Exploring the Attributes That Influence the Purchase of Indigenous Art and Souvenirs


What attributes influence a consumer’s intention to purchase Indigenous art and souvenirs? Research has suggested ‘perception of authenticity’ motivates some consumers to seek out and purchase such products. However, authenticity may relate to the marker/artist, aesthetics of the design, or material use. These attributes are identified through the extant literature in indigenous art and souvenirs. The purpose of this research project is to determine what influences perceptions of authenticity, leading to purchase intention.

1: Subject area under investigation

In the 2018-19 financial year, travel and tourism directly contributed over AU$2 trillion to the global economy, and over AU$60 billion to the Australian economy, or just over three per cent of the national GDP (Tourism Australia, 2020). “Material things have a particular value in the leisure and tourism markets as they are absolutely necessary for human agency and performativity in them” (Muecke and Wergin, 2014); as evidenced by the fact that shopping is the number one leisure activity performed by tourists (Wang et al. 2018), with 30 per cent to 33 per cent of overall travel expenses going to souvenirs (Swanson & Horridge, 2002).

Indigenous cultural tourism has had an important place in global and domestic tourism product offering and marketing activities for many decades (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019), and while demand for Indigenous souvenir and art products has been decreasing in Australia in the past 20 years (Tourism Australia, 2016), modern holiday travel offers tourists the appealing opportunity for self-definition and enhancement of social prestige through the collection and display of Indigenous souvenirs and art (Kuhn, 2020).

Today’s relative ease of travel, multitude of travel options, efficient production techniques and digital information exchange have brought consumers and the tourism goods and experiences they seek closer than ever before, but the collection of Indigenous souvenirs and cultural objects is not a recent phenomenon in Western culture. Despite Twain (1897) declaring, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, many industrially- and technologically-advanced, colonialist nations believed that their successes in industry accorded their colonial ambition a natural authority, and it was therefore “their duty to spread their version of civilisation [and] in return, they would capture the wealth of the colonised lands” (Pascoe, 2014).

While global colonial powers were indulging in mass cultural appropriation as they expanded their empires, on the Grand Tours of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, decorative arts were gathered across continental Europe and transformed for commercial purposes far from their founding cultures. In 1874, glass designer Harry Powell sketched glass vessels from Italian, German, Dutch and French Renaissance art to produce copied designs to be sold in England (Franklin, 2018). Eighteenth-century English potter and glass-maker Josiah Wedgewood was similarly inspired by art souvenirs collected by tourists; copying the design of Roman glass cameos to be recreated and sold en masse (Franklin, 2018). Museums in Western cultures also have large collections of Indigenous objects: a Sámi ceremonial drum in the British Museum probably came to the British Isles already in the late 17th or early 18th century. The mere size indicates it might have been made for display and as a souvenir rather than as a sacred ritual artefact (Nordin & Ojala, 2017).

Today, with a greater complexity of consumer options comes a greater complexity of decision-making and evaluation, as goods and services are seen as commodities that offer “potential for conspicuous consumption and a leverage point for self-definition and self-consolidation in the social hierarchy (Boley et al., 2018). It is within this realm that the concept of consumer perceptions of authenticity and purchase intention should be explored.

Authenticity is an important dimension that consumers employ to evaluate goods and experiences. Since MacCannell (1973) first applied the concept of authenticity to tourism, the relationship has been explored to the extent that is now known that even children are aware of authenticity and value originals more than duplicates (Newman, 2019). The search for authenticity drives consumer preferences across a range of areas, including souvenirs, art, clothing, luxury goods, collectables, food, and everyday household items (Newman, 2019).

While it can be argued that authenticity is a social construct, and consumer perceptions of authenticity are shaped by the “social and cultural conditions under which the product was produced” (Littrell et al., 1993), or “projected onto toured objects by tourists or tourism producers in terms of their imagery, expectations, preference, beliefs, powers, etc.” (Newman, 2019), the creation of authenticity is vital to tourism as a device that prompts desire and the production of value.

In its simplest form, the souvenir is a reminder of a tourist’s experience of a place (Wilkins, 2011) or can be part of an authentic experience that also comes through such activities as eating food prepared in traditional ways or experiencing local people’s lifestyles (Yi et al., 2017). However; the intentions behind souvenir purchase can be much more complex and varied. To achieve success in tourism retailing, retailers must understand tourists and meet their needs in terms of the attributes consumers attach to objects to be convinced enough to purchase them as physical reminders of the place or places they have visited. Studies have explored these attached attributes and the way in which items are marketed to meet expectations, finding that the most important attributes of souvenirs are often appealing colours and design, workmanship or techniques of high quality, being able to display the item in the home, cost, making a good gift, the inclusion of a name, design, or representation of the place visited (Amaro et al, 2020), workmanship, sensuous appreciation, cultural linkage and ease of handling (Plant et al, 2019, Hu and Hong, 2007).

Why all of this matters is that the outcomes of these motivations, behaviours and choices – good or bad, intentional or unintentional – have wide-reaching and long-lasting consequences for entire cultures and peoples. Despite the fact that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declares that Indigenous peoples have the “right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage”, “to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage”; and the “right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures”; to further advance their economic and social conditions including employment (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2012), consumers’ search for perceived authenticity in the tourism souvenir and art markets has meant that many Indigenous cultures have been exploited and undermined, with negative outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Australia and worldwide. In some cases, legal action has had to be taken to address this exploitation, although it has similarly been the case that cultural and ethical issues or concerns around the production and marketing of Indigenous objects have been overlooked compared to factors related to legislative compliance (Plant et al, 2019).

A recent Federal Government Inquiry ended up with legal proceedings being brought against a well-known souvenir distributor who was found to have been mislabelling products to deceive consumers attempting to make ethical purchases (Plant et al, 2019). The products at the centre of the case were represented to be ‘associated with Australian Aboriginal Art’ and using words in the labels including ‘Aboriginal Art, ‘genuine’, and ‘Australia’ (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 2018) . Several products were featured in the case including loose boomerangs, boxed boomerangs, bull-roarers, didgeridoos and message stones.

Choices made at the individual consumer level have macro-level ramifications.

2: What do we currently know. What is the latest research from leading academic journals telling us about this area?

Indigenous souvenirs and art are emotional and affective objects that often embody knowledge, meanings, skills and identity (Kuhn, 2020). In Australia and many other places, Indigenous art is centred on storytelling; Australian Aboriginal people use art to chronicle and convey knowledge of their land, events and beliefs, and to pass on information to preserve their culture (Williams & Biggemann, 2020). Indigenous souvenirs and artworks are items which can symbolise and materialise the consumer’s experience; they have “the ability to ‘absorb’ tourists’ narratives and express individual travel experience to social others [and] induce conversations about travel experience in a social setting” (Kuhn, 2020).

Historically, the collection of Indigenous materials has been a mechanism of colonial power; with objectives ranging from posthumous retribution for the purported wrongs of a person or group to the collection of souvenirs, curios and trophies (Prictor et al, 2020). This collection of knowledge about cultures and environments regarded as “other” (Whittle, 2016) – knowledge which Said (1978) described as being “reinforced by colonial encounter as well as by the widespread interest in the alien and unusual” – is a legacy presenting many complex challenges today. Many Indigenous peoples’ cultures, stories and traditions have become “spaces of competing values, requiring stakeholders to engage in a complex weighing up of priorities” (Prictor et al., 2020).

In today’s consumer markets, questions of authenticity, identity and Indigenous heritage weave through everything that we know about this subject, as consumers’ desire to see, experience, know and own Indigenous souvenirs and art can be driven by the need for perceived ‘authentic’ interactions with places and cultures (Franklin, 2018).

The most important product attributes for consumers of Indigenous souvenirs and art are authenticity and a tie between product and the local areas (Trivedi et al., 2020). Various definitions of authenticity linked to this subject matter include terms like uniqueness, genuineness, cultural and history integrity, artistry, as well as aesthetics and use of souvenir. Authentic souvenirs should have a distinct characteristic difficult to find in tourists’ everyday lives (Trivedi et al., 2020).

Authenticity can be “projected onto toured objects by tourists or tourism producers in terms of their imagery, expectations, preference, beliefs, powers, etc.” (Newman, 2019) in three main ways: historical authenticity, categorical authenticity and values authenticity (Newman, 2019. Historical authenticity relates to the perception of the object embodying the physical essence of some valued source, categorical authenticity relates to whether the object or experience conforms to the required qualities of a particular category or type, and values authenticity relates to whether the object or experience reflects a deep, essential value.

At the micro level, such objects, as self-representative symbols, “must be noticed by others, they must characteristically evoke certain specifiable reactions from others, and they must be in control of the individual in order to be effective vehicles for self-expression” (Kuhn, 2020), as “souvenirs and commodified arts or handicrafts are directly and indirectly tied to notions of ethnicity, gender, authenticity, and cultural heritage” (King, 2016).

While it is perhaps the multifaceted capabilities that consumers associate with Indigenous objects that enable them to animate them with “affects and emotions, feelings of remembrance, affection, appreciation and loss” (Haldrup, 2017), it can also be argued that, for an individual consumer, the acquisition of Indigenous souvenirs or art has become a simplified affair. Consumers’ perception of an Indigenous object is specifically grounded in the visuality of it with less concern associated with authenticity in design. Many consumers perceive “contemporary design combined with Indigenous markers to be more authentic than traditional design” (Xie et al., 2012) as the “apparent traditionalism of Aboriginal souvenirs does not determine the degree of authenticity” (Xie et al., 2012). While an anthropologist will tend to explore what an Indigenous object, for example, a totem pole, means, to most tourists totem poles are “usually perceived as exotic undifferentiated structures; they serve to mark out spaces to which tourists are guided in order to spend money” (King, 2016), as well as providing something to photograph, as a record of their engagement with ‘otherness’ (King, 2016).

Similarly, it has been found that a consumer’s nationality and level of familiarity with the culture from which they are purchasing a souvenir or art piece can heavily affect perceptions of authenticity based on simply on an object’s appearance (Elomba & Yun, 2017). Using pictorial analysis, a study applied six attributes of souvenir authenticity: material, presentation, features, image, feelings, and spirit or interpretation to tourists in South Korea, finding that the most effective marketing methods should involve souvenir suppliers focussing on “the overall appearance and image of souvenirs … considering these six characteristics of souvenirs’ authenticity” (Elomba & Yun, 2017).

The subcategory of existential authenticity, focussing on individuals’ emotions actions, has been explored, with a heavy focus on hosts’ and guests’ interpretations of place and space (Yi et al., 2016). Wang (1999) argued that existential authenticity is a state of mind that enables an individual to feel free, within certain environments, to engage in activities they would normally avoid because of their social roles. Some tourists may encounter local artisans or craftspeople and local craftwork and folk art, and become consumers of these experiences, objects or activities, which are not experienced by tourists in their daily lives but are associated with tourist excursions. Experiencing these things away from their natural environment and social rules allows them to be “true to themselves and not to be rigidly constrained by their social roles” (Yi et al. 2017)

Consumers’ perceptions of authenticity have a major role to play in how Indigenous souvenirs and art produced for, and interact with, the demands of the tourism industry and the compulsion to transform them into local, national and international commodities. The consumption of Indigenous souvenirs and art should be explored from two perspectives: the tourist’s or consumer’s perspective, which is that souvenirs are “tangible objects or intangible experiences that are symbolic reminders of an event or experience” (Sthapit, 2018) and the supplier’s perspective, which is that souvenirs are “tourism commodities that can be found in souvenir shops and handicraft markets” (Sthapit, 2018). Retailers can “establish product authenticity by simply making tourists recognize that a souvenir is hand-made locally which has an impact on souvenir buying intentions and sales representatives should not pressure tourists to buy, but spend time explaining the item’s history and truthfully describe the item’s value” (Trivedi et al., 2020).

It is “apparent that such items provide evidence of the conspicuous side of tourism consumption” (Kuhn, 2020) as attitudes toward and willingness to sell mass-produced souvenirs are more typical of souvenir vendors because of limited business resources (Soukhathammavong & Park, 2018). Challenges exist, in particular, due to a fierce competition between local souvenir producers and international traders in many local markets (King, 2016), bringing about the potential of unethical practices in souvenir and art production, as well as consumption. Consumers can consciously indulge in ethical and unethical purchasing behaviour, and that they “often compensate for unethical choices by making ethical choices later on (and vice versa)” (Gregory-Smith, 2013). Indeed, there is a bulk of evidence that sustainable travelling is not an “all or nothing” matter (Passafaro, 2019), but some consumers can display a greater or lesser commitment to the green cause. The definition of customer-perceived value describes as “an exchange between total perceived benefits the consumer receives and sacrifices in quality and the price the customer makes to obtain a good or service” (Wang et al., 2018).

This “deception and decoupling from social sustainability relating to human rights and the cultural paradigm from a production perspective” (Plant et. al, 2019) and unethical choices made by individual consumers can have many negative outcomes for Indigenous businesses and individuals seeking to enter the souvenir or art industry as a means of economic inclusion (Plant et al., 2019). The development of nomenclature for deception relating to ethical production and consumption within supply chain literature “demonstrates its prevalence in contemporary business” (Dadush, 2018). Green-washing and blue-washing (Dadush, 2018) describes “the practice of misleading consumers by misrepresenting the degree to which a product or service is environmentally (green) or socially (blue) sustainable” (Dadush, 2018).

