“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressing”
Advances in communications technology has rapidly changed the media. Online social networking has not only provided ease of access to an unbelievably wide breadth of information, but is also more and more frequently being used as a tool to organise and promote real life events and campaigns. With mainstream, conventional media being owned and directed by private corporations, the use of online communications and media is providing opportunities for social activism that did not previously exist.
The Media in Australia
Mainstream media in Australia, including newspapers and news programs on both television and radio, are considerably concentrated in the hands of a few multinational companies. These companies have vested interests in making profits and therefore shape their stories based on what they perceive will attract most viewer attention and advertiser investment. A Bond University report title Sources of News and Current Affairs states that the pressure of ratings and circulation is the dominant influence on the ‘newsworthiness’ of a story, indicating the “commercial imperative modern news production”. (i) These commercial interests mean that the producers of news will present stories that market research has told them people want to see.
The more dominant news sources and newspapers in particular, such as The Australian, have an agenda-setting influence on the rest of the mass media. That is, the stories they choose to go with usually set the tone for the other news sources.
New Forms of Media: Social Networking and Activism
The internet and various social networking forums have provided unprecedented opportunities to access and disseminate information. From the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa to the global Occupy movement – organisations and individuals have used the virtues of the internet to not only galvanise support and action for a cause but also provide information and imagery in avenues outside those controlled by the corporate mass media. According to some commentators, new media has seen that “information is liberating in the traditional political sense of the term: the spread of information has had a direct impact on the degree of accountability and transparency that governments must deliver if they are to survive.” (ii)
Major petition sites have also been established. Avaaz.org, Change.org and Get Up are examples of such sites. Get Up is Australian based and predominantly notifies members of campaigns that are relevant to Australian issues – such as marriage equality, opposition to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and numerous others regarding the environment. Avaaz.org is an international group, with over 13 million members world-wide. The organisation sends regular email notifications to members with information about particular campaigns and has a forum in which people sign and can make comments. The group recently collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to present to the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council with regards torture in Syria, to the CEO of Hilton Hotels for attention and action with regards sex slavery and child prostitution in their hotels, and lobbied Indian governments to establish anti-corruption laws.
Alternative news sources are also very common, where self-published works, journals and editorials, and blogs are uploaded and disseminated online, bypassing the channels of the mass media. For example, well known Indymedia has sites all over the world – claiming to be independent media reports from “the progressive grass roots”. (iii) It provides editorials, news, and commentaries from nine different regions around the world.
Defamation, Restrictions and Monitoring
Along with the opportunities provided by the internet and new media in disseminating information, online activism can also facilitate increased monitoring by government and intelligence. Intelligence sources around the world use monitoring companies to examine the information produced by activist groups and organisations online.
One particular issue is that of Online Defamation. Defamation laws give people the right to contest and take legal action against those they feel have wrongfully described or attacked them. These laws are allegedly aimed to give people the opportunity to protect their reputation if misinformation or misrepresenting information is published to a third party. This includes publishing on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites. Many people may not realise that the things they blog, tweet or post on Facebook, are also covered by these laws and can be subject to lawsuits or conviction. For example, a man in Australia recently filed a lawsuit after a television personality wrongly accused him of being the author of a hate blog. The man filed a lawsuit against the person responsible for the tweets and is now filing a lawsuit against Twitter as the publishers. (iv) This is the first time under Australian law that Twitter has been sued for defamation. In 2009 an 18 year old man in South Australia was convicted of criminal defamation after he posted false and defamatory information on Facebook about a local police officer. He was found guilty placed and on a two-year good-behaviour bond. (v)
Alongside issues relating to defamation is the issue of surveillance. Commonwealth and State laws allow police and intelligence groups to monitor people online for a broad range of reasons. Very recently, it was found that the Australian Federal Police were closely monitoring the online discussions of a group of campaigners against coal-fired power stations and coal export facilities. (vi) Furthermore, it was uncovered that the federal police were using Facebook, Twitter and other online sites to monitor a range of environmental and anti-mining groups, as an ongoing method of surveillance.
For more information on digital security see Links and resources section.
(i) Mark Pearson, Jeffrey E. Brand, Deborah Archbold and Halim Rane, Sources of News and Current Affairs, Bond University, Sydney, p. 89.
(ii) Shashi Tharoor, “Broadband Liberation”, Project Syndicate, 2010 See http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/broadband-liberation
(iv) “Twitter Sued in Australia for Defamation for First Time Over Marieke Hardy Comments”, news.com.au, 17 February 2012, See http://www.news.com.au/technology/twitter-sued-in-australia-for-defamation-for-the-first-time-over-mariek-hardy-comments/story-e6frfro0-1226273796294.
(v) Nigel Hunt, “Teenager Sued Over Facebook Defamation”, The Sunday Times, 21 November 2009, http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/teenager-sued-over-facebook-defamation/story-e6frg12c-1225801635738.
(vi) Philip Dorling, “Spies Eye Green Protesters”, The Age, 7 January 2012, See http://www.theage.com.au/national/spies-eye-green-protesters-20120106-1poow.html