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date: 18 October 2017

Social Media, Vigilantism and Indigenous People in Australia

Summary and Keywords

The pervasiveness and prominence of mass media are key features of contemporary societies. Nowhere is this more relevant than when we look at the ubiquity of social media. In recent years, anticrime Facebook pages have appeared across all states and territories in Australia, and as our social spaces increasingly shift from the physical to the virtual realm, different forms of online cybervigilantism have emerged. This article explores the ways in which community justice and vigilantism in Australia are exercised through social media in the wider context of the racialized criminalization of Indigenous young people. We also discuss how new forms of media are used to produce and reproduce a racialized narrative of crime, which at the same time has the effect of legitimating violence against young Indigenous Australians. The text draws on a number of anticrime Facebook pages and finds that the very presence of these sites legitimates the beliefs of its members, while providing details about potential targets, most of whom are young people. We contend that the views expressed on these sites mirror, in more prosaic language, sentiments that are expressed in sections of the old media and among a number of ultraright politicians and groups. Further, these sites do little to question the broader ideological and political frameworks that present crime and disorder as being divorced from structural and historical conditions. There is, then, an assumed social consensus around what is being presented on these Facebook sites: namely, that overt racism and calls to vigilante violence are socially and politically acceptable. While there appears to be a direct link between the Facebook groups and incidents of violence in some cases, on a broader level, it is the constant reinforcement of an environment of racist violence that is most troubling.

Keywords: social media, vigilantism, Indigenous, Australia, youth offending, racial criminalization, racist violence

New Media and “Community Justice”

The pervasiveness and prominence of mass media are key features of contemporary societies. Nowhere is this more relevant than when we look at the ubiquity of social media. Its far-reaching and instantaneous nature has made it a key form of communication and information exchange. The expansion of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, has transformed the way that citizens experience victimization and crime and the way that they engage with, and respond to, the criminal justice system. As Salter (2013, p. 228) has argued, “old media platforms connected ‘one to many’ (that is, they connected the content producer to a mass audience); digital and online technology connects ‘many to many’ through a multi-modal exercise in mass communication.” Increasingly, the general public can and does play a role in criminal justice processes. Examples of this include cases of citizen policing, where members of the general public run their own parallel criminal investigations through online communities; sharing information; theorizing and debating about suspects; and engaging with law enforcement agencies.1

Research from Australia and elsewhere has found that citizens have engaged in various forms of informal social control for decades, by participating in community patrols, Neighborhood Watch groups, and citizen’s alliances (see, e.g., Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1985; Bennett, 1989; Hil & Dawes, 2000). Arguably, the most volatile variant of this “community justice” movement are vigilante groups. In this article, we explore how citizens in the digital age engage in particular forms of policing and community justice, and how this is increasingly facilitated and organized through the social media platform Facebook. The text analyzes the ways in which community justice and vigilantism are exercised through social media in the wider context of the racialized criminalization of Indigenous young people. We explore how new forms of media are used to produce and reproduce a racialized narrative of crime, which at the same time has the effect of legitimating violence against [young] Indigenous Australians.

Further, we argue that the racialized narrative of crime and crime control has a long history in Australia, and that the notion of “citizen policing” and its overlap with vigilantism have a particular resonance within the colonizing processes of settler colonial states such as Australia. In such states, the concept of citizenship and who were regarded as citizens was built on racialized boundaries of exclusion, with Indigenous peoples excluded through various laws, policies, and practices (Chesterman & Galligan, 1997). Indeed, the contemporary mass incarceration of Indigenous people seems to have only further entrenched the connection between racialized views of Indigenous people, including beliefs about their inherent criminality and unworthiness to be regarded as part of the demos (Cunneen & Tauri, 2016). In addition, the very notion of community justice needs to be deconstructed through an understanding of who does and does not constitute the community. Crime and crime control were deeply embedded in the experiences of colonization and subsequent nation-building, where the “imagined community” and the boundaries of the moral community within it largely excluded Indigenous peoples (Cunneen, 2001; Anderson, 1990; Pettman, 1996).

As Sumner (1990) has argued, the moral censure of crime attempts to unify and publicize a vision of the nation and its morality. Crime is seen as a threat to national unity—a sign of the “moral malaise threatening the constitutional integrity of the state” (Sumner, 1990, p. 49). Criminalization is a key part of building the nation through processes of exclusion—of keeping out the moral unworthy who lack commitment to the social contract. As we show in this article, social media provides a real-time way of publicizing a vision of moral unity—a unity that continually strives to overcome the ontological insecurity generated by a preoccupation with risk, uncertainty, and dangerousness (Beck, 1992) through the exclusion and sometimes violent control of racialized Others.