Tourists’ behaviour depends on the intensity of the experiences sought or gained Yankholmes and McKercher (2015) and there is a distinct relationship between souvenir shopping and travel experience (Kong & Chang, 2016). Consumer perception and knowledge of the authenticity of Indigenous objects tends to correlate with figures showing numbers of tourists who wished to experience an Indigenous tourism experience (Pabel et al., 2017). A study showed that “a majority (77.5%) of Indigenous artefacts were purchased by visitors who did not participate in an Indigenous tourism activity” (Pabel et al., 2017). These findings have important and potentially wide-reaching implications for the development of future Indigenous tourism and shopping experiences as the context in which a product was purchased increases its perceived value (Weaver, 2013).

3: What don’t we know (gaps). At the end of such journals, academics will speak of current limitations or future research direction. What are these?

While research into the meanings and values behind souvenirs and consumer purchase intention has increased in recent years, the specifics of self-expression through souvenirs have not been extensively investigated (Kuhn, 2020). The research findings of “touristic self-presentation through souvenirs in this study is limited to interpretations of young, Western students and cannot be unequivocally applied to the larger population of tourists” (Kuhn, 2020). The reflective process or the “active construction of self-messages by the tourist” have not been analysed in great detail (Kuhn, 2020).

Many studies focus on tourists’ personal reflections on what their purchases tell other people about themselves, but only involving souvenirs or artwork willing to be displayed in the home or in another place where it is visually noticed. It is important that all souvenir purchase is actively reflected upon, not just the objects that reflect how a consumer’s behaviour is “noticed and valuated by social others” (Kuhn, 2020).

Tourism literature, in exploring the individual marketing aspects that affect consumer buying intention, including product attributes, store attributes and souvenir attributes, have done little to investigate the impact of how the relationships between multiple attributes at once affect consumer perceptions (Wang et al., 2018). Passafaro (2019) points out that there is no universally accepted method of conceptualizing and investigating attitudes, noting that social psychologists “have been working hard to disentangle the many possible determinants of individual and group behaviour … [including] … values, world views, norms, identity, traits and others, all of which researchers should learn to distinguish”. One of the most challenging issues in attitude research is the controversial relationship with behaviour (Passafaro, 2019).

A majority of domestic and international tourists want relatively inexpensive, urban activities; this particularly applies to mainstream, tour group-operated package holidays and similar types of travel. Other types of tourism, such as adventure, art, cultural and environmental tourism “attract far smaller numbers of visitors; but these are the types of tourist attractions run by Indigenous operators” (Langton, 2018). There is a need to better understand the factors preventing greater numbers of people participating in Indigenous tourism activities. As the “majority (77.5%) of Indigenous artefacts [are] purchased by visitors who did not participate in an Indigenous tourism activity” (Pabel et al., 2017), and thus driving the “deception and decoupling from social sustainability relating to human rights and the cultural paradigm from a production perspective” (Plant et. al, 2019), we need to better understand just what is preventing them from participating in Indigenous tourism. It would not be surprising if “embodied cognition” proved a fruitful line of investigation for understanding the attitude–behaviour gap in ethical tourism as well (Oleksy & Wnuk 2016, Passafaro, 2019).

Existing studies “have yet to fully uncover the reasons for the low market appeal of Indigenous tourism” (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019). In recent years, criticism has been levelled at government agencies from a range of sources for “over-promising” (Ruhanen et al., 2015) in terms of the benefits of tourism and creating expectations which have not lived up to consumer demand. The results of this has damaged Indigenous peoples’ abilities to develop and maintain tourism businesses (Ruhanen et al., 2015). At the same time, a study found that between 60% and 80% of international visitors “who were either interested in experiencing or had experienced an Indigenous tourism product believed they had been exposed to very little advertising” (Ruhanen et al., 2015). Understanding non-visitors image and perceptions of Indigenous people and Indigenous tourism is an important first step and data collection methods such as psycho-physiological techniques may be the best way to move forward in this space (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019). There may be a case for “focusing on image recovery and reputation management of Indigenous tourism” (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019).

A way of looking at how cultural stories are represented in marketing realms could be through the lens of story marketing. Story marketing is an area that has not been widely explored in relation to this area and may contribute to attitude–behaviour incongruence caused by conflict among the various attitude components (cognitive, affective, and behavioural) (Passafaro, 2019). Story marketing is a marketing strategy that requires the creation of a brand experience through a variety of methods, including audio, visual and immersive storytelling “whereby the customer becomes the centre of the story to drive profitable engagement” (The Business of Story, 2020). Aspects of story marketing, including informativeness, credibility and entertainment positively influence the perception of authenticity of the place of origin of a souvenir or artwork, and thus the marketability of a product (Trivedi et al., 2020). Story marketing positively influences the purchase intentions of products such as wine, however; as an independent variable, it has not been examined in the context of buying cultural products (Trivedi et al., 2020). Hence, if a marketer wishes to create a positioning strategy for cultural products, they should frame it by using the medium of story marketing (Trivedi et al, 2020). This is an avenue for further research that could be useful. There is a need to “develop the scale of story marketing since the existing scale of story marketing is very ambiguous in nature” (Li, 2014).

As with many decisions made for and about Indigenous peoples, stories and cultures, in Australia in particular, conclusions are often drawn without the involvement, input and expertise of Indigenous peoples. This needs to change. Many studies in this subject area have been quite severely limited due to the nature of their research design and data collection (Wang et al., 2018, Amaro et al., 2020, Deng et al., 2020), with the lack of cross-validation of structural relationships in other cultures and other settings. Convenience sampling is often undertaken, with respondents being a “young and homogeneous group”, and therefore with opinions not necessarily representative of the overall population (Wang et al., 2018), or conclusions drawn from samples that are geographically limited to one location (Amaro et al., 2020).

Similarly, the role played by Indigenous peoples in the development of culturally appropriate manufacturing, marketing and sustainability practices is generally minor. Plant et al. (2019) explored this to a certain extent, highlighting “where Indigenous people should be involved in the development chain for other non-Indigenous firms selling like-for-like products so as to avoid infringing on human rights as it relates to commodification of culture”, but knowledge of this area could benefit from more research and exploration. A good example is the case of the inuksuk; an Inuit stone cairn “appropriated as a signifier of ‘Canadianness’ for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and repeatedly commodified for souvenirs and tourism campaigns, which features in the ‘An Amazing Gift’ commercial, along with the ecstatic, smiling face of an Inuit woman, as a kind of Indigenous ‘stamp of approval’” (Dean & Failler, 2019). The advert would suggest that Indigenous people appreciate token gestures of inclusion within the colonial nation, despite historic and ongoing dispossession and social degradation they have faced. Is this true or a total façade?

4: How will the research fill these gaps?

The protection of Indigenous people’s heritages and cultures is a human right and the realm of the protection and strengthening of Indigenous cultural rights is an area “still ripe for meaningful exploration and achievement” (Roy, 2015). Therefore, this work will be focussed on this idea, covering three main areas of exploration:

(a) To explore consumers’ perceptions of the authenticity of Indigenous objects as a reflection or projection of self and the categorisation or grouping of consumers by retailers and manufacturers as a result

Buying souvenirs is important to tourists as tangible evidence of their travel experience (Cho & Lee, 2012), with global sales annually in the billions of dollars. Purchasing behaviour differs depending on whether consumers buy an item for themselves or for another person (Kim & Littrell, 2001) and tourists’ personal characteristics are significant factors in their intentions to buy souvenirs.

There is a growing literature in psychology which suggests that consumers are highly attuned to whether their choices and behaviours are aligned to their true self (Newman, 2019, Wood et al., 2008). The relationship between perceptions of authenticity, purchase intention and self-perception has not been studied in any detail; the suggestion exists that “a person seeking self-authenticity may be less concerned about the historical accuracy of an object or experience and may instead attend to the way in which the object or experience makes them feel” (Newman, 2019). This study will explore this, as a more detailed consideration of the cultural background of respondents in data collection techniques is required (Cho & Lee, 2012).

Cultural identities are “created from, and shaped by, values that are defined by a sense of self” (Prictor et al., 2020), and it is important to explore whether decisions being made about the purchase of Indigenous souvenirs and art reflect sincere choices true to one’s self, or are they simply socially-scripted responses influenced by a number of values rooted in a person’s cultural identity, background or social norms (Newman, 2019). Indeed, the “characteristics of individuals who are prototypical of a social group or category is of crucial relevance for understanding other people’s willingness to act like them” (Passafaro, 2019). How these characteristics could be related to self-expression and their relevance to consumption of Indigenous objects is worthy of examination.

To build on previous studies in this area and add to the knowledge, data needs to be collected and analysed from several international sources, providing a wide-reaching dataset to avoid the implications that come with convenience sampling and conclusions being drawn based on sampling from homogeneous group[s] (Wang et al., 2018) or samples that are geographically limited (Amaro et al., 2020). This study will address this issue using contemporary communication and data collection techniques covering a number of territories, and, to explore the way Indigenous objects are marketed and retailed based on perceived audience characteristics, the “six characteristics of souvenirs’ authenticity”, as described by Elomba & Yun (2017).

(b) To explore the barriers that prevent tourists within and to Australia from undertaking an Indigenous experience, including how, and the extent to which, Indigenous tourism experiences are marketed to audiences domestically and abroad and the effect(s), and how these barriers affect consumer perceptions of authenticity

Australia is home to world-class Indigenous tourism experiences and has the unique ability for visitors to experience Indigenous culture and authentic products made by Indigenous communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism is an important and iconic part of the Australian tourism offering. It is essential to attracting new and return visitors to Queensland and ensuring participation of Indigenous Australians in the tourism industry (Department of Innovation and Tourism Development, 2020).

Indigenous people involved in tourism and related markets generally have a positive view of the industry and confidence in their products to exceed consumer expectations (Ruhanen et al., 2015), but there have been conflicting reports regarding this (Buultjens & Gale, 2013, Ruhanen et al., 2015). Reported demand has not translated into visitor and income flows for Indigenous people involved in these markets, so where is the money going? For Indigenous people operating tourism businesses around Australia, or aspiring to, there is a clear need for a better understanding of visitor perceptions (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019).

Academic studies have shown that, for the awareness of Indigenous experiences, there is “little difference between international and domestic respondents: domestic respondents had slightly higher awareness levels (21%), citing Indigenous tourism as an experience option available in Australia only marginally more often than international visitors (18%)” (Ruhanen et al., 2015), but not a great deal has been researched at government level. A lack of focused research has resulted in public sector strategies that have been “developed for growing Indigenous tourism in Australia, are not underpinned and developed with explicit empirical evidence but rather with assumptions” (Yugambeh Museum, 2003).

Tourists have a desire for authentic experiences and tourism “has the potential to foster existential authenticity and that existential authenticity is experience-oriented” (Newman, 2019), and those who seek authentic experiences in authentic settings and meaningful interactions with residents are encouraged – when these desires are fulfilled – “to travel more, stay longer in the places they visit, and take part in more activities compared to other tourists” (Tussyadiah & Pesonen, 2015).

The year of Indigenous Tourism – now extended to 2021 because of the COVID pandemic – is part of the Department of Innovation and Tourism Development’s “commitment to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to take charge of their economic futures” (Department of Innovation and Tourism Development, 2020). Despite this, there exists an urgent requirement to further investigate whether “low levels of awareness and demand for Indigenous tourism in Australia is a result of general indifference to the product or if they are a result of inadequate and/ or ineffective marketing and promotion strategies” (Ruhanen et al., 2015). This research will fill that gap and explore how barriers to participation affect consumer perceptions of authenticity in Indigenous objects as a result.

(c) To explore the extent to which Indigenous peoples are involved in decision-making roles in the Australian souvenir and art markets, and the likely effects on increased Indigenous representation on consumers’ perceptions of authenticity

“Opportunities abound to make a difference, but they may need to evolve from changes in generational attitudes and approaches” (Roy, 2015). The correct approach to research of this kind would involve “seeking information from primary sources by Indigenous peoples first, followed by reviewing both primary and secondary sources by non-Indigenous peoples” (Roy, 2015, Martin, 2003). This would ensure that it recognizes Indigenous people’s world views, honours their social values, emphasizes the contexts in which they live, and privileges the Indigenous voice and experience (Roy, 2015).

Professor Marcia Langton (2018) writes that the benefits of tourism to Indigenous people are many, especially in rural and remote areas of Australia where there are fewer economic opportunities. Tourism businesses are a “pathway for local families to enjoy the benefits of their unparalleled ancestral heritage” (Langton, 2018); thus Indigenous people have “established cultural and natural tourism businesses and opened up their country for tourists with a great energy, determination and a love of sharing the beauty of their culture” (Langton, 2018). Local tourism projects offer Indigenous people opportunities to work on their own country with their own family, while education their young family members about their country, stories and traditions; ensuring their cultures are sustained into the future.

However, existing studies “have yet to fully uncover the reasons for the low market appeal of Indigenous tourism” (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019). Ruhanen and Holder (2019) call for “an alternative lens and approach [that] could shed better insights into the issues of low market appeal for Indigenous tourism in Australia” and including Indigenous viewpoints from primary sources can be a rarity in academic studies.

With this in mind, it is important to explore how and where Indigenous people should be involved in the development chain to avoid infringing on human and cultural rights as it relates to commodification of culture and the potential effects this will have on consumers’ perceptions of authenticity. This work will seek and analyse data from primary sources as First Nations voices must be heard and included in this study if it is to be considered a useful contribution to public knowledge.

