Indigenous peoples’ experiences of social media: the good and the bad

Dr Tristan Kennedy - Department of Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University – June 3, 2021


Indigenous people in Australia are embracing social media and digital citizenship in a technologically mediated global world. The benefits for Indigenous peoples and communities on social media are many and diverse. Social media offers a site for establishing and navigating identity, building and maintaining strong connections to family and community, and seeking and offering mutual support.

Recent research in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, with the support of Facebook Australia, has investigated the positive affordances of social media as well as the impacts of negative and harmful content on Indigenous peoples.

The investigation sought the perspectives of Indigenous peoples from across Australia. It was primarily concerned with identifying how negative content is conceptualised, identified, and dealt with from Indigenous Australian perspectives.

report from the findings of this research, published in November 2020, detailed the role social media plays in the lives of Indigenous individuals and communities. It also identified the ways that Indigenous peoples experience and navigate negative content.

The findings will assist policymakers and social media platforms to identify culturally specific forms of negative content and harmful speech to create a safer and more comfortable digital presence for Indigenous peoples.

The Report – ‘Indigenous peoples experiences of negative content on social media'

Participants were quick to identify the positive contributions social media makes in their lives. Importantly, 83% of respondents confirmed that they had positive experiences on social media on a daily basis. In fact, every respondent in the study noted that they had positive experiences at least weekly.

Participants suggested that accessing creative arts, Indigenous storytelling, and making contact with community members and services were among the most positive aspects. Another positive, often noted by participants, was the ability to engage in the political conversation. That is, to raise issues that are important to Indigenous people and that may not receive adequate attention in mainstream media.

Despite the positive opportunities, there exists a less comfortable side to social media which must be addressed. Bullying and harassment are having devastating effects on our young people and our communities. In 2019 Carlson and Frazer pointed to research that suggested “victims of cyberbullying are more likely to experience psychological ill-health, most seriously in the forms of depression, anxiety” and suicidal ideation.

Participants tended to be in agreeance that negative content was commonplace on social media. Sixty-three percent of respondents noted that they experienced negative content on social media on a daily basis and 97% suggested that they witnessed negative content at least weekly.

The negative findings, while not entirely unexpected, shed light on the types of harmful content that Indigenous peoples are facing including references to white supremacy, challenges to Indigenous identity, and lateral violence.

Much of this content is grounded in ways of talking about Indigenous people that are grounded in racist ideas that have pervaded Australian settler-colonial history. For example, assimilationist policies were based on the idea that Indigenous culture could be ‘bred out'. This line of thinking underpins assertions that Indigenous people who live in the cities or have fair skin are not genuinely Indigenous.

While it comes as no real surprise that harmful speech exists on (and off) social media. What remains troubling is that the cultural subtleties of negative content from an Indigenous perspective are not readily identified by non-indigenous platform moderators.

There remains a question: How can moderators and social media platforms, who have no direct experience of colonisation, pick up on such culturally nuanced negativity?

This research privileged Indigenous voices in the discussion about what needs to be done to move forward. Indigenous people identified a need to employ more Indigenous peoples in society generally – particularly in government, policy-making institutions, and education. Indigenous perspectives and voices, which for too long have been silenced or ignored, need to be heard again in these settings.

Participants suggested that social media platforms could also employ more Indigenous people to assist with listening to and learning from Indigenous communities in order to identify the cultural subtleties of harmful content online.

Indigenous people who contributed to this study had some advice for individuals too. They suggested people make use of some of the highly positive aspects of social media to raise their consciousness.

This week is National Reconciliation Week; there is no better time to make an effort to reach out via social media and connect with Indigenous peoples. Connect with Indigenous community pages and websites. Listen to Indigenous peoples’ opinions and perspectives. Engaging through social media will enable non-indigenous people and communities to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of people around them.

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