Changing the channel

Social media and the information wars

LAST NIGHT, FOLLOWING the tenth anniversary of the national Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, a former host of online rotational curation account IndigenousX made a personal post on Facebook. The former IndigenousX host resides in what is considered a remote part of Australia. It was a late hour, and it appeared in my newsfeed later still, a well-populated comment thread already trailing below it.

The post from Steve Bunbadjee Hodder Watt was a shout-out to Luke Pearson, IndigenousX founder and chief editor, and myself, daily editor, a year on from the publication of Steve’s first article in the IndigneousX section of Guardian Australia. The post went on to list some of the opportunities within the news and media industry that followed Steve’s stint as host of the main @IndigenousX Twitter account: NITV; another couple of commissions from The Guardian; a gig with Aboriginal-owned newspaper Koori Mail; public-speaking engagements and various radio spots. It was an impressive portfolio, one I hadn’t noticed developing despite maintaining semi-regular contact with Steve. The comments included many responses from First Nations journalists and producers that Steve had worked alongside over the past twelve months, all singing out their support and praise.

I’d been finding it difficult to set aside enough time in the lead-up to the anniversary of the Apology to write this very article. It felt like the annual shitstorm of 26 January, where mainstream Australia resents Indigenous rejection of ‘Australia Day’, had only just subdued and the next wild front on the Indigenous affairs radar was approaching way too fast. Weathering these events takes a toll: there’s the relentless trolling from white supremacists on just about all popular social-media channels; there’s the ravening offensive from the hard-right dominant media; there’s media requests; article submissions to the site; our own articles; and, of course, there’s the political expediency, opportunism and public race-baiting from representatives within state and federal governments. I stalled this writing, stalled a while longer, and by around midnight 13 February I was feeling fairly fatigued. Then Steve’s post provided a timely reminder of the important role IndigenousX plays in amplifying diverse Indigenous voices to contribute and participate in that fraught concept known as the public sphere.


WHEN LUKE LAUNCHED IndigenousX back in 2012, his objective was to challenge representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the dominant media by providing a platform to showcase the diversity of First Nations peoples from this continent presently called Australia. This objective was nothing new. Politically active blackfellas have been doing it for some time since European invasion but, unlike past iterations, the inception of IndigenousX harnessed new technologies of digital media in innovative ways. IndigenousX increasingly provides a focal point for Indigenous agency and non-Indigenous support online largely through Twitter, contributing to what’s known as the ‘fifth estate’. The social coalition afforded by Twitter and Facebook fosters communities of dissent that pose vital and often realtime challenge to existing social orders too often blindly reproduced by mainstream media. IndigenousX is a leading online community that has not only set mainstream news agenda but daily brings Indigenous voice into direct contact and interaction with over thrity-five thousand followers/fellow-members.

The idea of @IndigenousX had been on Luke’s mind for some time before he finally launched it at a youth-led constitutional recognition conference at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern. A room full of young, bright blackfellas had assembled to hear about media and communications campaigning strategies from Aden Ridgeway, a former senator; Kirstie Parker, a past editor of the Koori Mail; and Luke himself. When it was Luke’s turn to speak, he tells me, he threw away his prepared speech and instead sent a sheet of paper around the room.

‘I got up and said, “I’m doing it. I’m going to pass this around and you fellas put your name down on there and you will be the first round of IndigenousX,”’ he says. ‘I’d been sitting on the idea for ages, not confident I could sustain it, but in that room there was all these deadly young fellas who were already on Twitter.’

Thus, the world’s second rotating Twitter account was born, pipped for line honours by @sweden, which is run by the Swedish government with a different Swedish citizen each week. Rotating accounts such as @EduTweetOz and @WePublicHealth followed, all since acknowledging the influence of @IndigenousX. A rotating account, or rotational curation account (a rocur), sees a new person on a regular basis – often weekly – take over hosting duties, bringing their own voice, agency, ideas and energy to that community and its followers/members. IndigenousX provides a platform for genuine free speech, individual hosts are not censored.

In the early years, @IndigenousX provided a useful platform for initiating and sustaining what might be described as cultural interventions. One host, Aaron Nagas, took Aldi and Big W to task over offensive ‘Australia Est. 1788’ T-shirts – offensive because the colonial dating disregards millenia of civilisation. Another campaign involved the Macquarie Dictionary re-addressing its entry for the word ‘boong’; ‘boong’ is a derogatory reference to Aboriginal people and has no place in any contemporary discourse. Yet another was the online drive that raised around $10,000 for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which runs significant projects aimed at redressing the disgraceful illiteracy levels in some Indigenous communities.