5: What is the research question/s under investigation?

There will be three research questions:

1: To what extent do consumers’ reflections or perceptions of self affect their perceptions of authenticity of Indigenous souvenirs and art, and how does this affect the categorisation or grouping of consumers by suppliers and retailers as a result?

2: What are the barriers preventing consumers from undertaking authentic Indigenous tourism and cultural experiences, and to what extent do they have an effect on perceptions of authenticity of Indigenous souvenirs and art?

3: To what extent would a greater level of Indigenous decision-making in the Australian souvenir and art markets affect consumer perceptions of authenticity and purchase intention?

6: What are the managerial problems?

The managerial problems include working out how to persuade consumers to seek a more authentic Indigenous souvenir or art purchase, how do we ensure a greater percentage of consumers are exposed to the possibilities of experiencing Indigenous tourism, and how can we involve a greater number of Indigenous people in decision-making in the mainstream Indigenous souvenir and art industries.

Previous studies have proved adept at predicting and explaining human behaviour (Ma et al., 2018, Giampetri et al., 2018), but others show that purchase intention has no effect whatsoever on consumer behaviour (Deng, 2015, Meitiana et al., 2019). There is no universally accepted “standard way of conceptualizing and investigating attitudes” (Passafaro, 2019), and attitudes alone cannot explain all human behaviour, nor individual or partial behaviour in all circumstances. Behaviour and attitudes can be influenced by a combination of values, world views, social norms, identity, personal traits and others: all of which researchers need to learn to distinguish (Passafaro, 2019). Future studies of this kind require a “more detailed consideration of the cultural background of respondents” (Cho & Lee, 2012), with more attention paid to the cultural background of consumers, especially in global markets.

Other problems can affect data collection, including the lack of control of researchers in respondents’ entering data into a questionnaire or similar device can cause misinterpretation or a lack of understanding, resulting in data validity problems and a weakening of the data. We do not reflect upon how we present ourselves in each and every moment of our lives (Kuhn, 2020) and often are not comfortable in doing so as a result. Researchers must work closely with respondents to surveys, questionnaires and other forms of data collection so that attitudes and behaviour can be measured accurately (Meitiana et al., 2019).

Studies have also described (Sthapit, 2017, Ruhanen & Holder, 2020) that the collection of data in the post-holiday stage, relying on consumers’ memories many weeks or months after their interaction with the Indigenous souvenir and art markets, results in “a complex process in which correlated information from what consumers knew before an actual experience and what they learned afterwards becomes integrated to create an alternate memory of product experience” (Bartlett, 1932, Sthapit, 2017). Data must be collected much closer to the point of interaction, if not at the point of interaction.

Similarly – and this issue could apply to several areas of this research – Ruhanen & Holder (2020) found that respondents to questionnaires “may have been hesitant to articulate broader barriers pertaining to otherwise culturally sensitivity issues relating to Indigenous peoples and/or communities.” Respondents may have felt compelled to appear to be more ‘politically correct’ and therefore not entirely honest about their true feelings or perceptions of Indigenous peoples, cultures and objects, and this can skew the results in this area. Offering the option of anonymity when supplying data could help counteract this potential problem. Additionally, many current studies have used data from small, homogeneous group of young tourists (Kuhn, 2020), and further research into other cohorts could expose additional data useful to this research.

Self-expression through souvenirs is “deeply entangled with subjective meanings and values attached to the travel experience” (Kuhn, 2020). In tourism, people “interact routinely with a wide range of objects and material environments; they bring their gendered, racialized and aged bodies into play when performing leisure and tourism” (Haldrup & Larsen, 2006). People actively represent what is of personal value to them and, if a trip is not considered special or noteworthy, souvenirs are rarely displayed or discussed (Kuhn, 2020). Research should go beyond current studies by investigating consumers’ perception of their social environment and to what extent self-messages reach their intended audiences. This would be a good starting point for the examination of prestige effects of tourist experiences and how they affect the Indigenous souvenir and art markets.

A surface-level investigation on the categorisation or grouping of consumers by suppliers and retailers shows that “souvenir stores offer a unique and large assortment of souvenirs to visitors” (Sthapit, 2017) to cover all potential markets and maximise profit. While one of the preferred attributes when choosing Indigenous souvenirs or artwork is uniqueness, it is likely that more choice is “always good” (Sthapit, 2017) and the idea that a greater amount choice can be harmful is incorrect. Industry managers should focus on distribution channels and accessibility to meet the needs of mass consumers, while also offering souvenirs that are “authentic to represent the local heritage and unique culture of the community” (Wang et. al, 2018). This area is open to further investigation.

Research in social sciences has been conventionally defined as discovering a generalisable truth based on systematic data interpretation (Snow et al., 2016, Smith, 2012) and many existing studies aim for the replication of results via experimentation and often undervalue participant contributions to studies. Indigenous research should reflect a “value-based convergence of researcher, participant, socio-political, and environmental values on research process and outcome” (Kovach, 2009). It should thus be a process of coming together to “contribute to the welfare of a community, a moral and political activity” (Snow et al., 2016). Many Indigenous communities develop shared ways of knowing guided by how they view the world, themselves, and the connection between the two (Snow et al., 2016), and, in acknowledging the limits of existing literature in reflecting Indigenous culture and of the presence of libraries and similar institutions as colonising structures (Roy, 2015), it will be important to conduct primary research by collecting data directly from Indigenous sources. There is an important requirement to “prioritise First Peoples’ governance and decision making, while recognizing that systemic and institutional bias still exists to limit First Peoples’ ability to exercise these rights” (Prictor et al., 2020).

7: What theory/theories do you plan to use to guide your study and explain such behaviours? There are plenty of cross overs between psych theory and consumer behaviour.

A large amount of research has been conducted on souvenir and art types purchased, but much more is needed in the area of purchasing Indigenous souvenirs and art in the tourism realm (Meitiana et al., 2019). The Theory of Planned Behaviour has shaped psychological theorising and can be applied in relation to predicting an individual’s intention to engage in a particular behaviour at a specific time and place. It proposes that “volitional human behaviour is a function of the intention to perform the behaviour and perceived behavioural control” (Sniehotta et al., 2014). Intention is proposed to be a function of attitudes towards the behaviour, subjective norm and perceived behavioural control. The key component to this model is behavioural intent; “behavioural intentions are influenced by the attitude about the likelihood that the behaviour will have the expected outcome and the subjective evaluation of the risks and benefits of that outcome” (Boston University, online).

Consumers decide whether they intend to continue with a purchase based on information available to them (Pappas, 2016). Positive consumer activities in tourism markets are influenced by the attitudes of consumers about the authenticity of souvenir and art products (Yu & Littrell, 2003), and attitudes towards authenticity have a notable effect on purchase intention (Cho & Lee, 2013). Recent research has found that the attitude toward authenticity and attitude toward aesthetics “had a significant effect on the purchasing intention which then will be realized in a real buying behaviour” (Meitiana et al., 2019). Indeed, attitudes to entire cultures can help to predict purchase intention.

The Fogg Behaviour Model asserts that for a person to perform a behaviour, they must be “sufficiently motivated, have the ability to perform the behaviour, and be triggered to perform the behaviour” (Fogg, 2009). The model states that the consumer only takes action when particular criteria are met, suggesting that consumers are motivated by behaviours that may increase or sustain their social acceptance among peers, among other factors. This aligns with the idea that objects such as Indigenous souvenirs and art “must be noticed by others; they must characteristically evoke certain specifiable reactions from others, and they must be in control of the individual in order to be effective vehicles for self-expression” (Kuhn, 2020),

It may be necessary to use several other theories to guide the research, including Self-Perception Theory, Action Identification Theory and Reasoned Action Theory. Self-Perception Theory suggests that individuals “come to know their own attitudes, emotions, and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behaviour and/or the circumstances in which this behaviour occurs” (Bem, 1972). Action Identification Theory is a “system of principles explaining how people’s thoughts of what they are doing relate to what they do” (Vallacher & Wegner, 2011) and Reasoned Action Theory a model for behaviour prediction stating that the best predictor of people’s behaviour in any situation is behaviour intention (Hennessy et al., 2012). These theories could be used, when individuals have no previously established attitudes to Indigenous souvenirs and art, to guide conclusions related to what cause current attitudes or perceptions to come about.

8: What do you see as the theoretical and managerial contributions?

The reflective process or the “active construction of self-messages by the tourist” have not been analysed in great detail (Kuhn, 2020) and a “more detailed consideration of the cultural background of respondents” (Cho & Lee, 2012) is required in future research relating to this subject matter, which this study will include, while building on knowledge of how the relationships between multiple attributes at once affect consumer perceptions (Wang et al., 2018) of Indigenous souvenirs and art.

Existing studies “have yet to fully uncover the reasons for the low market appeal of Indigenous tourism” (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019) and there is a need to better understand the factors preventing greater numbers of people participating in Indigenous tourism activities and the effects participation or lack thereof has on perceptions of authenticity of Indigenous souvenirs and art. This study will add to this knowledge, while fulfilling the need to “develop the scale of story marketing since the existing scale of story marketing is very ambiguous in nature” (Li, 2014).

As an extension to this, the research will examine the relatively minor role played by Indigenous peoples in culturally appropriate manufacturing, marketing and sustainability practices in the Indigenous souvenir and art industries and the resulting impacts on perceptions of authenticity and consumer purchase intention – most especially in Australia. Plant et al. (2019) have explored this to a certain extent, highlighting “where Indigenous people should be involved in the development chain for other non-Indigenous firms selling like-for-like products so as to avoid infringing on human rights as it relates to commodification of culture” (Plant et al, 2019). There is an important requirement to “prioritise First Peoples’ governance and decision making, while recognizing that systemic and institutional bias still exists to limit First Peoples’ ability to exercise these rights” (Prictor et al., 2020); and the role played by Indigenous peoples in the development of culturally appropriate souvenirs and art, and the likely effects on consumer perceptions of authenticity as a result, could benefit from further research and exploration.

There are several limitations of the Theory of Planned Behaviour, including assumptions that the person has the opportunities to perform the desired behaviour and that behaviours will not change over time (Meitiana et al., 2019). It does not account for other influencing factors including fear, mood or past experience, nor does take into account environmental or economic factors (Meitiana et al., 2019). The timeframe between intent and action is also not addressed. This research will address each of these limitations with a wide-reaching, exhaustive data set and analysis.

9: How many studies are you planning? For PhD, generally two or three.

Three studies will be undertaken, with one study aligned to each of the three research questions under investigation.

The first will take a primary, quantitative research approach to explore the extent that consumers’ reflections or perceptions of self affect their perceptions of authenticity of Indigenous souvenirs and art, and how this may affect the categorisation or grouping of consumers by suppliers and retailers as a result.

For the second study, relating to the second research question, a combination of primary, quantitative research and user-generated content analysis will be undertaken to explore the relationship between consumption of Indigenous souvenirs and art and willingness to partake in an Indigenous tourism experience. As a research tool, UGC has been found to be a “highly suitable data source for tourism studies with academic, industry and market researchers increasingly adopting the approach to study travel-related decision-making purchases (Ruhanen & Holder, 2019). A distinction will be made between tourists who took part in an Indigenous tourism experience and those who did not.

A similar combined-method approach will be taken to the third study, relating to the third research question, in order to examine to what extent a greater level of Indigenous decision-making in the Australian souvenir and art markets could affect consumer perceptions of authenticity and purchase intention. Data collection will involve working with Indigenous people in Australia, through focus groups, discussions and interviews, using a proven community research and user-testing methodology. All interviews and discussions will be informal and semi-structured, allowing participants to generate ideas, concepts and feedback, as well as expressing opinions openly and freely. It is important that participants are able to pursue their own priorities in their terms and using their words (Kitzinger & Barbour, 1999). By allowing these interactions to be flexible and fluid in nature, participants are encouraged to express a wide range of attitudes (Waterton & Wynne, 1999).

10: What methodology do you propose? Experimental, qualitative, quantitative, etc.

The research methods will include quantitative methods, user-generated content analysis, and small focus groups, discussions and interviews, as described above; all designed to maximise data collection.

The first and second studies will include questionnaires designed to measure all relevant variables using a Likert scale and allow for a wide range of input from the sample audience, whose personal characteristics will also be recorded, including sex, age, nationality, geographical location, education level, income level, and others. The relationship or relationships between the variables proposed will be measured and tested using Partial Least Square (PLS) (Meitiana et al., 2019), with data drawn from consumers of Indigenous souvenirs and art who have purchased an object or objects in the three months prior to data collection occurring. A sample size of 100 people in PLS is considered appropriate (Hair et al., 2014), but this study will seek to double this figure.


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Enrichment and Exploitation: How Website Algorithms Affect Democracy


This essay discusses the role algorithms in websites, social media and search engines play in the democratic processes of Western societies. As the political mechanisms of Western societies rely increasingly on the Internet for communication of information and to encourage voter participation, the way algorithms are configured to present information to the public is of great importance. Manipulation of search engine rankings or social media news feeds – intentionally or organically – can have a huge impact on what voters see and think about. Facebook and Google have a monopoly on news feeds and online search respectively, meaning any bias in the way their algorithms function can have ramifications on national and international levels. Evidence exists that manipulation of algorithms in Facebook and Google has participated in influencing the outcomes of elections on several occasions. Examining how algorithms can affect elections and other civic processes is crucial for the future of healthy democracy in Western societies.

