanding around the asynchronous nature of such online media (Flew, 2008, p. 6). As a result, “Howard exposed himself to considerable criticism from the online community in what is a medium that is very open to user response” (p. 6). In contrast, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) approached the 2007 campaign with a strong online media focus, encompassing more social media and online spaces (p. 7). One of the consequences of this tactic was that the ALP was elected and Kevin Rudd became the new Prime Minister. The 2007 election exemplified how contemporary politicians should consider “…interactive audiences and their capacity to question, challenge, redistribute and modify the messages that they receive” (Gurevitch, Coleman & Blumler, as cited in Given & Radywyl, 2013, p. 16). To ignore the activities of the online community and the “electronic graffiti” (Abbott, as cited in Snowden, 2015, para. 1) produced in social media spaces is increasingly detrimental for any party seeking to get elected, as research has shown that interaction on the internet greatly assists in the promotion of a democratic society (Stromler-Galley & Wichowski, 2011, p. 170). This is “…because it allows for… vertical communication between citizens and elites” (Hacker, as cited in Stromler-Galley & Wichowski, 2011, p. 171).

Generally, Australian politicians still exhibit reluctance to open themselves up for scrutiny by the community: “…analysis found that, apart from a few notable exceptions, politicians used social media mostly for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate” (Macnamara, 2011, p. 27). This is changing over time, however, as Australians have witnessed an increased willingness by politicians to use social media in political contexts. Malcolm Turnbull is such a politician – he uses Twitter to engage with everyday Australians in more meaningful ways2. Macnamara also documents that the “use of social media by politicians in the 2010 federal election…” more than doubled, increasing by 105% (2011, p. 22). It is becoming steadily apparent that “…governments need to acknowledge that ‘the risks and complexities of governance cannot be managed without drawing upon the experience, expertise and networked linkages of the represented public’” (Gurevitch, Coleman & Blumler, as cited in Given & Radywyl, 2013, p. 16). As social media increasingly play a role in everyday experience (Price, 2013, p. 519), there is the potential for Australians to trigger and engage in political scrutiny, debate, and development (p. 520).

In 2012, such a movement sparked political discussion and engagement within the online Australian community. ‘Destroy The Joint’ (DTJ) was prompted by shock jock, Alan Jones, when he declared that women were ‘destroying the joint’ in response to Prime Minister Gillard’s initiative to train women in the Pacific region in leadership (Caro, 2013, p. ix). In reaction to Jones’ statement, Caro tweeted a personal retort to the comment3, and the “rapid feminist revitalisation” (McLean & Maalsen, 2013, p. 246) commenced in the Twittersphere. Senator Penny Wong (2013, p. 259) observed that “…the power of the #destroythejoint trend or movement… demonstrated the capacity of a social media campaign to disrupt the dominant paradigm.” What was remarkable about DTJ was that it permitted the airing of unconventional opinions and attitudes via social media, which did not only function as a space of defiance, but also as a space where such views could be contested” (McLean & Maalsen, 2013, p. 252). This, in turn, not only exemplified “…the multiplicity of an individualised politics but also the diversity of contemporary feminism” (p. 252). Additionally, it demonstrated that “…social media platforms have become tangible and real places where we gather in intended and unintended ways and this has the potential to nurture democracy and civil society, sometimes in dynamic and unexpected ways” (Narayan, 2013, p. 33). DTJ enabled individuals to participate in collective action via an online network that was “…integrated with their everyday activities and behaviours in an online world” (Bennett; Rotman et al. as cited in Narayan, 2013, p. 45).

Although the DTJ movement originated in the Twittersphere, it gained such momentum that a Facebook page also quickly appeared. But, more importantly, McLean & Maalsen highlight how DTJ “…also manifested in Australia’s national political space, specifically in federal parliament” (2013, p. 249), where Prime Minister Gillard delivered her widely celebrated misogyny speech on October 9th, 2012. This speech made it to YouTube (ABC News (Australia), 2012), where it has since been viewed 2,679,480 times4. According to McLean & Maalsen, “…a spatial analysis of DTJ and the Prime Minister’s speech can be read through… ‘paradoxical space’” (2013, p. 251), which was a concept posed “…in the encouragement of heterogeneity and the blurring of boundaries between public and private, ‘real’ world and cyber world, challenging the unilocation of person and agency, disrupting the spatiality of location to create unsettling space” (Rose as cited in McLean & Maalsen, 2013, p. 252). It is in this space that communities of people can individually or collectively express their opinions freely and anonymously, if so desired. Crucially, they can potentially question or challenge power structures and the control they practice (p. 252).

