Indigenous knowledges have much to contribute to efforts to reform and re-imagine the digital worlds where so many people spend so much time, and which can be so damaging.
In the #LongRead below, Bronwyn Carlson, Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, urges readers to abandon the idea that social media in its current form is here to stay and must remain just the way it is now.
Instead, she asks readers to imagine a global communications network based on Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being in the world, and on social justice and equity.
Her article below was first published as a chapter in a new book, ‘The Public Square: Reimagining our digital future’, and is reproduced below with the permission of the publisher, Melbourne University Press.
Bronwyn Carlson writes:
I grew up in a world where the internet did not exist. For connection with others, we had a landline telephone that sat in the hallway on its own dedicated side table. These days you can still purchase those tables on eBay or the like, where they are advertised as post-war or retro vintage telephone tables or gossip seats. Growing up, we rarely called anyone as many of our friends and family did not have a phone.
You definitely didn’t phone anyone in the evening unless it was an emergency, and to this day my mum won’t answer the phone after dark. When you wanted to know more about something you went to the library and read a book. Volumes of encyclopedias held the answers to whatever you wanted to know. Door-to-door salespeople would show up and convince you that you needed to purchase your own set of encyclopedias, which you paid off over a lengthy period of time on a payment plan. Knowledge was sold to those who could afford it.
While the internet has made access to knowledge much easier, there still remains a significant divide. As of January 2021 there were 4.66 billion active internet users in the world. This equates to almost 60 percent of the world’s population. The majority of these people access the internet on mobile devices such as phones and iPads.
In Australia one in four Indigenous households still does not have access to the internet. This is particularly the case for fixed NBN access across all geographical locations. Also, the more remote the location, the bigger this divide becomes. Many Indigenous people access the internet via their mobile phones. They purchase credit, which is often at much higher rates than fixed plans. They do this because their incomes may be less stable and they can only buy credit when they have enough disposable income. Affordability remains a major barrier for equitable access to knowledge and communication.
While access remains a significant issue for many Indigenous people, it is also true that Indigenous people are keen users of the internet and especially for accessing social media. Even in the most ‘remote’ areas of Australia, mobile technologies are becoming increasingly commonplace as more and more Indigenous people access apps such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.
In a relatively short period of time, social media technologies have become a central part of our everyday lives. Although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, my own research suggests that Indigenous people, as early adopters of technology, use social media at rates higher than many non-Indigenous Australians.
Our use of social media is not simply the same as non-Indigenous people, however. We make use of the internet and access social media apps as cultured subjects. For example, many Indigenous people are situated within complex kinship systems, which work to shape the ways in which people may socialise with one another, and there are often protocols regarding the distribution and expression of cultural knowledge, the sharing of images and the customs of dealing with loss (or Sorry Business). Indigenous people are also still highly impacted by colonisation and the complex, violent and ongoing history of material, cultural and physical dispossession that it entails.
Far too often Indigenous people are left out of discussions when it comes to technology or the way in which technology is visioned, used or governed. We rarely have a seat at the table when it comes to any reimagining of the public square. For example, tech companies rarely employ Indigenous people. On a recent visit to one tech company, I asked how many Indigenous people were employed there. They responded that they had no Indigenous employees but were committed to developing a reconciliation action plan. They had, they declared, hired an Indigenous artist to paint a mural in their office space.
Due to my interest in Indigenous people and digital technologies, I have been asked by tech companies to consult with them on their policy development, letting them know of issues that are specific to Indigenous people here in Australia. This tends to be around violence online and the way Indigenous people continue to be the targets of racism and other forms of violence while engaging on the internet generally but across social media platforms more specifically. A more effective option would be to actually employ Indigenous people in policy roles.
So even though Indigenous populations worldwide are avid social media users, tech companies are yet to respond by reflecting this engagement in their workforce. This can be said for most industries. The rapid rise of the use of social media as a means of social, cultural and political interaction among Indigenous peoples and groups is an intriguing development. While this is not to suggest there is no digital inequality, it does counter any assumptions that Indigenous peoples may have little interest in the possibilities of technology and the online environment.