Keywords: algorithm, democracy, Internet, news, search engine, social media, website, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter

Introduction and Research Questions

In 2017, it is estimated that over half of the world’s population are regular Internet users (Kemp 2017, online), and around the same percentage are regular users of social media (Chaffey 2017, online). With such vast amounts of data moving through cyberspace constantly, it makes sense that algorithms should be employed to sort, sift through, and make sense of it all. On the face of things, it would seem logical for algorithms to be used to present to users of websites, social media and search engines a selection of information which may be relevant to what the user is looking for, and from which the user can make informed decisions. The problem with this is that it’s often impossible to know how an algorithm has arrived at a decision or set of search results, and many users aren’t aware that algorithms even exist, never mind how they come to the conclusions they do. With democratic processes now relying so heavily on information shared online, algorithms in websites, social media and search engines have the potential to play a crucial role in democracy. This essay will investigate this issue, and seek to answer the following questions:

-To what extent do algorithms in websites, networking services and social media have a negative effect on democracy in Western societies?

-To what extent, if any, can users of new and digital media be manipulated by algorithms to think or act in certain ways?

-To what extent, do search engine algorithms affect democracy in Western societies?

-Which website, networking service or search engine is most likely to affect democracy through its use of algorithms?


Search engines, social media, and the algorithms that operate them are now firmly embedded in the everyday fabric of Western societies, and increasingly in their democratic processes, with no indication that this is likely to change at any time in the future. Algorithms used in Facebook and Google have been extensively studied individually, but there has been less research on the overall effect of algorithms in democratic processes in Western societies. This research essay aims to fill that gap.

The essay examines the use of algorithms in websites, networking services and social media, and aims to answer the question of whether they have a negative effect on democracy in Western societies. A detailed literature review of the subject of online algorithms is followed by an examination of algorithms used in Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, with the likely effects of each of their algorithms discussed, most especially in relation to democratic processes in Western societies.

Real-life examples of algorithms affecting democratic processes are examined, and the extent to which algorithms have influenced recent political outcomes discussed. The essay will also discuss how algorithms are likely to affect democracy in the coming years.

Suggestions regarding the way future democratic processes must interact with, and incorporate, algorithm-driven websites, social media, and search engines are made, and conclusions on the future of the algorithm in democracy are drawn.

Literature Review


In their most basic form, algorithms are defined as “an automated set of rules for sorting data” (Oxford Reference 2017, online), and, in their online form, are concerned with “settings where the input data arrives and the current decision must be made by the algorithm without the knowledge of future input” (Bansal 2012, p.1). Algorithms are “dependent on the quality of their input data and the skills and integrity of their creators (Devlin 2017, online). By definition, data is historical, and the result of which is that algorithms predict the future based on actions taken in the past, hence their actions can be repetitive and flawed.

The first use of algorithms in an online sense occurred in the early 1970s and was used for bin-packing problems in early software programs, or organising and fitting items into a set space (Fiat & Woeginger 1998, p.7). This evolved in 1985 when Sleater and Tarjan constructed competitive algorithms to solve mathematical problems known as the list update problem and the paging problem (Fiat & Woeginger 1998, p.7). In the early 21st century, as the variety and use of digital technologies exploded, algorithms were still relatively harmless. Search engines offered personalised recommendations for products and services, and helped Internet users find what they wanted quicker. Information was collected from personal meta-data – information gathered from “previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). From these humble beginnings, algorithms have evolved to know everything about us – where we are, what we are doing, and what we are feeling (Helbing et. al 2017, online).

Algorithms in the Digital Age

The ubiquity of Internet access and the huge number of ways by which it can be accessed means it is now a “principal pillar of our information society” (Dusi et. al 2016, p.1805). Online communities have become hugely important and complex places in which people seek and share information (Zhang et. al 2007, p.221). A result of this is that online algorithms play a huge part in so many aspects of our lives. Ellis (2016, online) explains how three factors shape the online lives of citizens of digital societies: “the endless search for convenience, widespread ignorance as to how digital technologies work, and the sacrifice of privacy and security to relentless improvements in the efficiency of e-commerce”. The more our lives become reliant on digital technology, the more we are likely to be influenced by algorithms, from everyday tasks like online shopping to our political participation in elections, referendums and other civic activities.

Algorithms still carry out the same relatively harmless tasks as they have done since the Internet’s earliest days, including giving online shoppers advantages in making choices (“People who bought this book also bought this…” recommendations), helping match an online dater with a partner more suited to them (Sultan 2016, online), and retrieving search engine results more suited to the user, depending on past searches. Retail websites such as Amazon also use algorithms to keep pricing competitive – prices can drop sometimes several times a day until an item is the cheapest on the market and is sold, and then the price goes back up again (Baraniuk 2015, online).

Algorithms have evolved hugely from their humble beginnings, and can now “recognise handwritten language, describe the contents of photos and videos, generate news content, and perform financial transactions” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). Some can recognise language and patterns “almost as well as humans and even complete some tasks better than them” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). Today’s widespread use of algorithms online has been described in a range of ways, from having small advantages to Internet users and to making online communities smarter, to the more sinister end of the spectrum, entailing “capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go” (Anderson & Horvath 2017, online).

Despite huge advances in technology since the dawn of the Internet, even while conducting relatively simple tasks, algorithms can go wrong in spectacular ways. An algorithm used to generate wording for a company selling t-shirts to be sold online with the English World War II-era slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” printed on them generated thousands of alternative options, with one result being “Keep Calm and Rape a Lot” (Baraniuk 2015, online). The company faced public condemnation and folded as a result. In 2011, a Massachusetts man who had never committed a traffic offence in his life had his driving licence revoked by an algorithm-generated facial recognition software failure (Dormehl 2014, online). Similar, and more serious, faults have meant that voters have been removed from electoral rolls, parents mistakenly labelled as abusive, and businesses have had government grants and contracts cancelled (Dormehl 2014, online). Even more problematic is the way in which algorithms can falsely profile individuals as terrorists at airports, which happens at a rate of about 1500 a week in the United States (Dormehl 2014, online). Reduced budgets in law and order services have a large part to play in this, as staff cuts lead to a greater reliance on automated services.

Entering the Democratic Space

Algorithms offer many benefits to the democracies of Western societies, but often in a way that have many more advantages for institutions than they do for individual users of digital technologies (Ellis 2016, online). The convenience so hungrily sought by end-users is a commodity many online businesses are eager to sell, and the hidden clauses are often “unknowable and entirely beyond users’ control” (Ellis 2016, online). Understanding algorithms’ lack of neutrality is low among end users, and while disclosure policies can help somewhat, many of the long-winded privacy policies which have become standard on the web are seldom read (Ellis 2016, online).

An example of a society heavily controlled by online data is Singapore. What started as a program set up with the aim of protecting its citizens from terrorism “has ended up influencing economic and immigration policy, the property market and school curricula” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). China is similar. Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google, incorporates a number of algorithms in its search engine to produce a “citizen score” (Helbing et. al 2017, online), which can affect a citizen’s chances of getting a job, a financial loan, or travel visa. This type of monitoring of data using algorithms is certain to affect everything about citizens’ lives, from everyday tasks to political contribution.

In the world of politics, digital technology and the algorithms they conceal are becoming increasingly popular as tools for ‘nudging’: a behavioural design concerned with trying to steer or influence citizens towards thinking and acting in a certain way (Helbing et. al 2017, online). A government can use this method of ensuring the public sees information that supports their agenda – the British government has “used it for everything from reducing tax fraud to lowering national alcohol consumption [while] Barack Obama and several American states have used it to win campaigns and save energy” (The Nudging Company 2017, online). The biggest goal for governments to influence people in this way is known as ‘big nudging’, or the combination of big data and nudging (Helbing et. al 2017, online). While the effectiveness of such methods are difficult to calculate, it has been suggested that could have the ability to control citizens by a “data-empowered ‘wise king’, who would be able to produce desired economic and social outcomes almost as if with a digital magic wand” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). During elections, political parties can use online nudging to influence voters in a major way. In fact, it has been argued that whoever controls this technology can “nudge themselves to power” (Helbing et. al 2017, online).

Critics of the use of online algorithms in Western democracies have pointed to how they can reinforce the ‘filter bubble’, or the way in which end users of search engines and social media get “all their own opinions reflected back at them” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). The result of this is a large degree of societal polarisation, resulting in sections of society who have little in common and have no method by which to understand each other’s beliefs. This form of social polarisation by the supply of personalised information can lead to fragmentation of societies, especially in the political arena. Helbing (2017, online) explains that this kind of divide is currently happening in the politics of the United States, where “Democrats and Republicans are increasingly drifting apart, so that political compromises become almost impossible”.

Algorithms and Data Mining

Data mining is the method by which large amounts of raw data is turned into useful information, and is increasingly becoming a useful influencing tool online. The practice has been described as “creat[ing] greater potential for violations of personal data” (Makulilo 2017, p.198) via the rise and use of big data, meaning the vast amounts of statistics in the public domain about people’s lives, money, health, jobs, desires, and more. The availability of all this data means algorithms are increasingly being used to sort and categorise it all, as well to make public policy and other decisions (O’Neil 2016, p.1). In Western democracies, the amount of online data produced is doubled every year, and in every single minute of every day, hundreds of thousands of Google searches and Facebook posts are made (Helbing et. al 2017, online), meaning more potential violations of personal data if used for immoral or criminal purposes.

Companies now use algorithms to help them decide who they should hire, banks use them to work out to whom to provide loans, and, increasingly, governments use them to make major policy decisions. Devlin (2017, online) contends that those working in the big data and analytics industries are perhaps the least likely to be surprised that political figures or parties would try to use algorithms to influence public behaviour in their favour, saying that “the application – both overt and covert – of technology to affect election outcomes was arguably inevitable” (Devlin 2017, online). O’Neil (2016, p.1) says that “some of these models are helpful, but many use sloppy statistics and biased assumptions; these wreak havoc on our society and particularly harm poor and vulnerable populations”.

Dormehl (2014, online) explains that not only is the use of algorithms in data mining open to misuse, but that it is foolish to believe all tasks can be automated in the first instance, and points to data mining as a method of uncovering terrorist attacks as an example. Dormehl describes finding terrorist plots as “a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and throwing more hay on the pile doesn’t make that problem any easier. We’d be far better off putting people in charge of investigating potential plots and letting them direct the computers, instead of putting the computers in charge and letting them decide who should be investigated” (2014, online).

Algorithms and Real-Life Events

Real-life examples of how algorithms can affect major world events are plentiful. Evidence has emerged that algorithms and their associated digital technologies have been used to bring about political outcomes in various countries in recent years, and it it likely that such methods will be an element of many future political campaigns. It has been alleged that online algorithms were deployed to influence voters’ decision-making in the 2016 US presidential election, the 2016 Brexit vote, and the 2017 French presidential election (Devlin 2017, online). Problems arise – and mistrust is created – when algorithms are used in such ways due to a lack of transparency and democratic control. The digital methods used to transmit messages and influence audiences evolve quicker than any regulatory framework can keep up with them.

An example of this is the alleged influence of online advertising which affected the outcome of the Trump-Clinton election, the result of which shocked many in the United States and around the world. The innovation of algorithms, according to some analysts, means “even our political leanings are being analysed and potentially also manipulated” (Arvanitakis 2017, online), and a prime example of this was undertaken by Cambridge Analytica, a data mining organisation that relies on artificial intelligence with the goal of manipulating opinions and behaviours “with the purpose of advancing specific political agendas” (Arvanitakis 2017, online), in this case in the favour of Trump. Facebook was the platform on which much of the alleged manipulation took place, with an estimated US$90 million spent on digital advertising to generate US$250 million in fundraising for the eventual winner (Shoval 2017, online). In September 2017, Facebook agreed to provide to United States congressional investigators the contents of 3000 online advertisements purchased by a Russian advertising agency, alleging to contain information on supposed digital interference in the election (ABC News 2017, online). Matthew Oczkowski, Cambridge Analytica’s Head of Product, told a recent interviewer: “We have elections going on in Africa and South America, and eastern and western Europe” (Kuper 2017, online).

Additionally, search engine algorithms and recommendation systems “can be influenced, and companies can bid on certain combinations of words to gain more favourable results” (Helbing et. al 2017, online). These methods have been defended by some, as Helbing (2017, online) explains, who say that political nudging is necessary as people find it hard to make decisions, and it is, therefore, necessary to help them – a way of thinking known as paternalism. He also refutes this by suggesting that nudging is not actually a way of persuading people of a particular opinion, but a method of “exploiting psychological weaknesses in order to bring about certain behaviours” (2017, online). Another critic of the use of algorithms to affect voters’ choices is Gavet (2017, online), who argues that the only results of such methods are self-reinforcing bias, and that digital technology of this nature are vulnerable to attack to agencies with potentially harmful agendas, and concludes by saying that all forms of artificial intelligence are a threat to democracy in some way.