Vigilantism in the Digital Age

The proliferation of the Internet has created opportunities for new criminal offenses, which can be broadly classified into two categories: (a) technology-oriented offenses such as hacking, the distribution of malicious software (malware), and unauthorized modification or destruction of data; and (b) technology-facilitated offenses, such as theft, fraud, piracy, stalking, harassment, sexual abuse, and hate crimes (Jewkes, 2013; McLaughlin & Muncie, 2013). The relationship between new technologies and crime has become a growing focus for the discipline of criminology (see, e.g., McGovern, 2015). In particular, research has explored policing and new media, sexting, revenge porn, and rape victims’ usage of social networking sites (McGovern, 2014; Crofts, Lee, McGovern, & Milivojevic, 2015; Karaian, 2014; Henry & Powell, 2015, 2016; Salter, 2013). Salter (2013, p. 226) has noted that, unlike the one-directional nature of “old media” technologies, which perpetuated a monopoly of speech by social elites, social media has provided “unparalleled opportunities to form and participate in counter-publics,” which in his research focused on the dissemination by women of allegations of sexual violence.

However, little criminological research has explored how social media has both facilitated and changed the way that vigilantism is coordinated and carried out (Cunneen, forthcoming). Johnston’s 1996 definition of vigilantism continues to be the most widely accepted today. He defines vigilantism as follows (Johnston, 1996, p. 232):

A social movement giving rise to premeditated acts of force—or threatened force—by autonomous citizens. It arises as a reaction to the transgression of institutionalised norms by individuals or groups—or to their potential or imputed transgression, such acts are focused upon crime control and/or social control and aim to offer assurances (or “guarantees”) of security both to participants and to other members of a given established order.

Hil and Dawes (2000) have been critical of Johnson’s definition for failing to distinguish between types of vigilantism. They propose instead a typology that encompasses three vigilante responses to crime: reactive vigilantism, preventative vigilantism, and transvigilantism. Reactive vigilantism refers to situations where citizens take action in response to actual crime in a given locality; preventative vigilantism is anticipatory, insofar as it involves a planned response to an outbreak of crime that has yet to occur; and transvigilantism refers to the “slippage” of formally constituted groups, such as Neighborhood Watch, into vigilante-type activity (Hil & Dawes, 2000, p. 314).

These definitions of vigilantism were developed well before the rise of social media, with Facebook being established in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Tumblr in 2007, Instagram in 2010, and Snapchat in 2011. These definitions and typologies fail to capture the way that social media platforms have transformed how individuals and groups of individuals interact and engage with offenders, crime and criminal justice agencies, and indeed how criminal justice agencies interact with various members of the public through social media.

As our social spaces increasingly shift from the physical to the virtual realm, different forms of online cybervigilantism have emerged. Smallridge, Wagner, and Crowl (2016) identify different types of cybervigilantism: scam baiting, hacktivism, citizen stings, and crowdsourced vigilantism. Scam baiting occurs when would-be targets of online scams portray themselves as unwitting victims in an effort to waste the scammer’s time, or for their own amusement. Hacktivism involves computer hacking as a form of political activism, often with a human rights/social justice cause. An example of this is the denial of service attacks by the group Anonymous on the servers of Freedom Hosting, which was home to various child pornography sites. Citizen stings occur when information and evidence about an alleged offender is gathered and disseminated online and passed on to law enforcement agencies (Smallridge et al., 2016). Citizen stings that name, shame, and expose alleged pedophiles via social media (for example, the dating app Tinder, chat rooms, and so on) have in recent times become the most prominent example of community members taking the law into their own hands, with such activities reported widely in Australia (Hill & Wall, 2015; Olding, 2016; Mills, 2015). While the examples given here show how vigilante behavior may transpire online, other cases illustrate the role of social media, and Facebook in particular, in facilitating, organizing and coordinating vigilante behavior.

Smallridge et al. (2016) identify crowdsourced forms of vigilantism that are defined by their level of organization. Some may be short-lived groups established around a particular incident. For example, in 2010, 3,000 people joined a vigilante Facebook group, which called on members to kill a 19-year-old charged with the murder of a young girl in Queensland, on the day that it was established (Trenwith, 2010; Dunlevie, 2016). Others include “relatively organized civilian groups that rely on the expertise of initiated volunteers to carry out their activities” (Smallridge et al., 2016, p. 62).

Examples of targeting alleged pedophiles include the group Perverted Justice (http://www.perverted-justice.com/) in the United States, and groups in the United Kingdom such as Dark Justice (https://darkjustice.co.uk/) and Letzgo Hunting (https://www.facebook.com/LetzgoHuntingOfficial/[https://www.facebook.com/LetzgoHuntingOfficial/), the latter of which has over 15,000 Facebook followers (Kembrey, 2014; Booth, 2014). In 2013, Gary Cleary committed suicide after being publicly confronted by members of Letzgo Hunting and accused of being a pedophile (Fricker, 2013).

These crowdsourced groups show how the ubiquitous reach of social media has transformed human interactions to the extent that the physical presence of a more or less cohesive vigilante group is unnecessary. In all likelihood, the majority of the 15,000 people who joined the Letzgo Hunting Facebook group will never meet or have common interactions other than through the site. Yet simultaneously, the site has a presence that can legitimate the beliefs of its members and can provide very specific information (name, photo, residential address, place of employment) of targets for those who decide that vigilante action is necessary.