Effective campaigning and lobbying by grassroots organisations, such as GetUp!5, can provide such opportunities and act as a real power for change. GetUp! enables citizens to “have a voice and feel they are making a contribution” (Coombs, 2009, p. 185). The immediacy of the Internet allows for opinions and feelings about the political process to be expressed precipitously. But, as Coombs also mentions, “… none of this would work if it weren’t easy to participate” (p. 185). Interestingly, such easy online participation helps to mobilise “…high threshold offline actions [and] …on-the-ground fieldwork” (Vromen & Coleman, 2011, p. 87). It is apparent that GetUp!’s “rapid response campaign coordination” (p. 77) is much simpler to achieve via the internet in a timely manner. This advantage establishes connections with citizens’ everyday lives whilst providing them with the freedom to choose the level of engagement they wish to have with the “episodic” nature of GetUp! campaigns: “individual involvement can [thus] be more fluid and temporal” (Karpf as cited in Vromen & Coleman, 2011, p. 78). Boasting an 800,000+ membership base6, GetUp! has also managed to prove that it has attained “…broad acceptance of the organisation as a legitimate influence on Australian politics” (p. 88) via successful campaigns gaining consensus between the citizenry and the government.

GetUp!’s concentration on “…innovative internet use in everyday life” (Vromen & Coleman, 2013, p. 83) is strengthened by their reliance on regular emails to construct a “political story” for mobilising their members and gaining further political influence7 (p. 78). GetUp! has based this concept of public storytelling to enable political action by adopting three elements: “A story of self, a story of us, and a story of now” (Ganz as cited in Vromen & Coleman, 2013, p. 80). If a movement can enable a shift from a story of the ‘self’ to the story of ‘us’, campaigns can build alliances and generate publicity (p. 80). However, the storytelling approach to politics can possibly have negative effects which need consideration as well8. This was illustrated in GetUp!’s campaigns around mental health and climate change during 2010/2011. In the case of GetUp!’s mental health funding campaign, the story constructed was one that included individual empathy with the problem, a collective idea of community, ethical necessity and ultimately, the attainment of public and political support (p. 88).

Even though mental health was an uncommon and surprising endeavour for GetUp! to pursue, these factors produced a successful outcome9. However, GetUp! was unable to sustain such success with their climate change campaign10, as “…the moral urgency of solving climate change sidestepped concerns that many of the general public had of the material consequences of the policy” (p. 96). As a result, GetUp! encountered difficulty in maintaining messages of unity and change in this instance11.

It is apparent that online and offline democratic expression and political participation has been reinscribed by the internet. However, it is also clear that much work must be done to ensure that the disconnect that exists between parts of the Australian community and our institutions is no longer ignored or dismissed. Our political representatives are obliged to keep up with technological advancement, as the risk of the public’s alienation is palpable if caution is not exercised.

FOOTNOTES

1The Government 2.0 Taskforce site can still be found at the URL supplied, but the following statement has been inserted in the header area of the page: “This site was developed to support the Government 2.0 Taskforce, which operated from June to December 2009. The Government responded to the Government 2.0 Taskforce’s report on 3 May 2010. As such, comments are now closed but you are encouraged to continue the conversation at agimo.govspace.gov.au.” If one follows the links supplied in this statement, two have been archived and are no longer apparently available for viewing, plus the visitor is encouraged to visit the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) within the Department of Finance to read official government documentation.

2According to Macnamara (2011, p. 27), some of Turnbull’s tweets demonstrated the traits of encouraging expression and discourse. Macnamara further supplies specific examples of Twitter conversations: notably, Turnbull’s response to a citizen’s concern about the shelf-life of using fibre instead of cable in the National Broadband Network (NBN). Turnbull goes on to ask questions about the shelf-life figure supplied in this tweet. In presenting other documented tweets, Macnamara also goes on to state that “Turnbull showed the greatest propensity to accept criticism and respond to concerned and critical citizens in constructive ways” (p. 27).

3In response to Jones’ sexist comment, Caro sent the following tweet into the Twittersphere: “Got time on my hands tonight so thought I’d come up with new ways to destroy the joint, being a woman and all. Ideas welcome” (Caro, 2013, p. x). Caro then details how the creation of the #destroythejoint hashtag soon followed and was trending worldwide by the end of the first weekend.

4This figure was accurate as of 20th February, 2015.

5An organisation consisting of a community of Australians who wish for their voice to be heard by those with political power. GetUp! encourages participation from its membership in a number of ways. This can take effect through online petitions and assisting members in sending emails to parliamentary representatives regarding issues of concern. Members can also choose to donate money to GetUp!, either on a regular basis, or as “one-offs” for particular causes. GetUp! also effects mobilisation of the public, organising protests for members and their communities to attend and support. They can enable the creation and airing of television ads highlighting issues of concern to its members, members’ attendance at an event, successful lobbying, media engagement or meetings amongst local members. GetUp! is an “…independent, grassroots, community advocacy organisation that seeks to build a more progressive Australia and hold politicians to account” (GetUp!, 2015).

6At the time of writing, GetUp!’s website (https://www.getup.org.au/) was proclaiming to have membership of 879 226 Australians supporting its movement.