IN MY TIME as a daily editor, IndigenousX has continued to advocate and agitate in the same fashion. It has been an influential voice in the loose coalition of activist organisations and individuals pushing to change the date of Australia’s official national day. There has also been close involvement with an organisers workshop involving local activists of colour and the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a key assist in a special screening of the Marvel Studios film Black Panther for struggling Indigenous and African youth. Future provocations are also in the works.

When Guardian Australia was established in 2013, its founding editor Katharine Viner said that she was keen to collaborate with @IndigenousX in some manner. Viner told me she was a fan of the account and that she asked Jessica Reed, Guardian Australia’s then opinion editor, to find out who was behind it.

‘When I arrived in Australia in January 2013, I was looking for gaps in what was covered by the media,’ Viner told me. ‘It seemed to me that the gaps were around asylum and immigration, political policy and Indigenous issues. As someone fascinated by Australian history, the issue of the rights of Indigenous Australians seemed to me to be glanced over. I wanted to find a way for The Guardian to cover that, and was keen that it wouldn’t be top-down reporting. The account was one of the most interesting things we could see in the Australian media, and we thought if we collaborated we could perhaps find ways for the work to reach even more people, readers all around the world.’

After a round of meetings, it was decided that GA would profile the weekly @IndigenousX hosts with a question-and-answer session about their lives and the issues they were interested in. It was agreed this simple approach would reveal a broad Indigenous experience for GA’s predominantly non-Indigenous readers.

‘We understand that a lot of stories are better told by the people who are living it, or who are close to their communities and what is happening every day. Our job, as journalists, is to go out and find those stories – and collaboration is a great tool to get this done,’ Viner said.

Now the London-based editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Viner says the success of the IndigenousX collaboration recently led to the On The Ground project in its US newsroom, an initiative that commissions work from writers with intricate knowledge of their communities right across the rural US. ‘We’ve started a project which is a collaboration with smaller newsrooms across America to find stories that national outlets either undercover or miss completely.’


PERHAPS THE BIGGEST impact IndigenousX has had is on the direction and viability of the constitutional recognition campaign. This impact has already been the subject of numerous academic papers and continues to intrigue general readers. It’s a long, detailed sequence of events that began around May 2015 after Recognise, a government-funded campaign run by parent organisation Reconciliation Australia, released yet another survey in a long line of polls indicating that 87 per cent of Indigenous respondents would vote ‘yes’ in a future referendum on the proposal of changing the constitution to recognise Indigenous people.

Meanwhile, Indigenous grassroots opposition to Recognise and recognition had been generating steadily. The high approval figures announced by Recognise prompted Luke to run a survey on @IndigenousX. Our poll yielded a figure of just 32.3 per cent Indigenous support for a yes vote, and even that level of support was contingent on any future constitutional amendment including every one of the 2012 expert panel’s recommendations. Only 14.7 per cent indicated they would vote yes if the final model was symbolic with no substantive changes to Australia’s founding document. In addition, only a quarter of respondents – a sample size greater in number than the Recognise poll – indicated they supported the $25 million Recognise campaign.

‘If the Recognise survey had come out and said 65 per cent of blackfellas supported it, I would have been, like, “Well that’s not my experience, but okay,’” Luke says. ‘But they came out with 87 per cent. I was, like, “That’s impossible. It’s too high.” If you randomly asked a hundred Aboriginal people, to have eighty-seven of them say yes – that just wasn’t what we were hearing at the time.”

Whereas the country’s dominant media had been quick to pick up almost all of Recognise’s poll results and run them without question, it was ten days before the ABC’s Bill Birtles reported on the extraordinary results. After Birtles’ story on ABC radio, NITV picked it up, but then the big news organisations lost interest again. It was a different scene online however, where there was vibrant discussion and analysis of the survey result among black produsers.

Then, things got interesting: when Senator Nova Peris alluded to the IndigenousX poll in a speech on the report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, writer, lawyer and former member of Julia Gillard’s expert panel Noel Pearson used the data in an interview with Brisbane’s Aboriginal community radio station 98.9FM to argue for a series of Indigenous-only community conferences. Pearson told listeners: ‘That IndigenousX survey confirms that the whole process going forward has got to allow Indigenous people to have the debate and have the discussion right across the country.’