The Australian Context

In recent years, anticrime Facebook pages have appeared across all states and territories in Australia. Generally, these Facebook groups have emerged from a growing dissatisfaction with formal criminal justice processes and a perceived necessity for self-policing to address community crime concerns, particularly with regard to youth crime. It is worth noting that these Facebook groups may have certain positive functions for community members: they allow residents to share experiences of victimization, alert others about potential criminal behavior in the area, and provide a forum to engage with other residents about local issues affecting their community. However, at the same time, these groups largely present a racialized explanation of crime, legitimate the violent and racist rhetoric of members, and often provide specific details about potential targets of vigilantism. These issues are explored in more detail next.

Our research suggests that many of these Facebook groups have emerged in regional areas and often have around 4,000 members. However, some attract a significantly greater public following; for example, a Facebook group in the regional city of Townsville, Queensland, known as Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions (TCAD) has over 46,000 members, in a city with a residential population of approximately 190,000. In terms of the number of members, the most significant of these Facebook groups is the Moreton Crime Watch public Facebook group, with over 75,000 members, which primarily covers the Moreton Bay local government area of northern Brisbane. The Moreton Crime Watch has shared the names and photographs of 18 young people who have allegedly been involved in property offenses, as well as their associates. The Facebook post with the identifying information of these children and young people was shared over 3,000 times and received thousands of comments, including: “time these little grubs disappeared,” “soon enough this is going to be a bloody blood shed someones [sic] going to die,” “shoot every single one,” and “why don’t we all get a few dads together and teach these young want a be [sic] gansgters a f****** lesson I got about 8 blokes keen as f*** already let’s run these little scum bags out of town” (Moreton Crime Watch Facebook page, n.d.).

Facebook groups such as the Moreton Crime Watch that “name and shame” young people openly call for the use of violence against specifically identified young people. They undermine the intentions of formal prohibitions against publicizing the names and identity of juvenile offenders. For example, in Queensland, the Youth Justice Act of 1992 (301 Youth Justice Act 1992 (QLD) prohibits the publication of identifying information about a child, unless permitted by court order.

Racialization and Vigilantism

Many of the anticrime Facebook groups have an overtly racialized content (in particular, referring to Indigenous young people), and this racialization of crime through social media is the key focus of this article. Posts on these Facebook sites often refer to “ATSI” (an acronym referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that is regarded by many Indigenous people as offensive) and specifically describe Indigenous young people as “scumbags,” “ATSI ferals,” and “oxygen thieves.” Overwhelmingly, these posts emphasize the “racial” or physical appearance of these young people and are highly derogatory in nature (see Figs. 14).

Social Media, Vigilantism and Indigenous People in AustraliaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, December 3, 2016

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Figure 2. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, January 29, 2017

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Figure 3. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, October 24, 2016

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Figure 4. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, January 4, 2017

Comments are posted in real time, often mentioning the street where groups of young people are walking or riding bicycles, which potentially allows vigilantes to track them down easily. The comments also show the racialized nature of these groups. For example, on posts about unsupervised groups of Indigenous children, users from the TCAD and the Kalgoorlie Crimes Group wrote in a very nasty fashion, as shown in Figs. 57.

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Figure 5. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, January 12, 2017

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Figure 6. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, February 21, 2017

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Figure 7. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, January 29, 2017

Quite often, these posts encourage community members to take the law into their own hands, often making suggestions as to how alleged offenders should be dealt with (see Figs. 810).

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Figure 8. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, January 15–16, 2017

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Figure 9. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, November 9, 2016

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Figure 10. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, December 13, 2016

Another commentator stated, “I just watched PURGE again, the more I watch it the better the idea seems …” referring to a movie called The Purge. In this dystopian horror film, each year there is a 12-hour period during which all crimes—including murder—are legal. The film presents the annual cull of the city’s so-called undesirables as a necessary response to overcrowded prisons, as well as high crime and unemployment.

Comments like the ones shown in Figures 1114, which make clearly racist and extremely violent threats, are posted with apparent impunity, and the writers seem to be making no effort to conceal their identity (indicating a lack of shame about their sentiments). Commentators willingly display their full name, date, and place of birth, as well as the school they attended and quite often their place of employment as well. The point that we are making here is that there is an assumed social consensus around what is being stated on the sites: that overt racism and calls to violence are acceptable on sites that ostensibly are there to develop community responses to local crime problems.