My own interest in Indigenous peoples’ use of social media began in 2010 when participants in my doctoral research spoke about how they used social media and particularly Facebook to express their identities. My research focused on the politics of identity as it relates to Indigenous peoples. I was then interested in how people were navigating online spaces as Indigenous people. This was exciting as the topic was new and I had not considered the issues of identity or community in digital settings. Back then, people spoke about life in two different domains – online and offline, offline being considered the real world or real life. These days this is not the case – being online is an everyday part of life for many.
After graduating in 2012, I applied for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Indigenous Grant to further my interest in Indigenous identity online on social media. I was fortunate to be awarded a grant for a project entitled ‘Aboriginal identity and community online: a sociological exploration of Aboriginal peoples’ use of online social media’ (IN13010036, 2013–2016). It was the first research in Australia that focused entirely on Indigenous engagements online on social media.
The findings resulted in a broader understanding of how Indigenous people use social media to build, assert and maintain their identity and how they participate in online communities. The research also revealed that Indigenous people are actively participating in social, cultural and political activities on social media. These platforms have become a vehicle not simply for communicating and networking among and between Indigenous people but also a tool for sharing different cultural practices, norms and expectations, political agitation for social justice, help-seeking and responding to help-seeking.
Help-seeking and help-giving behaviours were mentioned by participants in relation to a range of topics, including identity, racism, suicide and self-harm, parenting, education, employment, legal advice and health-related concerns. Help-seeking behaviour refers to the coping mechanism an individual displays in the face of distress or pressure, or the communicative process of seeking help from others in the event of particular difficulty or emotional distress.
These findings led to my successful application for a second ARC Discovery Indigenous Grant, ‘An examination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander help-seeking behaviours on social media’ (IN160100049, 2016–2018). This research provided a substantial theoretical and empirically informed understanding of Indigenous help-seeking behaviours on social media. Literature on help-seeking behaviours online is limited in scope. Crucially, it does not account for the lived realities of Indigenous people. Nor does it consider the impact of past and present policies and practices that discriminate against Indigenous people. Knowledge of help-seeking behaviours on social media has significant implications for support service provision and intervention.
The help-seeking project revealed that violence online is a significant issue for Indigenous people and communities. However, little is still known about the impact of such violence which in some cases manifests into offline physical violence. Much of the research on violence online tends to erase social and cultural difference altogether, focusing mainly on white, urban populations, differentiating people only by age and (binary) gender. But my research has shown that we cannot assume Indigenous experiences of violence online occurs at the same rate, for the same reasons, and with the same impacts as for non-Indigenous people.
In 2019, I was successfully awarded a third ARC Discovery Indigenous Grant, ‘Indigenous peoples’ experiences of cyberbullying: An assemblage approach’. I am currently working on this project. Over the last ten years, researchers have shown more interest in Indigenous peoples’ distinct and often culturally idiosyncratic use of social media, and this has revealed that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have become embedded deeply in the lives of Indigenous peoples Australia-wide.
My research has shown that Indigenous people not only use social media as frequently and proficiently as other social groups, they use it differently – such as through continuing kinship relations, sharing cultural knowledges and participating in cultural practices. Many Indigenous people I interviewed had seamlessly integrated social media into their everyday lives, using it to connect with friends and family, share jokes, seek love and find information. For many, it had become an invaluable tool in the realisation of their hopes and dreams; it helped them ‘find’ and share their identities and produce intimate communities of mutual trust, respect, care and kindness.
Conversely, all participants reported unpleasant, painful and disruptive experiences on social media. Their engagement with social media operated not within a neutral space but within a multilayered terrain of cultural beliefs and practices, relationships with many kinds of communities, constant interactions with hostile others, and exposure to many forms of often harmful materials. There were experiences of direct aggression, often with people influenced by racist ideas, and participants reported feeling more, rather than less, alone online.
Clearly, ‘being Indigenous online’ is no simple matter. Social media can and does facilitate the reproduction of power hierarchies in which Indigenous people are subjected to racial violence, subjugation and discrimination. While in the early days of the internet it was possible to talk about discrete ‘offline’ and ‘online’ worlds – one ‘real’ and one ‘virtual’ – this distinction has become increasingly blurred.
Relations of class, gender, sexuality, race, religion and so on exist online. The discursive mechanisms that shape offline power relations transfer and translate into online practices where social agents can wield power. In this way, social interactions online mimic offline behaviours. This plays out on social media through similar manifestations of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia and reactionary responses to various standpoints and identities.