The following month, alongside forty Indigenous delegates hand-picked to devise an acceptable way to proceed with constitutional recognition, Noel Pearson took his argument – and the numbers that supported it from the IndigenousX poll – to Kirribilli House in Sydney to meet Prime Minister Tony Abbott. During the meeting, the Indigenous delegates rejected any symbolic ‘minimalist’ approach to recognition and sought substantive constitutional change. The PM rejected their proposal, later describing it as ‘something akin to a log of claims unlikely to receive general support’. He also roundly rejected Pearson’s push for a series of Indigenous conferences. Over the next month, Pearson – joined by Pat Dodson, Kirstie Parker and Megan Davis – continued to press the PM to fund Indigenous community conferences. Abbott maintained his position, arguing that Indigenous-only discussions would be divisive to the direction and tone of the pitch for constitutional amendment.

A little over a month later, with a public backlash generating against the recognition proposal, Abbott performed a neat about-face. Indigenous community consultations would go ahead. Another new plan was designed and fine-tuned by leading Indigenous representatives over the following months. On 7 December 2015, the PM and the Opposition leader Bill Shorten appointed a Referendum Council. Twelve regional dialogues were held across the country in the following two years, and the process culminated at Uluru in May last year, where the Uluru Statement from the Heart was adopted by an overwhelming majority of First Nations representatives.

Recently, the Uluru Statement was praised by former Labor Party PM Kevin Rudd as a request for shared sovereignty. It was also roundly rejected for that very reason by current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who now threatens to turn the Opposition’s support for it into a race-based election issue sometime in the next twelve months.


AS AN ARTICLE that emerged from a series of deliberative, demo-cratically styled community consultations, the Uluru Statement is a distinct – if not radical – departure from the cautiously tensile approach purveyed since 2012 by the Recognise campaign. Indeed, as soon as the Referendum Council commenced the regional community dialogues, the public presence of Recognise rapidly diminished. Then in August 2017, three months after the sit-down at Uluru, the campaign was quietly and unceremoniously abandoned.

It is rumoured that after the release of IndigenousX’s survey results on 15 June 2015, public servants working within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet added a black mark beside our name for any possible future grant applications. This is impossible to verify, but certainly Luke has described how firm relationships with persons working within Recognise prior to the IndigenousX counter-survey became strained after its publication.

‘Until [the IndigenousX survey], pretty much the only thing we were seeing from Recognise were things like the long walk and sponsorship,’ says First Nations writer and social commentator Celeste Liddle, who provided an analysis of the survey results on the freshly launched IndigenousX website back in June 2015. ‘Recognise was very much this corporate-focused entity that seemed more interested in getting the big millionaires to sign on and don the R-logo than actually consulting with the community. The survey made people think, “Well, hang on. A bunch of community members really don’t seem that happy with this at all. What’s going on? Maybe we need to talk to them?”’

Tanja Dreher, who teaches communications and media studies at the University of Wollongong, describes the survey as a particularly savvy intervention. Her own research has focused on community media, experiences of racism, and news and cultural diversity. She says the survey ‘cut through’ because it took the form of an opinion poll. ‘Though we can argue that the methodology was not as robust as it should be, playing the numbers, or working those marketing techniques, is the absolute bread and butter of legacy media.

‘And that’s why it did finally cut through and shift how that debate was then made public, who was involved and what was happening. Even though at that moment you still see evidence of the legacy media really playing catch-up, slow to realise what was happening in other channels, particularly Indigenous new media and social media channels.’

In the six-years since the launch of @IndigenousX, social media and new media entrants to the Australian news industry have absolutely disrupted the way ‘local’ journalism is practiced. New journalistic and organisational values have rapidly replaced the old ways, and continue to evolve. This in turn has impacted on the calcified systems of relations between our media and our political institutions. Arguably, policy-making is now more mediatised than ever before – particularly for Indigenous policy – and we realise there is significant opportunity in being able to set new agendas in public conversation.

Our intention is to forge new media systems that produce improved representation for First Nations peoples. And we who are IndigenousX are proud of the fact that we can demonstrate impact in this direction, whether it be correcting the endorsement of the use and denotation of racist language, pressuring big retail to reconsider its messaging, jamming multi-million dollar state-sponsored public relations campaigns, or simply by providing new pathways for our brothers and sisters to have their voices heard and participate in the dialogues and decision-making that affects them.

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