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Figure 11. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, January 15, 2017

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Figure 12. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, January 16, 2017

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Figure 13. Townsville Crime, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, February 18, 2017

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Figure 14. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, December 5, 2016

Kalgoorlie

Anticrime Facebook groups in Kalgoorlie, in Western Australia (WA), provide a recent case study of the connection between racial violence, vigilantism, and local social media sites. The Facebook groups in Kalgoorlie became the focus of widespread public attention in 2016 following the death of a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy. Elijah Doughty was riding a motorcycle when he was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a 55-year-old non-Aboriginal man, in response to the alleged theft of the motorcycle. Violent protests took place between community members and police in the town of Kalgoorlie, when the driver of the vehicle that killed Elijah was charged with manslaughter (rather than murder) and Aboriginal people were denied entry to the courthouse when the accused first appeared.

Elijah Doughty’s death occurred against a backdrop of rising racial tensions and long-standing community divisions in Kalgoorlie. The population of Kalgoorlie sits at around 30,000 and with the two main anticrime Facebook groups at the time had about 18,000 members. Just days prior to this incident, posts on the Name Shame Crimes Kalgoorlie and the Kalgoorlie Crimes Whinge and Whine Facebook pages had encouraged residents to take control of local crime problems, with one user saying to “run the oxygen thieves off the road if you see them” (Purtill, 2016).

Following Elijah’s death, posts included “Condolences to the driver trying to get his bike back. Went a bit too far” (Graham, 2016) and “Good job you thieving bastard. Don’t think you’ll be touching another bike anytime soon ahaha [sic]. About time someone took it into their own hands hope it happens again” (Purtill, 2016; ABC Online, 2016). Another posted, “Aboriginals don’t deserve to live. That’s good that young boy got killed. Aboriginals don’t own Australia. Aboriginals live in the bush. They are filthy animals. They all need the death sentence” (Toohey, 2016).

While both the Name Shame Crimes Kalgoorlie and the Kalgoorlie Crimes Whinge and Whine Facebook pages were eventually shut down, new pages quickly popped up to take their place, filled with the same sentiments. For example, one post on the new Kalgoorlie Crimes Group page, which has nearly 5,000 members, continued with a racist tirade (see Fig. 15).

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Figure 15. Kalgoorlie Crimes Group Facebook page, February 7, 2017

WA media reported that since Elijah Doughty’s death and the ensuing riots, a number of Indigenous children from Kalgoorlie have been racially taunted, photographed, and chased by unknown white men in vehicles (Toohey, 2016).

Other Cases in Australia

Kalgoorlie is not the only place where vigilante responses are reported to have occurred and have been connected with anticrime Facebook sites. In 2016, it was reported in South Hedland, WA, that vigilantes in a car struck a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy riding a bicycle, leaving him seriously injured and requiring surgery (Taylor, 2016). This incident occurred following derogatory posts on Facebook about unsupervised Aboriginal young people at night (Taylor, 2016). In 2016, an Indigenous man was racially taunted and attacked in Townsville by a group of masked men (McMahon, 2016).

The TCAD has presented a well-rehearsed litany of complaints concerning young people and crime, including lenient judges and magistrates, “holiday camp” detention centers, and the lack of tough legislation. However, it is the racialized heart of the Facebook posts that is most pronounced and provides a deeper symbolic colonialist resonance to various claims, such as “the only thing that is going to deter these mongrels is a bullet”; or calls to train dogs to attack Indigenous young people; or proclamations of the need to bring the army into the streets and allow them “to use any force should they come across trouble,” as one post stated. In this atmosphere, vigilante responses are hardly surprising.

In some cases, online vigilantism is reported to be less impulsive—indeed, it appears to be highly organized. In December 2016, it was reported that the group Townsville Against Crime was conducting regular night patrols and pursuing stolen vehicles (Atkin, 2016). In the Northern Territory (NT), media reports stated that over 3,000 residents of Darwin and Palmerston had joined the online vigilante Facebook group Darwin Community Justice and had been patroling streets in response to youth crime (Smee, 2014; NT News, 2014). Also emerging from the NT is the Alice Springs Volunteer Force (ASVF), a hardcore paramilitary vigilante group that has received considerable media attention in recent years (McCue, 2015, News.com.au, 2017; The Feed SBS, 2015). The ASVF is modeled on the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. The UVF undertook a long campaign of armed violence in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century to combat Irish republicanism, and it is reportedly responsible for the deaths of up to 500 people (Riches & Palmowski, 2016). The ASVF’s founder, Gary Hall, who is originally from Northern Ireland, has argued that paramilitary vigilantism is the only way to address increasing levels of youth crime in Australia. Hall, who has referred to Aboriginal people as being “stuck in the 1700s,” has also stated (New Matilda, 2015):

It is true that the media over here (in Australia) have tried to portray the AVF and myself as racist. But the fact that race plays no part in who the organization targets … The Aborigines carry out their own form of punishment beatings by spearing the kneecap of someone who has wronged them. I don’t see what the fuss is about the AVF doing similar.