In the same way that accurate information can be presented to the public to influence the way they think or act, incorrect information can do the same thing. The Digital Disinformation Forum, held in California in June 2017, stated that deliberate misinformation is the “most pressing threat to global democracy” (Digital Disinformation Forum 2017, online). Smith (2017, online) agrees, noting that “The insidious thing about information pollution is that it uses the Internet’s strengths,  like openness and decentralization, against it”, and that misinformation is a potential “global environmental disaster” that impacts everyone. Immediately after the 1st October 2017 Las Vegas Strip shooting, in which a gunman killed 58 people during the deadliest mass shooting committed by a lone gunman in US history, news spread by Facebook and Google falsely named a suspect, describing them as a “far-left loon” (ABC 2017, online) when the gunman had no known political affiliations. A pro-Trump Facebook page incorrectly named a person as the shooter, and the story became the first result on Google’s search page on the subject (ABC 2017, online). “This should not have appeared,” a Google spokesperson later said, as the information was removed from its search results (ABC 2017, online). Both Facebook and Google came under scrutiny from a variety of political sources for their slow response to requests to remove the information from their platforms (ABC 2017, online).

Adding algorithms to this mix can be dangerous, Smith notes, pointing to the way in which predictive policing algorithms in the United States increase patrols in high-crime areas, but can induce a cycle of violence between police and angry or disenfranchised residents as a consequence (2017, online). O’Neil (2016, p.1) explains that “this type of model is self-perpetuating, highly destructive, and very common.” Perhaps the most damning statement on the use of algorithms in societies based on data comes from Devlin (2017, online), who says that while societies which operate in this way “may seem appealing in the light of current political dysfunction worldwide … it is also deeply inimical to the process we call democracy”.

The Future of Algorithms

What does the future hold for algorithms and their place in Western societies and democracy? Floridi (2017, online) argues that the increasing proliferation of algorithms in digital technology will continue to threaten many aspects of our daily lives in increasing numbers of ways – employment, most especially. Floridi explains that because digital technology has replaced many tasks traditionally performed by us, “algorithms can step in and replace us”, and the consequence “may be widespread unemployment” (2017, online). It has been estimated that in the coming ten years, around half of jobs will be threatened by algorithms and up to 40% of the world’s top 500 companies will have vanished (Helbing et. al 2017, online). Algorithms may increasingly “take care of mundane administrative jobs, do the analysis of markets and roam through thousands of pages of case law”, as well as creating our news feeds (Stubb 2017, online).

A 2016 Pew Research Centre study found it likely that algorithms will “continue to have increasing influence over the next decade, shaping people’s work and personal lives and the ways they interact with information, institutions (banks, health care providers, retailers, governments, education, media and entertainment) and each other” (Ellis 2016, online). The flip side to the advantages algorithms are likely to have, the same study found, are the fear that they will “purposely or inadvertently create discrimination, enable social engineering and have other harmful societal impacts” (Ellis 2016, online).

In April 2017, a House of Commons committee in the United Kingdom published the results from its ‘Algorithms in Decision-Making’ inquiry, with the overall conclusion being that human intervention is almost always needed when it comes to trusting the decisions made by online algorithms (House of Parliament 2017, online). Some of the major points to be taken from the findings include algorithms are “subject to a range of biases related to their design, function, and the data used to train and enact these systems”, “transparency alone cannot address these biases”, and algorithmic biases have “cultural impacts beyond the specific cases in which they appear” (House of Parliament 2017, online). The inquiry also recommended greater regulation of online algorithms, as transparency alone “doesn’t necessarily create trust” (House of Parliament 2017, online).

A solution to the possibility of algorithmic errors, as suggested by Floridi, is to “put human intelligence back into the equation” (2017, online). This can be done by “designing the right sort of algorithm” (2017, online), making sure not all decisions are left to machines, and making sure humans oversee all decisions made by machines. In the political sphere, some politicians might be jubilant at the decline of journalism, but should remember that “algorithms will soon be better at legislation than they are” (Stubb 2017, online). Some commentators and experts have gone further with their predictions, with technology visionaries including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak warning that algorithms and associated artificial intelligence-based technologies are a “serious danger for humanity, possibly even more dangerous than nuclear weapons” (Helbing et. al 2017, online).

Case Studies


“There was no tool where you could go and learn about other people. I didn’t know how to build that so instead I started building little tools,” Mark Zuckerberg said (Carson 2016, online) about the origins of the website that would turn into a 300 billion dollar company. In 2004 he launched the social networking site Facebook, and its popularity quickly spread across several universities before becoming Facebook.com in August 2005 (Phillips 2007, online). The site’s use grew exponentially, it now has two billion active users per month (Facebook, online) and has recently unveiled its new mission statement as: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook, online). According to the site’s own statistics, an average user spends 50 minutes a day on Facebook, Facebook Messenger or Instagram and has 150 Facebook friends (Facebook, online). Until 2012, the site kept advertisements separate from its users’ personal content and did not share any information with marketing agencies. Then, floatation brought greater demands from investors for advertising revenue, and its methods changed (Kuper 2017, online).

Perhaps one of the more notable changes to democracy this brought is the way Facebook is controlling how citizens consume news. Most under-35s rely on Facebook for their news, both personal and world (Francis 2015, online; Jain 2016, online; Samler 2017, online), and its algorithms can control what information is seen by its users, and, hence, what is thought about democratic or political issues based on this information. In changing the fundamental methods by which people receive information on such a scale, Facebook is disrupting democracy like nothing the Internet has produced before. As Samler (2017, online) explains, Facebook is “one of the Internet’s most radical and innovative children”. The result has been “a loss of focus on critical national issues, an erosion of civil disagreement, and a threat to democracy itself” (O’Neil 2016, online).

As a result of more people getting their news from an algorithm-driven news feed, traditional journalism has been greatly affected by the rise of Facebook. The impact of increasing use of social media as a way of sourcing news, real or otherwise, is of concern to the traditional role of the media as the Fourth Estate. Facebook has been called a “social problem” (Francis 2015, online) that breeds shallowness that is sweeping Western societies, while creating a “world view about as comprehensive as was found in the high school cafeteria” (Francis 2015, online). Global leaders are taking advantage of its directness to bypass the media and speak directly to the public, and operators of Facebook and Twitter are enthusiastic about this behaviour as it increases engagement with their sites. Journalists are still attempting to report factual stories, but are under increasing pressure (Shoval 2017, online), and the disproportionately high financial awards made against newspapers in the courts threatens press freedom on an industry level (Linehan 2017, p.11).

With Facebook now having such a high degree of control over the way in which people consume news, traditional media companies are struggling to reach the public with legitimate news (Shoval 2017, online). After the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook announced its “Facebook Journalism Project” – a project with the aim of forging stronger ties with the journalism industry, including working more closely with local news outlets (Shoval 2017, online). With the number of news consumers who get their news from Facebook’s news feed on the rise, it is difficult to see how this is little more than an empty platitude.

While Facebook is described as ‘social media’, it is important to remember that its success it premised on using increasingly sophisticated techniques to target users by predicting the content they’ll want to read and watch, “along with the stuff they’ll want to buy from advertisers” (Ellis 2016, online). Facebook is now a “monumentally influential force in the fabric of modern life” (Statt 2017, online), and there now exists Facebook electioneering by major political candidates like Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and French President Macron, of which algorithms play a huge part. Facebook’s algorithm generates a “plethora of ordinary effects” (Bucher 2015, p.44) from the hunt for ‘likes’ to asking the questions “Where did this information that has suddenly popped up come from?” (Bucher 2015, p.44). Francis (2015, online) suggests that the only antidote to relentless Facebook misinformation is to “do some serious fact-checking and research”, while Pennington (2013, p.193) says that while Facebook can be an excellent tool for political participation, the key for the individual user is to “keep an open mind to others instead of falling down the rabbit hole of narcissism”.

Fake news can be defined as “a political story which is seen as damaging to an agency, entity or person” (Merriam Webster Dictionary 2017, online), and the concept and its proliferation on various platforms, including Facebook, has been forced into the public domain by President Trump and the election from which he emerged victorious. Fake news has the power to “damage or even destroy democracy” (Jain 2016, online) if not regulated. During a 2016 press conference, then-President Obama noted that “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect” and “Everything is true and nothing is true” (Jain 2016, online) on a social network such as Facebook. Simply sending out Facebook advertisements to see how they are received can help a political party shape its manifesto (Kuper 2017, online). If a large number of users ‘like’ a story about a crackdown on immigration, a party or candidate can make it their official standpoint. Then those people can be targeted with more advertisements and for appeals for funding.

The unexpected election of Donald Trump is said to “owe debts to … rampant misinformation” (Heller 2016, online). During the last stages of campaigning by Trump and Clinton, it was obvious that Facebook’s news algorithm was not able to distinguish between real news and completely fabricated news: “the sort of tall tales, groundless conspiracy theories, and oppositional propaganda that, in the Cenozoic era, circulated mainly via forwarded e-mails” (Heller 2016, online).

Zuckerberg rejects the idea that his company played a role in spreading ‘fake news’ about political candidates, by saying in an interview: “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience” (Newton 2016, online). At the same time, a study found that “three big right-wing Facebook pages published false or misleading information 38% of the time during the period analysed, and three largely left-wing pages did so in nearly 20% of posts” (Silverman 2016, online). Zuckerberg then committed to his company doing more to fighting the spread of fake news and vowed it would be an “arbiter of truth” (Jain 2016, online), while also stating that he runs a “tech company, not a media company” (Samler 2017, online). He also denied that Facebook confounded the problem of its users living in an information ‘filter bubble’, even through his own company quietly released the results of a study in 2015 which showed exactly the opposite of which was true (Tufekci 2015, p.9), and another study has shown that users are much less likely to click on content that challenges their beliefs (Tufekci 2015, p.9). Western democracies have a liberal left and a conservative right, with “neither being exposed to the reasoned arguments of the other” (Samler 2017, online). Indeed, only 5% of Facebook users and 6% of Twitter users admit to associating themselves with people on these platforms who have differing political opinions to themselves (Samler 2017, online). Critics of how social media giants generate their users’ news feeds have said that these organisations need to accept the fact that they are no longer solely technology platforms, but media platforms too (Samler 2017, online).

Interestingly, on 30th September 2017, Zuckerberg made a post on his personal Facebook page for the end of Yom Kippur, apologising and seeking forgiveness for any of the ways that his organisation has been “used to divide people rather than bring us together” (Facebook 2017, online). This has been described as a “wholly surprising admission of guilt from someone in the tech world” (Barsanti 2017, online).

The key to Facebook’s ongoing success is to keep its users engaged. Bucher explains that “examining how algorithms make people feel … seems crucial if we want to understand their social power” (2015, p.30), if, indeed, users are even aware of the power of the algorithm at all. Facebook’s data teams are almost solely focussed on finding ways to increase the amount of time each and every user remains engaged with the platform, and they are not concerned with truth, learning, or civil conversation (O’Neil 2016, online). Success is measured by the number of clicks, ‘likes’, shares and comments, not the quality of the material being engaged with. The greater the amount of engagement, the more data Facebook can use to sell advertisements (O’Neil 2016, online). This seems like a fairly obvious business model, but research has shown that many users are unaware of this. In a 2015 study, more than half of Facebook users were unaware of how their Facebook news feed was put together (Eslami et. al 2015, p.153). This is problematic, as ignorance of how the site’s algorithm works can wrongly lead some users to “attribute the composition of their feeds to to the habits of their friends or family” (Eslami et. al 2015, p.153). This can reinforce the idea of the ‘filter bubble’ and lead many users to believe the information they are seeing is trustworthy and correct, as well as tracking behaviour in order to profile identity.

While finding news that fits a user’s news feed, Facebook’s algorithms can create other problems, including the “voracious appetite for personal data” (Ellis 2016, online) ad-supported services such as Facebook need to keep their predictions going. The consequence is an undermining of personal data and the increased likelihood of the site being used for data mining purposes by individuals, organisations or entities with potentially nefarious motives, and possibly leading to more “government by algorithmic regulation” (Ellis 2016, online). The potential for abuse is high when algorithms are unregulated and can be used by anyone with the money to invest in them.

Another major problem Facebook’s algorithm creates is one of repetition, and it has the potential to prevent democratic processes and decisions evolving over time. While real life allows the past to be in the past, “algorithmic systems make it difficult to move on” (Bucher 2015, p.42). This is the “politics of the archive” (Bucher 2015, p.42), as all decisions an algorithm will make on the information it allows you to see in the future is based on what you did in the past. What is relatable and retrievable from the past shapes the way Facebook’s algorithm works in the present, and will potentially affect the user’s decisions in the future.

Despite the many negative effects on democracy Facebook can have, it can be a positive force for it too. During elections in the United States in 2010 and 2012, the site conducted experiments with a tool it called the ‘voter megaphone’ (O’Neil 2016, online). The idea of this was to encourage users to make a post saying they had voted, which would, in turn, remind and encourage others to do the same. Statistics showed 61 million people made such a post, with the likely result of increasing participation in democratic processes, especially among young people (O’Neill 2016, online). Additionally, movements can be organised on social media, including women’s marches in 2017, which saw about five million women march globally as a result of online organisation (Vestager 2017, online).

Facebook is determined to show that the information and feed its algorithm creates and controls is an ever-changing and independent tool for good, but the reality is it is a vital part of its business model. The Facebook algorithm is “biased towards producing agreement, not dissent” (Tufekci 2015, p.9). After all, if its users were continually presented with information they didn’t appreciate, they would simply go elsewhere. And that’s not a successful business model, by any definition. How the filter bubbles, in which Facebook users’ news feeds exist, affect democracy is as simple as it is destructive. Electoral laws are outdated, and “regulators aren’t big or savvy enough to catch transgressors” (Kuper 2017, online). Drawing conclusions from this alone, we can say that Facebook has changed democracy. Perhaps author and mathematician Cathy O’Neil put it at its simplest and best when she said “Over the last several years, Facebook has been participating – unintentionally – in the erosion of democracy” (2016, online).


