Bronwyn Carlson

Bronwyn Carlson: Why are Indigenous people such avid users of social media?

Author: Bronwyn Carlson

Indigenous Social Media users

‘For some, social media provides a way to learn and express their Indigenous identity in a safe space.’ Photograph: Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images

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Bronwyn Carlson is an associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong.

Indigenous people use social media at a rate higher than non-Indigenous people, and this is the case right across the country. My research on social media, funded by the Australian Research Council, reveals that for most Indigenous people, social media is an everyday activity. Many participants in the study reported they would be “devastated” if social media was no longer available. One participant claimed he’d feel “disoriented” without it, while another described the prospect as a definite “sense of loss.”

Over the past three years of my research, I’ve found some uniquely Indigenous activities on social media when speaking to people across the country. While many non-Indigenous youth are dropping social media platforms like Facebook because their parents have profiles, Indigenous youth are actively engaging with older generations and maintaining intergenerational connections. The study also included older Indigenous people who reported that social media provided them with cultural and family connectivity that was important to them.

Sharing of Indigenous culture is a regular activity on social media, including private groups where traditional language is being revitalised. For some, social media provides a way to learn and express their Indigenous identity in a safe space, away from any possible conflict. One method used in the project was an online social media-driven survey. In it, 73% of the survey respondents stated that social media helped them express their identity, while 81% indicated that they felt a sense of being a member of an Indigenous community online via social media.

One participant stated:

We can’t undervalue these sorts of virtual communities that we set up … they’ve got meaning and, you know, they do fill a space. They break down those barriers of land and distance in order to actually link people together. So people do form networks and friendships and inspire each other through it. Like I said, social media is real life now.

Bronwyn Carlson

Bronwyn Carlson. Photo: Mark Newsham

Unfortunately, most participants reported racism and other forms of abuse as one of the challenges they continue to face when using social media. Many said they felt overwhelmed and anxious when faced with racist comments and some reported that they regulated their own comments online so as not to attract racist remarks. Another problematic issue identified by Indigenous users is the constant flow of news, shared posts and other information reporting on violence and traumatic events involving Indigenous people, both in Australia and around the world.

There is a paucity of research that examines the individual and collective effects of being subjected to ongoing and often consistent racial discrimination and traumatic events on social media. For many Indigenous populations, centuries of colonial policies and practices aimed at eradicating cultural identity has led to severe trauma that is being passed through the generations.

Social media has in many ways bridged distances and is, as the founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Barlow, suggests, a “world that is both everywhere and nowhere”. In this way, Indigenous populations worldwide are interacting online and supporting Indigenous issues and causes in a global collective. Given the similarities of experiences with colonisation, Indigenous peoples can relate to, engage with and support each other on social media. However, research also confirms that the public can be traumatised by indirect exposure to certain events through social media.

For readers interested in learning more about Indigenous people and trauma on social media, I have two article that will soon be published. The first is a chapter in the forthcoming IndigenousX anthology titled, “#Overwhelmed: Juggling the stress and positive potential of social media IRL”, and the second, titled “Trauma, Shared Recognition and Indigenous Resistance on Social media” will be published in a special May issue of the Australasian Journal of Information Systems.

The issue of how to deal with rolling traumatic events and posts on social media will also be addressed during a July workshop which I will host. Any readers interested in participating in the discussion may contact me @BronwynCarlson.

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