In a recruitment drive for the ASVF, Hall encouraged those with “firearms experience” to apply (New Matilda, 2015), and has also stated that “the organisation [ASVF] will carry out punishment beatings and shootings if needs be, and by that I mean kneecappings” (Barnes, 2015). In Victoria, the right-wing neo-Nazi vigilante group Soldiers of Odin has taken to patrolling the streets of Melbourne’s central business district and outer suburbs in response to increased levels of youth crime and heightened public concern around “youth gangs” (Vedelago & Houston, 2016; The Age, 2016).As of February 2017, the Soldiers of Odin Facebook group has a significant public following with over 16,000 supporters.

The Soldiers of Odin are an offshoot of a far-right anti-immigration group that was originally founded in Finland in late 2015 by a man with a long history as a white supremacist (Wilson, 2016). The group is primarily concerned with combating crime allegedly committed by young people of predominantly African descent.

Generally, Australian law enforcement agencies have issued cautions against vigilantism; however, at the same time, they have often expressed sympathy for the crime concerns that lie behind anticrime Facebook groups (Atkin, 2016; Collins, 2016). For this reason, there is an ambiguity in the relationship between the two, perhaps best encapsulated by the Moreton Crime Watch group, who claim that a “number of key police officers (unofficially and off-the-record)” supported the posting of photos and personal details of young people allegedly involved in offenses on the Facebook page. There are clear ethical, moral, and legal concerns around the creation of these groups. While the Facebook groups relate to the crime concerns of some people in some local communities, they are clearly much more than this. Incitement to violence, incitement to racial hatred, and unadulterated racism of the most base kind are also features of many of these sites. Certainly, these social media platforms and the violent language contained in them provide a platform for action for those individuals prepared to engage in vigilante violence.

The existence of Facebook pages filled with racist violence and hate speech against Indigenous Australians begs the question—how do such pages continue to exist? In short, social media platforms essentially regulate themselves. While Facebook has a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which prohibits users posting content “that is hate speech, threatening or … incites violence; or contains … gratuitous violence” (Facebook, 2015), it places the weight and responsibility of monitoring and reporting breaches on users themselves (Crawford & Gillespie, 2016; Hartley, Burgess, & Bruns, 2013; Van Dijck, 2013).

Social media platforms avoid liability for offensive user content if they remove the content only once they are alerted to it, and as Crawford and Gillespie (2016, p. 419) have argued, since knowledge renders platforms open to liability, there is little incentive for them to review content prior to it being reported. Moreover, these forums are regulated by administrators (who are members of the groups being monitored) tasked with deleting inappropriate and offensive content. It is a reasonable assumption that the comments referred to in this article have been deemed as acceptable content for public discussion, and in compliance with the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, by the site administrators. User-initiated reporting remains somewhat problematic in the context of anticrime Facebook pages, as quite often the views expressed in these forums are supported with many “likes” and are rarely removed, therefore implying that they are rarely reported.

Racism, Social Media, and the Mainstream Media

The racism and threats of violence that have become commonplace on anticrime Facebook pages are arguably apparent across social media more generally, perhaps reflecting the view that Australia has become “meaner, dumber, and more racist” over the last few decades (Street, 2017). In 2014, a Queensland woman was able to continue working as a senior constable after she launched a highly derogatory and racist attack on the Facebook page of an Aboriginal activist that included remarks referring to Indigenous Australians as “starving and abusing” children, and as “scum bags” and “oxygen thieves.” She wrote that Indigenous people should “[g]et off your arse get a job and start giving something back to your own and the greater community” (Cheer, 2014). The police officer posted the comments under the alias “Anne T Sharia”—a reference to anti-Sharia. She also stood as a candidate for the ultraright One Nation Party, which is opposed to Indigenous rights, immigration, and Muslims in Australia. In 2016, she was under investigation for “attending rostered duties whilst affected by alcohol, failing to properly store and secure equipment, failing to treat people with respect and dignity, and posting personal comments on social media site Facebook which conflict with her position as a member of the police force” (Millington, Briggs, & Eaton, 2016). In 2016, a man from New South Wales was given an eight-month suspended jail sentence after making abusive and racist comments against Aboriginal ex-Olympian Nova Peris, who was a Labor senator in the Federal Parliament at the time. The comments, made on Peris’s Facebook page, called her a “black c***” who should “go back to the bush and suck on witchity [sic] grubs and yams” (ABC News, 2016).

ABC reporter Norman Hermant (2015) has noted that when ABC News posts stories about Indigenous justice on Facebook, “the flood gates open.”In this instance, he had written a number of stories on an Amnesty International report that was critical of the levels of juvenile detention of Indigenous young people in Australia. The stories were posted on the ABC News Facebook page. Hermant detailed some of the many comments that were posted from people across Australia, including, “Well, if we start summery [sic] executions for these crimes they won’t need to go to jail,” and stated that “the racially charged and hostile opinions expressed in these comments are not marginal” (Hermant, 2015).