In 1998, university drop-outs Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google with the stated aim of hoping “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google, online). Its search engine helped unlock many of the so-called ‘walled gardens’ of the Internet, including sites like AOL and Yahoo. Since then, it has organised every single piece of information on the Internet, and it continues to add many millions more to its searchable database every day (Vise & Malseed 2005, p.3).

After going public in 2004, its value and influence grew exponentially, and it began to challenge Microsoft’s dominance in the online world (Vise & Malseed 2005, p.3), overtaking it as the most visited site on the web in 2007 (Strickland 2017, online). The company owes its success to its search engine’s ability to search so well and in lightning-quick time. It now has over 50,000 employees globally, and has expanded its business interests into the fields of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars (Frommer 2014, online), and its search engine is used globally over 6.5 billion times every day (Allen 2017, online).

Google has been called “the keeper of web democracy” (Howie 2011, online) and its search engine is a very powerful and vital component to 21st century Western democratic life, yet its influence is not widely understood or researched (Richey & Taylor 2017, p.1). With 150,000,000 active websites on the Internet today (Strickland 2017, online), it performs an important role in the lives of millions of people. Google has 88% of the market share in search and search advertising (Hazen 2017, online), and combined with Facebook, has more than a billion regular users. It is partly because of the colossal amounts of users and data with which it operates that Google’s algorithms are so complex.

The company markets its algorithm-driven search engine as a tool which will “result in finer detail to make our services work better for you” (Google 2017, online), and, in theory, the first results from a search should be the ones which are most relevant to the keywords searched. This seems, on the face of things, to be a simple and incredibly convenient tool for all its users. Yet critics of its methods and its effects on democracy are plentiful.

“Unregulated search rankings could pose a significant threat to a democratic system of government,” says Forbes writer Tim Worstall (2013, online), while Hazen (2017, online) explains how Google’s “relentless pursuit of efficiency leads these companies to treat all media as a commodity”. The real value of the platform lies not in the quality, honesty or accuracy of information it produces, but the amount of time the user is engaged with the platform. Hazen goes on to describe how these methods have pushed Page and Brin into the top-ten most wealthy people in America, each with a personal fortune over US$37 billion, and suggests the way by which these methods have affected democracy haven’t seemed to have been taken into account at any point in the company’s evolution.

Much like Facebook, Google has been criticised for data mining, and, on several occasions, taken to court for mismanaging users’ data (Smith 2016, online). Following United States government whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s leaks, Google’s users have become more savvy to how the site collects and users their data, and critics have labelled the company’s data mining methods as “purely to benefit Google” (Miller 2012, online). Yet the practice continues. The collection of data, and the profits of around $40 billion a year it makes from these practices, is concerning to many users of Google, despite the fact the company claims it uses data mining techniques to “find more efficient algorithms for working with massive data sets, developing privacy-preserving methods for classification, or designing new machine learning approaches” (Google 2017, online).

Another way in which the vast amounts of data channelled through Google could be used is in making political predictions, although the usefulness of this is unclear. This can be demonstrated with a real-life example: Google data showed that searches for ‘Donald Trump’ accounted for almost 55% of views in the three days before the 2016 presidential election (Allegri 2016, online), when the majority of polls predicted a Clinton victory, and its data predicted his final total electoral college votes number to within two of the actual number. This made analysts, tech writers and journalists take notice, with the general consensus that it was time to “start taking the electoral prediction powers of Google much more seriously” (Kirby 2016, online).

Consistent accusations of tampering with results have plagued Google throughout its lifetime, and such actions have the potential to affect democracy negatively if true. The company’s Vice President Marissa Mayer appeared in a 2011 YouTube video telling an audience how her company regularly, and unashamedly, puts its own services as the top of search results (Howie 2011, online). In 2017, public trust in Europe of Google’s algorithm reached an all-time low, following the proliferation of fake news stories and clearly-engineered results. The European Commission advertised for a company to police Google’s algorithm to determine the extent to which results are deliberately positioned favourably to those who have paid for it, and how much Google was abusing its market dominance (Hall 2017, p.17). The Commission also launched an investigation into the extent to which Google banned competitors from search results and advertisements, with the promise of keeping the issue “on our desks for some time” (Hall 2017, p.17). The way in which Google “uses its dominant search engine to harm rivals” has led to critics like Derrick (2017, p.1) examining how the concentration or monopolization of services in this way “threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy”. It is difficult to see how Google’s self-serving behaviour can have anything but an overall negative effect on democracy in Western societies.

Despite many criticisms of Google’s algorithm and its negative effects on privacy and democracy, its data mining practices have produced some positive outcomes. In 2014, Google found evidence of child pornography in one of its user’s e-mail accounts and reported the person to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States, resulting in an arrest (Matterson 2014, online). Google Maps’ ability to identify illegal activities such as marijuana growing and non-approved building have also been noted as positives (Google Earth Blog, online).

The future of Google is likely to see it maintain its virtually unchallengeable position at the head of Internet search engine use and advertising revenue generation. The site’s ability to change its algorithms at any time mean it can evolve to control the market in any way it wishes, and can control the impact it has on websites, its competitors, and entire industries. The company’s future is not likely to be one with a reduced involvement with algorithms, but something quite the opposite, says Davies (2017, online). When once upon a time Google’s algorithm had a relatively basic structure, it is now much more complex, and becoming more so. Its methods of pushing forward artificial intelligence and machine learning are happening at an “amazing if not alarming rate” (Davies 2017, online), meaning its influence on what data we see is likely to grow. “Not since Rockefeller and JP Morgan has there been such a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of so few” explains Hazen (2017, online).


Twitter began as an idea that co-founder Jack Dorsey had in 2006, who originally imagined it as an SMS-based communications platform (MacArthur 2017, online), hence the 140-word character limit. Fast forward five years later, and it was one the biggest communication platforms in the world. Now it has over 200 million active monthly users and it is considered vital, along with Facebook, that every public figure who wishes to engage with their audience, have an account (MacArthur 2017, online).

Studies have shown that political candidates who use Twitter as a means for engaging with voters significantly increase their odds of winning (LaMarre & Suzuki-Lambrecht 2013, p.1). The platform stimulates word-of-mouth marketing and increases audience reach significantly (LaMarre & Suzuki-Lambrecht 2013, p.1), and live information being of particular importance and influence. Sustaining a live connection, via Tweeting, through an election cycle has been shown to result in a positive reaction from supporters (LaMarre & Suzuki-Lambrecht 2013, p.1), which has the potential to translate in positive results on election day. President Obama’s use of Twitter during his two campaigns is a good example of this.

However, not all use of Twitter is as open and honest it may seem. During the 2016 US presidential election, 20% of all political tweets made during the three televised political debates were made by bots (Campbell-Dollaghan 2016, online), or a piece of software designed to execute commands with a particular goal. It was unclear where many of the bots came from or who created them, making it easier to spread fake news stories and potentially influence public opinion. There is also evidence to show that during the UK Brexit campaign, huge numbers of “fake news stories, false factoids, and absurd claims were passed over social media networks, often by Twitter’s highly automated accounts” (Howard 2016, online). Bots and automated accounts are very easy to make (Campbell-Dollaghan 2016, online), and can amplify misinformation in a political campaign. Twitter allows news stories from untrustworthy sources to “spread like wildfire over networks of family and friends” (Howard 2016, online).

These examples of how Twitter is being used to spread information or misinformation strongly suggests that it should now be regarded as a media company. However, much like Facebook, Twitter is not legally obliged to regulate the information passed over its network for quality or accuracy. In fact, it has been given a “moral pass” (Howard 2016, online) when it comes to the obligations professional media organisations and journalists are held to.

As Twitter has rolled out a 280-character trial in October 2017 (Hale 2017, online), it is arguably positioning itself to be an even more influential transmitter of information, accurate or inaccurate, in future democratic processes. It remains to be seen whether the increase will increase engagement with the platform, but the potential is there for it to be an even bigger player in the political arena (Hale 2017, online).

Other Platforms

While algorithms used by Facebook and Google are the dominant forces in controlling what many people see and think about democracy, other platforms are playing increasing roles. With Facebook and Google now firmly part of the established mainstream, there is space for other social media to fill their previous roles as the newcomer or disruptor on the scene. A politician or political party can share images directly to their followers, and can engage directly with them while doing so.

The way in which these photo-sharing social media have been used in recent elections suggests they will have a huge role to play in future similar contests. The recent UK Prime Ministerial election saw both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn use Instagram to a small degree, with surveys showing Corbyn’s use was more effective, although this could also be explained by the fact that younger people are more likely to vote Labour (Kenningham 2017, online). French President Macron used it heavily and swept to power (Kenningham 2017, online), and Indian Prime Minister Modi has a huge eight million followers. In the UK alone, Instagram has 18 million users and Snapchat 10 million – both significant portions of the 65 million total population, so political parties and figures need to be using it to be successful in the ever-competitive mediascape.

Instagram’s and Snapchat’s core demographics are much younger, on average, than that of Twitter and Facebook, and the platforms have an ability to reach groups of people who feel permanently disengaged with the political process (Kenningham 2017, online). Ninety percent of Instagram’s users, for example, are under 35 years old, and it is increasingly becoming the platform of choice for image-fixated millennials (Kenningham 2017, online).

While Instagram may be an excellent tool for reaching a younger demographic, its algorithm can be used and abused, as well as negotiated. Much like the Facebook news feed algorithm, Instagram’s algorithm has been described as being “mysterious, yet ingenious and brilliant at showing the best content to the best people” (Lua 2017, online). Its algorithm is driven by seven key factors or elements of a post, including engagement, relevancy, relationships, timeliness, profile searches, direct shares, and time spent (Lua 2017, online). A 2016 Instagram study (Instagram 2016, online) found that, when posts were listed chronologically, users missed up to 70% of their feeds, and the platform changed to an algorithm-driven method of ordering. Despite some initial opposition to the move, feedback has been generally positive (Lua 2017, online), and the relatively simple nature of Instagram’s algorithm, compared to that of Facebook, means it is easy for users to work with or even “beat” (Chacon 2017, online).

Snapchat is behind Instagram on users, but crucially, it has high levels of engagement, with the average user spending up to 30 minutes per day on the platform (Kenningham 2017, online). Its algorithm, similar to that of Instagram, places certain posts to the top of its feed, which leaves it open to misuse, but it offers a “way to engage with people who normally switch off at the very mention of the word ‘politics’” (Kenningham 2017, online). Jeremy Corbyn used the platform extensively in the 2017 UK election with some success, and all three French Presidential candidates used it, most especially the eventual winner (Kenningham 2017, online).

While Instagram and Snapchat have not yet played defining roles in political processes anywhere in the world, and the extent to which their algorithms can be used or manipulated in doing so is yet unclear, they are needed to “become a central part of the democratic process to ensure more people have a say and stake in the future of [political processes]” (Kenningham 2017, online). It is likely that Instagram and Snapchat have only had a positive effect on Western democratic processes thus far.

Summary of Findings

After such a detailed examination of the use of algorithms in social media and search engines, it is important to summarise findings, with reference to the original research questions.

The first research question asked: To what extent do algorithms in websites, networking services and social media have a negative effect on democracy in Western societies?

When the effects on Western democracies of algorithms used by Facebook, Google and others are examined, it can be said that, in a general sense, these algorithms have a negative impact on Western democracies.

Facebook’s algorithm is probably the biggest offender in this regard. Its aims are not to promote or encourage quality content being uploaded or shared on the platform, but to get as much personal information about its users and keep them engaged for as long as possible, in order to better target paid advertisements to them. Its success does not rely on the ability or need to distinguish between quality, truthful information and dishonest, fake information – as long as users are engaged regularly and for lengthy periods, it can sell a large amount of advertisements and its financial success is certain. Facebook’s algorithm also perpetuates the ‘filter bubble’ method of news feed generation, in which users are rarely, if ever, exposed to information that is contrary to their personal beliefs. Its algorithm can, and has, been manipulated to promote news stories with false or misleading information in order to gain political advantage.

Similarly, Google’s algorithm has many negative effects on democracy. Its search engine’s algorithm is designed to produce results based on a user’s previous searches, which, similar to that of Facebook, perpetuates the ‘filter bubble’ and is designed to soak up as much information about the user in order to target advertisements and generate revenue. Google claims it uses data mining to improve its services for users, yet makes US$40 billion a year from these practices, so it is difficult to accept that it is not a self-serving activity. Additionally, the monopolization of data and advertising services by Google drives competition out of the market, and the site also regularly manipulates data and search results to place particular results higher than others.

The second research questions asked: To what extent, if any, can users of new and digital media be manipulated by algorithms to think or act in certain ways?