These relations are not totally replicated wholesale; they are not carbon-copied from the ‘offline’ world to the digital world. The relations of power that give rise to material inequalities in the world more broadly leak into online spaces, mixing in with the relations that form there; they shape and colour the interactions that take place online. These relations of power are often explicitly hateful. They contour almost all social media spaces to some degree, though they can be much more concentrated in some spaces than others. For example, platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have thousands of pages, threads and channels dedicated to fostering, coordinating and even celebrating hate against Indigenous people.
Since the arrival of the British in 1788, Indigenous peoples have been positioned as primitive, backward, uneducated, and a range of other pejoratives for the purpose of identifying a moral claim to our land. Racist stereotypes of Indigenous people persist in contemporary times. This is the might of racist discourses. In one of its forms, racist discourse posits that Indigenous people are a people devoid of technological prowess; in particular, this stereotype has been applied to beliefs about Indigenous peoples’ use of digital technologies.
I am constantly presented with questions from friends, acquaintances and other academics about whether Indigenous people actually use mobile phones or if we are on social media. Many people are still shocked to hear that the vast majority of Indigenous people do not live in the ‘outback’, or that the largest population of Indigenous people is in urban locations. This constitutes myths that inform ‘settler discourses’ around Indigenous people. Unlike other social groups, Indigenous people are not only assumed to be technologically incompetent, they are expected to be. That is, that settler imaginaries of Indigenous people frame them as necessarily ‘against’ technology. Consequently, any Indigenous person who sits outside this construct is then understood as not ‘really’ being ‘authentically’ Indigenous.
Such ideas present a very narrow view of what constitutes technology. Technology is defined as the application of knowledge and an experience to create products and ways of meeting society’s needs through the use of resources for particular purposes. Indigenous people have always done this. For example, Indigenous people demonstrate a highly sophisticated understanding of engineering, physics and aquaculture in the design and use of fish traps. Two well-documented locations are the Brewarrina fish traps in NSW, dating from more than 40,000 years ago, and the Gunditjmara people’s eel farms at Lake Condah in Victoria, dating to over 6,600 years ago. Indigenous knowledge on the use of fire is also a well-documented technology that continues to be used. Anthropologist Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) evidences the way Indigenous people managed their care of Country with fire in a systematic and scientific way.
The furore over the publication of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2014) clearly demonstrates the fragility of settlers when it comes to acknowledging Indigenous people as people of knowledge, science and technology. Pascoe, drawing on colonial records, argues that Indigenous people pre-colonisation were actively engaged in agriculture, aquaculture and building of abodes in line with climate and environmental needs, disputing the idea that Indigenous people were hunter-gatherer societies. In the case of Dark Emu, the debate has, however, focused primarily on whether the author Bruce Pascoe is ‘really’ or ‘authentically’ Indigenous himself. Indigenous people are also actively engaged in the digital technology space in contemporary times, and there are innovative award-winning tech companies established by Indigenous people where cultural knowledge is the basis of technology development. Indigital and Indigitek are two examples.
What we now call ‘settler’ colonialism is a palatable euphemism for ongoing and sustained land theft. The image of the Indigenous person as not as ‘advanced’ as non-Indigenous peoples, shifts easily into a moral claim, one that strengthens the founding of the Australian nation on the belief that Indigenous people did not really own the land now known as Australia and were incapable of truly taking advantage of the continent, therefore white people were justified in taking the land. The same thinking is evident online. There is a real sentiment that our occupation of many online sites such as social media is not welcomed. The violence experienced by Indigenous people on digital platforms is unrelenting. Our unwelcomed status can also be measured in the lack of engagement with Indigenous people in paid positions in tech companies or by the government in relation to the public square.
Communities and relationships
We understand that we do not stop being Indigenous because we are online. For us the internet is not a disembodied place where you are no longer connected to human and more-than-human relations. The internet for us is a real place that is right here and is composed of communities of people with real lives that are connected through our responsibility and relationships, including our relationships to Country. In his study of Inuit identities online, Neil Christensen (2003) found that Inuit ‘are generally embedding offline life into cyberspace’ and that ‘the internet is not necessarily a space to hide in, nor is it a space that mysteriously filters away the cultural identity of people’. Similarly, Native American scholar Marisa Elena Duarte speaks to the ‘place-based nature of the Internet’ in her 2017 book Network Sovereignty stating that for non-Indigenous people the internet is imagined as something that is ‘out there’ whereas for Indigenous people we understand it as ‘right here’.