While social media platforms such as Facebook may be a source of the most unrestrained racial vilification of Indigenous Australians, one does not need to look far to find evidence of derogatory comments and both overt and casual racism in tabloid newspapers, radio, or television. Well-known media commentator Andrew Bolt’s contributions span across mainstream and social media, with a newspaper column, television program, and blog site. The blog site in particular not only features Bolt’s attacks on Indigenous people, but links to a site where unrestrained racist responses from contributors proliferate (Bolt, 2009). In 2011, he was brought before the Federal Court of Australia for breaching section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate” a person because of their “race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.” The prosecution of Bolt was related to pieces published in the Herald Sun attacking “light-skinned” Indigenous people. He was convicted, with the court finding that the articles were not written in good faith and contained factual errors (Eatock v Bolt, FCA 1103).

A recent example of racism in mainstream media is Bill Leak’s now-infamous cartoon, which originally appeared in the national newspaper The Australian. The cartoon was printed just days after the airing of the ABC Four Corners documentary Australia’s Shame, which showed physical abuse and teargassing of (primarily Indigenous) children incarcerated at the Alice Springs and Don Dale youth detention centers in the NT (Meldrum-Hanna, Fallon, & Worthington, 2016). The documentary prompted the federal government to announce a royal commission into the youth detention and child protection systems in the NT, where Indigenous children make up 97% of the youth custodial population (Vita, 2015).

Leak’s cartoon depicts an Indigenous child being handed by a police officer back to his father, who is shown to be so drunk and dysfunctional that he cannot recall the name of his own child. A racial discrimination case was lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission under section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, but was later withdrawn (Kerin, 2016). Western Australian police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan was criticized for “inflaming racial tensions” in Kalgoorlie, after describing Leak’s cartoon as an “accurate reflection” of some Aboriginal families in WA (Borrello, 2016).

Leak has a long history of publishing racially offensive cartoons both in relation to Indigenous people and the Muslim community in Australia. Many of his cartoons depict Aboriginal people as abusive, alcoholic, and sex offenders, with Aboriginal culture portrayed as dysfunctional (Brand, 2016).2

Law and Order “Common Sense”

The anticrime Facebook groups discussed in this article have the effect of disseminating particular views about the nature of crime and feeding into moral panic about young offenders. Within the comments can be found constant repetition of the key assumptions of what Hogg and Brown (1996) refer to as a populist “law and order common sense” and Garland (2001) sees as elements of the contemporary culture of crime control. These include the following assumptions (Hogg & Brown, 1996):

  • Crime rates are soaring.

  • Crime is worse than ever.

  • The criminal justice system is “soft on crime.”

  • The criminal justice system is biased in favor of criminals.

  • There should be more police, and they should have greater powers.

  • There should be tougher penalties from the courts.

  • Greater retribution against offenders will satisfy victims’ demands for justice.

In addition, members of these groups repeatedly state that young people are dealt with far too leniently and that Indigenous young people in particular receive preferential treatment by the criminal justice system—an assertion long found to be false (Cunneen, 2001). The repetitive nature of the key assumptions of “law and order commonsense” is evidenced by Hil and Dawes (2000), a study of Indigenous young people and vigilantism in Townsville that found almost identical concerns to those voiced on the Facebook groups today.

Some anticrime Facebook groups are engaged in political activism. For example, TCAD has consistently pushed for more punitive approaches to handling youth crime and have organized petitions, protests, and community meetings that have been featured prominently in the media (Anderson, 2014; Riley, 2016). TCAD actively advocated for punitive juvenile justice legislation that was introduced in Queensland in 2014. The creator of TCAD, Torhild Parkinson, was specifically referred to in the second reading speech of the 2014 legislation [Queensland Parliament Record of Proceedings (Hansard), 2014]. The punitive youth justice legislation was scrapped by the incoming government, but since then, TCAD has vigorously advocated for reinstating “naming and shaming” laws, introducing an offense of breach of bail, making all youth criminal histories available in adult courts, removing detention as a last resort, introducing boot camps for repeat offenders, and transferring youth offenders to adult correctional centers when they turn 17 if they have six months or more of their sentence remaining (Riley, 2016).

Members of TCAD have expressed support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. For example, they have endorsed One Nation’s election policy in WA of charging parents for the criminal behavior of their children if parents can be shown to be complicit in the child’s behavior (Gredley, 2017). On a recent visit to Townsville, Hanson met with Parkinson to discuss issues around youth crime in the area. A video of Hanson and Parkinson together were shared live on Hanson’s Facebook page, and following the meeting, Parkinson posted about their meeting on the TCAD page (see Fig. 16).

Social Media, Vigilantism and Indigenous People in AustraliaClick to view larger

Figure 16. Townsville Crimes, Alerts, & Discussions Facebook page, January 11, 2017

Members of the One Nation Party, including Hanson herself, are known for their ultraconservative views and policies regarding immigration and Indigenous Australians. In her maiden speech to parliament in 1996, Hanson claimed that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians” (Hanson, 2016). The sentiment of this statement was echoed in a 2016 speech to the Senate, where she asserted that Australia is now “in danger of being swamped by Muslims” and also made calls to cease Muslim immigration and ban the wearing of the burqa (Hanson, 2016). In another example, a One Nation candidate used his social media account to attack Muslims and black people, describing Muslims as “little sheet heads” and commenting, “you never here a good looking black person complain its the ugly blacks that start this nonsense Mohammed Ali was black and he loved it[sic]” (Koziol, 2017).