Algorithms used by Facebook and Google can control what information users have access to in their news feeds, and hence, what issues they are exposed to and are likely to think about (Francis 2015, online). While a small number of writers have argued that technologies like web search and social networks reduce ideological segregation (Flaxman et. al 2016, p.298), there is much evidence showing otherwise (Francis 2015, online). The repetitive nature of how web-based algorithms work means that information engaged with by users affects their future search results and the content of their news feed, and similar search results or information is likely to appear again, perpetuating the ‘filter bubble’. Facebook continually removes or hides news that it believes might offend users, including many investigative journalism pieces (Ingram 2015, online). When the filter bubble and easy proliferation of untruthful or misleading information are combined, users can be manipulated to think certain ways about political or other subjects. The monopolization of news distribution is arguably not of Facebook’s own doing, as such a high number of people use it globally, and media companies have no real choice but to use it as a way of interacting with news consumers, but the way that Facebook feels about how news feeds are generated can differ from one day to the next.

The third research question asked: To what extent do search engine algorithms affect democracy in Western societies?

The answer to this question is, quite simply, a huge extent. With a virtual monopoly on search, Google “has the power to flip the outcomes of close elections easily – and without anyone knowing” (Epstein 2014, online). The company has the ability to identify a candidate that best suits its needs, identify undecided voters and send them customised search results tailored to make the candidate look better, while nobody – candidate, voter or regulator – is any the wiser (Epstein 2014, online). There is no evidence for such direct manipulation, but favouritism can happen ‘organically’ on Google’s search engine – this is what the company claimed was the cause of Barack Obama’s consistently high rankings in the months just before the 2008 and 2012 elections (Epstein 2014, online). A 2010 study conducted on a group of Americans’ preferences for either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott (people the test subjects were unfamiliar with) as the ideal candidate for the position of Prime Minister of Australia found that they made their choice based on search rankings (Epstein 2014, online). In future elections, as increasing numbers of undecided voters get their information on political matters through the Internet, the way that Google’s algorithm works will have international ramifications. Google is not ‘just’ a platform, it “frames, shapes and distorts how we see the world” (Arvanitakis 2017, online).

The fourth research question asked: Which website, networking service or search engine is most likely to affect democracy through its use of algorithms?

The answer is Facebook, and this can be seen in many real-life examples. Recent real-life examples include its algorithms manipulating data to gain political outcomes in the Brexit referendum, the Trump-Clinton election, the French presidential election, and the UK general election. The most notable case of algorithm-driven influence in politics is the Trump-Clinton election contest. President Trump’s Digital Director, Brad Parscale, admitted that Facebook was massively influential in winning the election for Trump (Lapowsky 2016, online), by generating huge sums of money in online fundraising, a large proportion of which went back into digital advertising. Analysts and writers have also pointed to “online echo chambers and the proliferation of fake news as the building blocks of Trump’s victory” (Lapowsky 2016, online) – echo chambers created by Facebook’s algorithm. Trump’s online team took advantage of Facebook’s ability to test audiences with ads, running 175,000 variations of ads on the day of the third presidential debate alone (Lapowsky 2016, online). Cambridge Analytica pulled data from Facebook and paired it with huge amounts of consumer information from data mining companies to “ develop algorithms that were supposedly able to identify the psychological make-up of every voter in the American electorate” (Halpern 2017, online).

The Future of Democracy in an Algorithm-Driven World

Increased use of algorithms and artificial intelligence can have many benefits to societies. New systems can identify students who need assistance, and data be can used to identify health hazards within a population (Arvanitakis 2017, online). However, a diminished human role in decision-making may have many negative consequences for democracy.

The innovation of algorithms means “our political leanings are constantly being analysed and potentially also manipulated” (Arvanitakis 2017, online), and opaque algorithms can be “very destructive” (O’Neil 2016, p.4). Citizens of Western democracies have always thought that they knew where their information was coming from, but that is no longer the case (Arvanitakis 2017, online). The sources we have come to trust to bring us information have fallen under the influence of powerful, self-serving website whose algorithms make no distinction between truth and lies, or high quality information and nonsense. When a list of search results appear upon searching for something using Google, it is not clear where the results have come from or why they have appeared in such an order, and this is what is concerning for healthy democracy. In fact, it’s almost impossible to work out where information in a search ranking has come from or ended up that way. A professor at Bath University explained that “it should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not” (Arvanitakis 2017, online).

In order for anything to survive for any length of time, it has to adapt, and the future for democracy is increasingly looking like one of constant technological adaptation. Newly emerging social media, which have not been sucked into the mainstream where the sole purpose is to collect data for advertisement placement, are, along with other online platforms likely to be crucial to political participation for future generations. It is vital that young people are civically engaged (actively working to make a positive difference to their communities) in order to define and address public problems (Levine 2007, p.1), and social media has the potential to play a huge part in this. As the variety of methods it presents for information sharing and interconnectivity increase, social media has the potential to encourage more people to engage with democratic processes.

It is also vital for algorithms to be transparent and accountable (Arvanitakis 2017, online) in order for users of websites, social media and search engines to know how their personal information is being used, and to ensure the information they are seeing is accurate and balanced. “Algorithms are designed with data, and if that data is biased, the algorithms themselves are biased,” explains O’Neil (2016, p.4). Algorithms could be transparent, accountable and objective, but, in most cases, are nothing more than “intimidating, mathematical lies” (O’Neil 2016, p.4). Overcoming this fact is the key to fair and balanced algorithm use in future democratic processes.

With a 2017 survey indicating that two-thirds of schoolchildren would not care if social media had never been invented and 71% admitting to taking “digital detoxes” (The Guardian 2017, online), there is the hint of a possibility that social media use may decline as the next generation of school-aged children reaches adulthood. Many respondents of the survey believed social media was having a negative effect on their mental well-being, with advertising, fake news and privacy being particular areas of concern (The Guardian 2017, online). Some positives were mentioned, including memes, photo filters, and Snapchat stories, reinforcing the theory that new social media platforms, not Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, may be the future for mass information sharing and for healthy democracy.


It is indisputable that search engines and social media increase the number of ideas, viewpoints, opinions and perspectives available to citizens taking part in democratic processes. An incredibly varied collection of information is available to Internet users at any time, which, on face value, would suggest that citizens should be more informed about political issues than ever before. The Internet is also an effective tool for carrying out successful political campaigns, offering an efficient method by which political groups or individuals can reach audiences with public relations and policy messages.

With these things in mind, it could be easy to move steadily and unquestioningly forward with the idea that software makes our lives more convenient and enjoyable. However, the algorithms controlling data in some of the most popular and widely-used social media and search engines are designed not with the user’s best interests in mind, but the websites themselves – they are businesses, after all. This is a direct and immediate threat to democracy.

The ability to manipulate information online, similarly, is a threat to democratic processes. Evidence and real-life examples show that the control of information and misinformation through search engine and social media manipulation can help bring about desired political results, and the algorithms controlling information in these platforms are not able to discern between real and fake, or truth and dishonesty. Algorithms functioning to target users with advertising material instead of presenting a fair and balanced variety of information perpetuate the division of society based on political beliefs, and engineer information ‘filter bubbles’. Algorithms operating in this way are a threat to democracy.

It is partly this online environment that has created a divisive populist sentiment that now defines many Western societies, and has left many citizens lacking the full range of knowledge needed to make informed democratic decisions. Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed that “a properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate” (Samler 2017, online), but when algorithms are manipulating news feeds and search engine results without regulation, free will in the political arena no longer seems so free.


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Framing, Faith and Flawed Portrayal: How the Australian Media Reported the July 2017 Foiled Sydney Terror Attack

July 2017 foiled Sydney terror plot


Mass media have become the primary source of information for the vast majority of, if not all, members of Western societies. Thus, the way in which mass media organisations convey information is extremely important as it has the potential to influence what a large number of people see, and what they think about what they see. Media has the power to not only control what its audience sees by setting the news agenda, but how it sees it by framing news stories in a particular way, and these choices can have real-life consequences. In the Australian news coverage of the 29th July 2017 foiled Sydney terrorist attack, the traditionally left-leaning media outlet The Age and national broadcaster the ABC covered the story in a largely fair and balanced manner which was unlikely to contribute to friction or othering between cultural groups within Australia. The traditionally right-leaning The Daily Telegraph covered the same story in a largely unbalanced and sensationalised manner which was likely to contribute to friction between cultural groups within Australia.

Keywords: agenda-setting, Australia, framing, Islam, mass media, media, media audiences, Muslims, othering, Sydney terror attack, terrorism


On 29th July 2017, four men were arrested in Sydney, having been allegedly caught in the process of implementing a terrorist attack with the potential to kill a large number of innocent people (Knaus 2017, online). The alleged attack was to involve placing a bomb on an aeroplane and detonating it mid-air (Knaus 2017, online). The plot was foiled and nobody was hurt, and the story was widely reported in the media in newspapers, television, radio and the Internet (The Age 2017, online; The ABC 2017, online; The Daily Telegraph 2017, online). The story was reported using a variety of angles, descriptions, and images, and placed in context of other stories involving similar issues, including so-called ‘Islamic-inspired’ terrorism and religious tension at home and overseas. The way in which Australian media organisations report stories of this nature is important, as they have the potential to contribute to friction between cultural, racial and/or religious groups in Australia. This essay will examine the manner in which three media outlets reported the story of the alleged plot, and seek to answer the following research questions:

– To what extent has the Australian media’s coverage of the foiled July 2017 Sydney terror plot been balanced and informative, and to what extent is the media’s use of language in reporting on this story likely to divide, or cause friction between, different cultural and/or religious groups in Australia?

– Do media outlets in Australia engage in agenda-setting and framing of news when reporting on terrorism and religious extremism in Australia?

– To what extent does a media outlet’s traditional political alignment affect how that outlet reports on a story involving terrorism or religious extremism in Australia?

– To what extent can media outlets’ use of language in describing religious groups in stories involving terrorism or religious extremism contribute to ‘othering’ of religious groups by the media-consuming Australian public? Othering is “any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as ‘not one of us’” (Norriss 2011, online), and can be divisive and potentially harmful or destructive to a society, nation or community.


In order to find out whether the Australian media’s coverage of the July 2017 Sydney terror plot was balanced and informative, it is important to examine how the story was reported by media organisations with a variety of traditional political leanings on the left-right spectrum. How the story was reported by one left-leaning (The Age), and one neutral (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation), and one right-leaning outlet (The Daily Telegraph) will be examined. Elements including the language used in describing the plot and the alleged would-be terrorists (their backgrounds/alleged links to terror groups), how the outlets examine or describe any alleged links to religious fanaticism, and to what extent, if any, they engage in othering (and, if so, the methods by which they do this) will be examined. Conclusions will be drawn, using academic research and studies as reference and supporting evidence, as to the likely effects on the outlets’ audience and the Muslim community in Australia.

The Age was chosen to be included in this study as it has “a slight to moderate liberal bias” (Media Bias/Fact Check, online). It has been described as having “shaped major social and political issues” (Bonfiglioli 2015, p.15) in Australia with “progressive values and ideas” (Hills 2010, p.298) for decades.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was chosen as its editorial guidelines state that the company has “a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism” (ABC, online). Its reporting of the story should theoretically be as impartial, and as free from political or ideological influence as it is possible for a media organisation to be.

The Daily Telegraph has traditionally been a publication which has expressed right-wing political views, and has “utilised loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes) to favour conservative causes” (Media Bias/Fact Check, online). It has been described as doing this through the use of “disclaimers, mitigation, euphemism, excuses, blaming the victim, reversal and other moves of defence, face-keeping and positive self-presentation in negative discourse about minorities, immigrants and (other) anti-racists” (van Dijk 1992, p.87). The newspaper has published many anti-immigration articles over a number of years, perhaps most prominently in November 2011 when the Australian Press Council concluded the paper had published material including many misleading messages, including: “Thousands of boat people will be released into Sydney’s suburbs as the government empties detention centres” (Australian Press Council, online). It has also published stories with racist slants, perhaps most prominently during the 2005 Cronulla riots when it published a call for “every Aussie in the Shire” to join in a protest against Lebanese-Australians (Poynting 2006, p.85).

Agenda-Setting and Framing in the Islamic Sphere

The idea of using writing to influence public opinion has been around as long as writing has existed, and writers as far back as Aristotle have described writing as fundamentally “the political art of persuasion” (Varisco 2011, p.96). While it has existed for a long time, agenda-setting by mass media was only studied extensively and its effects analysed for the first time in the late 1960s. McCombs and Shaw conducted a study during the 1968 American presidential election and published the results in their seminal 1972 text ‘The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media’ in Public Opinion Quarterly, suggesting that the media sets the public agenda, not by telling you what to think, but what to think about. By explaining that “readers learn [about] how much importance to attach to [an] issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position” (1972, p.176), they showed that mass media determine which issues are important and which are not, and thus set the agenda of the news. Newspapers and television provide a host of cues about the salience of news topics, including where stories are positioned, the size of headlines, length of time devoted to the story, and language used in telling the story (McCombs 2003, p.1). Significant to this essay is the way in which McCombs (2003, p.2) describes how the public agenda is assessed – that is, by asking the question “What is the most important problem facing this country today?” The question of whether the media is simply reporting on a ‘problem’ or perpetuating it is an interesting one to ask.

Media framing is closely linked to agenda-setting and has been defined as “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Entman 1993, p.52). Scheufele’s 1999 work on framing, ‘Framing as a Theory of Media Effects’, is important, as it examines how media framing and agenda-setting are similar and are often used for the same purposes by mass media. Scheufele explains that a story presented to an audience in a ‘framed’ fashion can influence the way the audience uses the information and makes decisions based on it. Alongside the work of McCombs and Shaw (1972), Scheufele’s explanations of what constitutes framing are useful in deciphering the motivations behind the way in which stories are presented in mass media today.