Just like our relations exist on the internet, settler colonialism exists. While many hold the opinion that the internet is somehow unconnected from Country-based relations, Indigenous people know that this is not the case. Our own experiences of violence that has shifted from online to offline easily tells us this is not the case. Facebook, for example, is home to numerous localised community groups who come together in their hatred for Indigenous people and call for annual culling of our young people and post comments about hunting us. Even police officers have been exposed for their online hatred of Indigenous people. These instances have real consequences. There have been violent repercussions from settler colonialism, including death. Settler colonialism is like a hungry beast that seeks our land and in doing so seeks our erasure. Participants in my research have variously noted the effects of online violence on their health and safety. In some instances, racial hatred has been so intense it has deterred users from further engagement on social media.
We are also concerned with our information and data and how these are being used or can be used to further dispossess and harm us. Digital sovereignty is of growing concern. We have always maintained sovereign status over our lands and waters regardless of whether settlers recognise this authority. We have not, however, ever really had a seat at the table when it comes to ‘data sovereignty’, which has generally been controlled by governments, regulatory bodies, multinational corporations and tech companies. This speaks to the belief that the internet is somehow Countryless – ‘out there’ and outside relations with real bodies and real connections to people and place.
Indigenous scholars, however, actively argue that the internet is imbued with Indigenous life, love, languages, cultures and, importantly, our futures. On Twitter, for example, Indigenous life in all its variety is identifiable through the use of hashtags such as #BlackfullaTwitter. Such Indigenous-specific hashtags serve as a sign- post for the collective that tell us the post is on topics or issues that concern us. They mark out our territory in these digital domains.
In 2019, I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference in Brisbane, Australia. I was excited to be invited to present at such a prestigious international conference and I wondered if I was perhaps the first Indigenous scholar to be invited to do so. I never really thought of myself as a researcher of the internet so I was also a bit apprehensive that the audience would not really understand my perspective as an Indigenous Studies scholar. My research, however, does focus on how our lives as Indigenous peoples are increasingly impacted by digital technologies and especially social media.
After my keynote an audience member asked: If I had the power to do so, would I pull the plug on social media? This provocation had me thinking about all the stories of violence I have been privy to in the course of my research. I answered yes. It is not that I do not recognise the benefits of social media; clearly, there are many. I just think we can do better.
We need to unhinge ourselves from the idea that social media in its current form is here to stay and must remain just the way it is now. I wonder what a global communication tool might look like if it was based on Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being in the world.
Imagine a global communication network that was monitored with care and empathy as opposed to hate, violence and controversy. Imagine if such a platform was regulated by real people and there was accountability to those who were impacted by anything untoward. Imagine a network based on social justice, equity and all those aspirations that are so often attacked on social media in its current form. Imagine a social media whose interests lie in educating, imparting knowledge equitably, as well as incorporating the humour of life. Imagine a universal network of communication whose underlying principles reflect Indigenous philosophies rather than rampant and unrestrained capitalism.
Indigenous people have always and will always imagine and work towards futures that assert our rights, our sovereignty and our worldviews. This is how we have survived ‘settler colonialism’.
• Professor Bronwyn Carlson is an Aboriginal woman who was born on and lives on D’harawal Country in NSW Australia. She is the author of The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016), which includes a chapter on identity and community on social media. She is widely published on the topic of Indigenous cultural, social, intimate and political engagements on social media including co-editing and contributing to two special issues; the Australasian Journal of Information Systems (2017) on “Indigenous Activism on Social Media’ and Media International Australia (2018) on “Indigenous Innovation on Social Media” and an edited volume with Rutgers University Press (2021) “Indigenous People Rise Up: The Global Ascendancy of Social Media Activism”. She is also the founding and managing editor of the Journal of Global Indigeneity and the Director of The Centre for Global Indigenous Futures. Bronwyn is an active member of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Sociology. In 2020 she was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
• Declaration from Croakey: Members of our team, Professor Megan Williams and Dr Melissa Sweet, also have a chapter in the book, ‘Healing: Big Tech as a public health crisis’.
See Croakey’s archive of stories on digital platforms and health.