Racist and xenophobic remarks from elected government representatives have the effect of bringing such rhetoric into the mainstream, while also deepening community divisions and potentially leading to violence against already marginalized populations. This is further evidenced by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s remarks that mistakes had been made in resettling some Lebanese refugees in Australia in the 1970s, suggesting a tenuous link between their resettlement and terrorism-related offenses in Australia (Davidson, 2016).

Other actions by government officials include supporting organizations such as the anti-Islam Q Society, who recently held a fundraising dinner attended by Independent senator Cory Bernardi and Liberal National Party MP George Christensen (McIlroy, 2017). In response to the rise of xenophobic hate speech in Australia, the United Nations rapporteur has urged Australian political leaders to denounce racism in their political parties, and the Victorian government has announced a campaign to counter racist attacks, abuse, and discrimination in response to the rise of far-right groups (Karp, 2016; Tomazin, 2017).

The Historical Context of Racialized Crime

It is important to situate this analysis in Australia’s wider historical context. While the various anticrime Facebook sites tell a particular narrative that corresponds with the elements of what has been described as law and order “commonsense,” a dominant aspect of this narrative around young people and crime specifically pathologizes Indigenous Australians. The narrative feeds into a colonialist view that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is not only primitive, but intrinsically criminal. Indigenous Australians are repeatedly spoken of and depicted as “lazy” alcoholics who are unable to look after their children, rather than crime and offending being linked to long-standing social and economic inequalities within Australia.

Little consideration is given to the ongoing effects of colonization, dispossession, oppression, racism, and centuries of structural violence, which continue to be felt by Indigenous communities today. This is most starkly evidenced by Indigenous Australians being among the most marginalized people in the community, experiencing gaps across education, health, employment, income, and social and emotional well-being (Australian Government, 2016). Studies have also found that Indigenous Australians regularly experience racism and racial discrimination. A 2012 study by Victoria Health found that 97% of Aboriginal people surveyed had experienced racism in the previous 12 months (VicHealth, 2012), while a national survey by Reconciliation Australia (2017) found that 46% of Indigenous people had experienced racial prejudice in the previous six months.

As we have argued elsewhere, the contemporary structural disadvantage and racism faced by Indigenous communities did not simply “fall from the sky”—it was created through laws, policies, and practices as a core part of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in settler colonial states (Cunneen & Tauri, 2016). Specifically in the context of vigilantism, there is a long history of settler and state violence against Indigenous people. While it is beyond the scope of this article to recount that violence, which has been dealt with comprehensively by historians (e.g., Elder, 1988; Neal, 1991; Owen, 2016; Reynolds, 1987; Roberts, 2005), it is important to acknowledge that settlers, acting either independently or alongside police forces, were extensively involved in the murder of Indigenous peoples through punitive expeditions, poisonings, and other forms of indiscriminate killing. Much of this killing was ignored by authorities and went unpunished (for examples in WA, see Owen, 2016) and constituted what at least one historian has referred to as “vigilante violence” (Reynolds, 1987, p. 40). Violence was seen as a necessary disciplinary process both for those Aboriginal people engaged in the pastoral industry and those being forced off their traditional lands. It was justified by racialized understandings of Indigenous people as inferior primitive peoples, treacherous and untrustworthy (HREOC, 1991).

The benchmark for more contemporary discussions of racist violence is the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) 1991 National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia. Although it predates the rise of social media, the conclusions from the inquiry remain relevant today (HREOC, 1991, p. 121):

The portrayal of Aboriginal people as a law and order problem, as a group to be feared, or as a group outside assumed socially homogenous values provides legitimacy for acts of racist violence.

The inquiry, which took evidence and held public hearings throughout Australia found that Indigenous organizations and individuals were subjected to racist violence on a wide scale. Organizations such as Aboriginal Land Councils had been vandalized, members threatened, and, in some cases, premises firebombed. The inquiry noted the following (HREOC, 1991, p. 72):

Acts of racist violence against Aboriginal organisations or against activities organized to promote Aboriginal rights are significant because they represent a resort to violence as a means of opposing legitimate political expression.

Various racist literature called for vigilante violence against Aboriginal people. There were also numerous accounts from across Australia of racist violence against individuals, including personal violence, attacks on property, racist abuse, and harassment. For example, in Alice Springs, there were complaints that

Aboriginal people were being terrorised by groups of whites. Such incidents involved the alleged rape of Aboriginal teenage girls, an alleged poisoning of Aboriginal men in which five people died, the dousing [in motor oil] and painting of Aborigines. (HREOC, 1991, p. 76)

In some cases, the violence was carried out by assailants wearing Ku Klux Klan (KKK) uniforms. While there was no evidence at the time that the KKK existed at an organizational level in Australia, it was clear that “individuals in particular areas throughout Australia have taken on the trappings of the KKK to intimidate and threaten Aboriginal people” (HREOC, 1991, pp. 78–79).