7”Digital storytelling prioritizes the personal narrative, bringing in the warmth and accessibility of everyday social connections to make stories public, and creating a shared experience” (Burgess as cited in Vromen & Coleman, 2013, p. 79). “…by analysing how these organizations promote a storytelling orientation to politics we can see how ideas, arguments and stories are used to quickly position the campaign and its tactics in the mind of supporters and the public” (p. 79).

8”Many storylines… privilege tales of ‘short-term triumph’ over accounts of ‘long-term endurance’, which can make it ‘difficult to argue that “keeping on keeping on” is success’ (Polletta as cited in Vromen & Coleman, 2013, p. 81). “Moreover, while recipients may be moved by stories of personal injustice, that everyone has their own story may also reduce a story’s political efficacy. Weighing up a multiplicity of competing justice claims can itself become an impediment to taking any action at all. In short, stories can be enticing without actually being persuasive, and this dilemma means we need to critically consider the limits of storytelling-based politics” (p. 81).

9’…this campaign can probably be judged as one of GetUp!’s most successful campaigns, going on to obtain Prime Ministerial and bipartisan support for genuine and well-funded policy reform. During 2010-11 GetUp! managed to craft a convincing story of shared community concern and a morally urgent need for change” (Vromen & Coleman, 2013, p. 88).

10Vromen & Coleman (2013, p. 88) put the failure of the climate change campaign down to three factors: “…inconsistent storytelling used to build personal identification with the issue; the existence of an active countermovement that successfully highlighted urgent material, rather than moral concerns with the policy; as well as declining public support for climate change mitigation.”

11”When there is limited success in the construction of an effective ‘story of now’ it becomes much harder for online campaigning organizations to maintain a shared sense of community and emotional identification of supporters. As the issues they work on change so regularly, it is clearly difficult, if not impossible, for these kinds of online campaigning organizations to maintain a consistent autobiographical organizational story that emphasizes unity over adversarial politics. Politics and contestations over the power of ideas and emotions are important, but opposition cannot be neutralized, or genuine material concerns ignored, with simple, hopeful messages of unity, and change alone” (Vromen & Coleman, 2013, p. 96).

REFERENCES

ABC News (Australia). (2012, October 8). Gillard labels Abbott a misogynist [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/ihd7ofrwQX0

Caro, J. (2013). Introduction: Sometimes You Just Have to Laugh. In J. Caro (Ed.), Destroying the joint: why women have to change the world (pp. ix-xiv). St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.

Coombs, A. (2009). How cyberactivism changed the world. Griffith Review, 24, 183-189.

Flew, T. (2014). New Media (4th ed.). South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press.

Flew, T. (2008). Not Yet the Internet Election: Online Media, Political Commentary and the 2007 Australian Federal Election. Media International Australia, 126, 5-13.

GetUp! (2015). About GetUp! Retrieved from https://www.getup.org.au/about

Given, J., & Radywyl, N. (2013). Questions & Answers & Tweets. Communication, Politics & Culture, 46, 1-21. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2017330

Howard, John [JohnHoward2007]. (2007, July 16). Prime Minister John Howard, climate change announcement [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/e5jtiJPlv4Y

Macnamara, J. (2011). Pre and post-election 2010 online: What happened to the conversation? Communication, Politics and Culture, 44(2), 18-36. Retrieved from http://informit.com.au/

McLean, J. & Maalsen, S. (2013). Destroying the Joint and Dying of Shame? A Geography of Revitalised Feminism in Social Media and Beyond. Geographical Research, 51(3), 243-256. http://10.1111/1745-5871.12023

Narayan, B. (2013). From everyday information behaviours to clickable solidarity in a place called Social Media. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 5(3), 32-53. Retrieved from http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/mcs/article/view/3488

Price, E. (2013). Social media and democracy. Australian Journal of Political Science, 48(4). 519-527. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10361146.2013.846296

Snowden, C. (2015). No, Tony Abbott, you can’t dismiss social media as ‘electronic graffiti’. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/no-tony-abbott-you-cant-dismiss-social-media-as-electronic-graffiti-36819

Stromler-Galley, J., & Wichowski, A. (2011). Political discussion online. In M. Consalvo & C. Ess (Eds.), The handbook of Internet studies (pp. 168-187). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Tiffen, R. (2014). The Abbott government’s war on transparency. Retrieved from http://insidestory.org.au/the-abbott-governments-war-on-transparency

Vromen, A., & Coleman, W. (2013). Online Campaigning Organizations and Storytelling Strategies: GetUp! in Australia. Policy & Internet, 5(1), 76-100. http://10.1002/poi3.23

Vromen, A., & Coleman, W. (2011). Online movement mobilisation and electoral politics: The case of GetUp! Communication, Politics and Culture, 44(2), 76-94. Retrieved from http://informit.com.au/

Wong, P. (2013). Markers of change. In J. Caro (Ed.), Destroying the joint: why women have to change the world (pp. 257-262). St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.

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