The inquiry found that racist violence, intimidation, and harassment were a “endemic problem for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in all Australian States and Territories.” Racist violence arose because Indigenous people faced racism “in almost every aspect of their daily lives” and as such, racist violence was not a problem simply associated with the “isolated acts of maladjusted individuals” (HREOC, 1991, p. 387). Many of the regions and towns where racist events were specifically identified by the inquiry are also those that have been identified with anticrime Facebook groups espousing racist violence today (such as Townsville).

Social Media and the Politics of Discourse

We set out in this article to explore how social media has both facilitated and changed the way that vigilante responses to crime are organized and conducted. While it might be reasoned that in some cases, social media provides the opportunity to disseminate “counter-hegemonic discourses” in relation to crime (Salter, 2013, p. 226), we would argue that the anticrime Facebook pages that we have examined here are far more ambivalent. Indeed, we do not regard them as counterhegemonic: they are quite the opposite. They feed into well-worn tropes concerning populist views of law and order. More deeply, they reproduce a mostly racialized explanation of crime; in fact, on many anticrime Facebook sites, the very presence of Indigenous youth in public is presented as synonymous with crime. Such a view reproduces a long-running motif of colonial ideology within Australia—namely, that Indigenous people are a racially inferior, crime-prone group who deserve either incarceration or permanent removal. We also show racialized links to other minority groups, including people of Islamic faith and young African Australians.

Although not the focus of this article, it is important to note that social media has developed as an important political tool for strengthening and amplifying the voices of Indigenous Australians, who use new digital technologies to connect, debate, advocate, and speak on their own terms about the issues that are affecting them (Latimore & Galbraith, 2013). Social media sites have created new opportunities for counterhegemonic discourse and counterracist mobilization by Indigenous people into spaces that have historically been devoid of Indigenous voices (i.e. mainstream media). For example, Indigenous X began in 2012 as a rotating Twitter account hosted by a different Indigenous Australian every week; it has now expanded into other social media and regularly publishes articles for The Guardian (Carlson, 2016, 2017). Social media proved crucial to the #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA campaign against the proposed government closure of up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities, which began from a single Facebook post from residents of the Wangkatjungka, a remote Aboriginal community (Carlson, 2016). The campaign received international coverage and led to thousands marching in the streets in protest across Australia.

The use of social media as a tool for Indigenous political activism is not unique to Australia. The Canadian group Idle No More was started in 2012 by Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, and Sheelah McLean and has grown to be one of the largest Indigenous mass movements in Canadian history, coordinating rallies and protests via social media against government policies that impact collective rights and environmental protections (see http://www.idlenomore.ca/story).

Social media provides a real-time way of publicizing a vision of moral unity—a unity achieved through the exclusion and sometimes violent control of racialized Others. The Facebook groups examined in this article present themselves as the voice of the common people. Unhindered by so-called political correctness or other institutional or social restraints, these groups can use social media to say what they think: they are able to name and shame the racialized outsiders who not only allegedly commit crimes, but who are defined as morally unworthy, as a racial group (e.g., “Aboriginals don’t deserve to live”; “They are selfish, drunk, and abusive animals”; “[They are] starving and abusing their children”), are unproductive (e.g., “Get off your arse get a job”), are resentful and untrustworthy (e.g., “They have no respect for white people”), and, most telling of all, are biologically inferior and subhuman (e.g., “I’m sick of the look and smell of them”; “They are filthy animals”).

We wonder, then, what new “dialogical opportunities” are being opened up by social media when it comes to anticrime Facebook groups. We contend that the views expressed on these sites mirror, in more prosaic language, sentiments that are expressed in sections of the old media and among a number of ultraright politicians and groups. Further, these sites do little to question the broader ideological and political frameworks that present crime and disorder in a way divorced from structural and historical conditions.

There is, then, an assumed social consensus around what is being presented on the Facebook sites: that overt racism and calls to vigilante violence are socially and politically acceptable. The very presence of these sites legitimates the beliefs of its members while at the same time providing details about potential targets, most of whom are young people. While in some cases there appears to be a direct link between the Facebook groups and incidents of violence, at a broader level, it is the constant reinforcement of an environment of racist violence that is the most troubling.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback and helpful comments.

This research derives from the Comparative Youth Penalty Project, which is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant (Grant Number DP 130100184).

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Notes:

(1.) For analysis of how citizens engaged in “citizen policing” in relation to the Boston Marathon bombings, see Nhan et al. (2015).

(2.) A collection of Leak’s cartoons depicting Indigenous Australians can be viewed here: https://newmatilda.com/2016/08/04/artistic-arse-the-great-racist-works-of-cartoonist-bill-leak/.