The history of the way in which Muslims have been portrayed in Western media is complex and murky, and the relationship between the West and East in media must be examined on such a scale to get an idea of historical background and context. In his influential 1978 book, Orientalism, Palestinian-American author Edward Said examined the history of the West’s attitudes towards the East, and considered orientalism as a way by which writers, politicians, and colonists have historically come to terms with the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, and have been forged their opinions through interference, patronisation, imperialism and racism. The context of the East in Western culture is, to Said, an “arena of continual imperial ambition” (Scott 2008, p.64), and his work is very much relevant today, in that he describes how relationships between West and East can deteriorate due to “circumstances of time, distance, or oppression” (Scott 2008, p.64). The West’s ongoing view of the East, in Said’s description, is one that has been constructed to provide the West with an identity that a “superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133).

In the contemporary arena, Western media has been described as “aggravating anti-Muslim sentiment” (Kabir 2007, p.313) since the 1990-91 Gulf Crises. Since 9/11, intense media coverage of Islam has brought it to the attention of millions of people across the world. Despite this, it has been said that most Westerners know little about the faith itself (Rane et. al 2014, p.15). In Western media, Muslims tend to be described as a single, homogeneous mass, when the reality is there is a huge range of culture, ideology and religiosity within Islam.

Many reports of atrocities carried out in the name of Islam since 9/11 are true, including those which have seem particularly shocking to Westerners, such as beheadings, murders of children, and so-called honour killings (Ferre 2015, p.516). Atrocities of this nature received widespread media attention, but what is much less commonly reported in Western media is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject these abhorrent practices, even in the defence of Islam (Ferre 2015, p.516). Indeed, Gallup and Pew polls have shown that the majority of Muslims wish to uphold the religious freedom of non-Muslims, and favour democracy over totalitarian rule (Ferre 2015, p.516).

In Australia, studies have investigated the issue of how Muslims view they way they are represented in media, and have found their responses to be largely negative (Ewart et. al 2017, p.147). The reasons for this have been listed as being the lack of Muslim news sources, the way in which Muslims are stereotypically represented, their portrayal as the ‘enemy within’, and the consistent linking of Muslims and terrorism in stories (Ewart et. al 2017, p.147). Waves of prejudice against Muslims preceded 9/11 and there exists a climate of distrust around many Muslim communities, which many believe has been perpetuated by a number of Australian media organisations (Ogan et. al 2013, p.28). Many writers have described the feeling among Western Muslims since 9/11 as one of being “under siege”(Cherney & Murphy 2016, p.5). These elements and others combine to induce a negative reaction to Australian news media by Australian Muslims (Ewart et. al 2017, p.147), and Muslims have voiced concern over the divisiveness Australian media perpetuates, as well as expressing the belief that “prevailing media attitudes towards them and their religion disadvantages them both economically and socially” (Kabir 2007, p.313). Indeed, in 2017, the 33% rate of unemployment among Muslims is six times higher than the national average (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017, online; Bita 2017, online).

As they are in all Western societies, Muslim Australians are an ethnically-diverse group of people, yet many media reports “imply that all Muslims are the same” (Kabir 2007, p.313). Reasons for framing stories in such a way have been suggested, and these include to marginalise Muslim people as the “uncivilised ‘other’ in the dichotomy between Western and Eastern culture” (Kabir 2007, p.315), or for blatantly commercial reasons – sensationalised stories sell newspapers and generate website ‘clicks’.

Despite many noted problems, Rane et. al (2014, p.154) suggest that, while there is much that Western media need to do to make its representation of Islam fairer and more balanced, there are some signs of hope. They note that, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, much of the Australian media focussed on remembering victims, as opposed to discussing Islamic-inspired violence. It has also been widely recognised as essential that Australian police and security forces work with the Muslim community to mitigate the risks of terrorism arising from violent extremism (Cherney & Murphy 2016, p.1).


The Age broke the story under the headline ‘Sydney Terrorist Plot: Bid to Smuggle Bomb Through Airport Thwarted at Check-In’ (2017, online), labelling the plot ‘Sydney-born’ in its opening paragraph. Religion is mentioned in the second paragraph, with the words “Islamic State-inspired terrorists” (2017, online). The fifth paragraph mentions the names of the men arrested as Khaled Merhi, Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat, and restrained language is used, such as “suspected weapon”, “alleged plotters”, “alleged earlier attempt”, and “alleged Sydney terrorist cell” (2017, online). There is one mention of a terrorist group, when one of the men arrested is described as knowing someone who was “once viewed as an active recruiter for IS in Syria” (2017, online).

A story quickly followed on 1st August with the headline ‘Men Arrested Over Sydney Plane Bomb had Links to Syria’ (2017, online). Again, careful use of the word “alleged” in describing the plotters and their plans is evident, and, despite the story going into a significant amount of detail about alleged links to Syria, at no point is religion or a terrorist group mentioned. Some speculation is present in the story, when a terrorism specialist is quoted as saying the group “might have had multiple targets and back-up plans beyond a plane attack” (2017, online).

A story on 2nd August with the headline (which includes quotation marks) ‘Man Arrested Over “Sydney Terrorism Plane Bomb Plot” Released Without Charge’ (2017, online) similarly makes no mention of religion or terrorist group, and quotes one of the alleged plotters as saying he was “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time” – the first time one of the men arrested is given a voice. On 3rd August, The Age ran a story with the headline ‘Charges to be Laid Over Sydney Terrorist Plane Plot as Airport Threat Downgraded’ (2017, online) in which the alleged plotters are described as a “Sydney terrorist cell”, and, similarly, there is no mention of religion or terrorist group.

On 5th August, The Age ran a story with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Arrests: One Week On, One Man Remains in Custody Without Charge’ (2017, online), in which the alleged plot is described as being arranged by an “Islamic State operative in Syria”, and that the accused Australian plotters “assembled the IED with assistance from the IS commander” (2017, online). This is balanced by providing a quote from one of the accused’s lawyers, who states “it’s just unfathomable that he would be associated with anything like this” (2017, online).

On the 6th, The Age described how the fourth and final man accused of the plot had been released without charge in a story with the headline ‘Fourth Man Held Over Terror Plot, Khaled Merhi, Released from Police Custody’ (2017, online), again with restrained language being used (“alleged terror plot”, “alleged suspect”), and there is included a quote from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan, who describes the alleged plot as “one of the most sophisticated … that has ever been attempted on Australian soil” (2017, online). Thus, The Age‘s cycle of this story was complete for the time being, possibly until further charges are made.

The ABC broke the story on the 29th with the headline ‘Sydney Counter-Terrorism Police Carry Out Raids Aimed at Foiling Attacks, Prime Minister Says’. The facts of the story are described in a non-sensational manner, and no mention of any terrorist group or religion is made. Along with a quote from the Prime Minister’s office describing the alleged plot as one involving “plans to undertake terrorist attacks in Australia” (2017, online), a quote from the mother of one of the arrested men is also included, in which she says “I love Australia” (2017, online).

The following day, the ABC ran a story with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Raids “Disrupted” Plot to Bring Down Plane, Malcolm Turnbull Says’, in which material police seized is described in detail, being described as “items that could be used to make a bomb” (2017, online). Again, restrained language is used in describing the group as an “alleged cell” (2017, online), and the only mention of religion is in a quote from the AFP commissioner, who described the alleged plot as “Islamic-inspired” (2017, online).

On the 30th, a story with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Raids: Airport Delays Expected as Security Increased Over Alleged Plot’ (2017, online) described the changes to airport security in a straightforward manner, with additional checks of cabin and checked baggage being the main points, and possibly a greater number of security staff in some areas. A number of tweets are included containing messages of frustration in regards to airport delays, and a number of passengers have been interviewed expressing similar opinions (2017, online), but no mention of religion or terrorist group is made.

The following day, a story with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Raids: What We Know About Those Held Over Alleged Plot to Bomb a Plane’ (2017, online) details everything known about the men arrested for the alleged plot. Restrained language is used in describing the plot as “alleged plot” and the men arrested as “alleged terrorist cell” (2017, online). The language used to describe the materials discovered at the home of one of the men arrested is also restrained, describing it as “items that could be used to make a bomb” (2017, online). No mention of religion or of any terrorist group is made.

On 4th August the ABC ran a story with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Plot: How Police Dismantled Alleged Islamic State Plan Hatched on Home Soil’. A terrorist group is mentioned in the headline, and the word “alleged” is used in relation to the plan. The terrorist group IS is mentioned again in the story, as are an “IS controller” and an “IS operative” (2017, online), who allegedly helped the men with their plans. The story is quite detailed in going through how the alleged plot came about, but language remains restrained and balanced throughout. The story finishes with the sentence: “Their lawyer Michael Coroneos said: ‘My clients are entitled to the presumption of innocence’” (2017, online).

A story by the ABC on the same day ran under the headline ‘Sydney Terror Plotters “Tried to Blow Up Etihad Plane, Unleash Poison Gas Attack”’ (2017, online). The headline is restrained in that it puts the details of the alleged plot in quotes – that of a senior police figure. Similar mentions of IS and ISIL in the third and penultimate paragraphs respectively are attributed as quotes by police officers, and there is a quote from the accused men’s lawyer, who stated that they are entitled to the presumption of innocence (2017, online). Another story on the same day with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Plot: Why Police and Government Concern Shouldn’t be Dismissed as Hyberbole’ (2017, online) ties the alleged plot to Islamic State terrorist attacks of the past, including 9/11. The story goes into detail about the history and evolution of Al Qaeda’s “bombmakers” (2017, online) and clearly links the alleged Sydney plot to a greater worldwide problem.

On 31st July, The Daily Telegraph broke the story with the headline ‘Sydney Counter Terrorism Raids: ‘Jihadis Plotted Meat Mincer Bomb Attack to Blow Up Flight’. The word ‘jihadi’ is present in the headling, language is unrestrained (no use of “alleged”), and details of the alleged bomb itself are used in the headline. The words “Islamist-inspired” (2017, online) are used several times, one of the accused man’s homes is mentioned in relation to its distance from a mosque, and the Prime Minister is quoted as saying the threat of terror is “very real” (2017, online).

Later that day, The Daily Telegraph published another story with the headline ‘Imminent Attack: The Terror Plots Foiled on Australian Home Soil’ (2017, online). The ‘story’ is essentially a list of unrelated foiled terrorist attacks in Australia since 2005. Pictures at the top of the story include two men of Middle-Eastern appearance dressed in military fatigues, with one holding a weapon and one holding a severed head. The pictures appear to be taken somewhere in the Middle East.

Another story on the 30th was run with the headline ‘Terror Raids in Sydney: Police Storm Homes in Lakemba, Wiley Park, Punchbowl and Surry Hills’ (2017, online). Language is fairly restrained in describing the plot as “alleged” in several places for the first half of the story. A neighbour is quoted as saying he “often saw people in religious robes outside the unit block”, a woman from one of the homes raided is described as being “from Lebanon”, and another neighbour is quoted as saying a “collection of cats” at one of the homes raided “were bringing ticks and diseases into the block” (2017, online). The story notes that “several women wearing hijabs were also at the scene” (2017, online).

A further story on the 30th with the headline ‘Sydney Terror Raids: Security Increased at Airports Around Country After Police Foil Plot to Blow Up Domestic Flight’ (2017, online) describes how airport security is likely to increase in detail, with no mention of religion or terror groups.

On 31st July, a story with the headline ‘Muslim GP Asks Residents to Report Terror Activity Following Foiled Terror Plot’ (2017, online), a leading Muslim community leader is quoted as saying the alleged plot is “extremely upsetting and disappointing”. He also expressed relief that the alleged plot was foiled and stated that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people.

On 4th August, The Daily Telegraph ran a story with the headline ‘Sydney Terror: IS Link to Alleged Plot to Bring Down Plane with Explosive Chemical Device’ (2017, online) which immediately links the alleged plot to Islamic State and a wider, international terrorism network. A police spokesperson is quoted as saying the alleged plot “could very well have been a catastrophic event” (2017, online), and the story states that the brother of one of the men arrested is a “senior member of ISIL” (2017, online). A few paragraphs later, the story contradicts itself by saying the ISIL member “is not related to any of the charged men”.

On 5th August, The Daily Telegraph summed up how airport security has been tightened since the alleged plot in a story with the headline ‘Flight Crackdown on Security: The New Rules at Airports Coming After Terror Scare’ (2017, online). The alleged plot is no longer described as “alleged”, rather the “airport terrorism plot”, “one of the most sophisticated plots attempted in Australia”, and “close to a catastrophic event” (2017, online). A brother of one of the alleged plotters is stated as being an Islamic State commander.


Overall, The Age generally reported the story with minimal sensationalism and with careful use of language in the way it described the alleged plot and the people arrested in connection with it. The publication broke the story without jumping to conclusions about links to terrorist groups, and was relatively restrained in associating the alleged plotters’ motives with religion.

Interestingly, the breaking story describes the alleged terrorist cell as a “Sydney terrorist cell”, instead of mentioning religion, nationality, or a terrorist group – reducing the possibility of othering as a result. The story ‘Men Arrested Over Sydney Plane Bomb had Links to Syria’ (2017, online) is likely to frame the alleged plotters in a negative way, as links to Syrian terrorism are hinted at, or “ma[de] … more salient in a communicating text”, to quote Entman’s (1993, p.52) definition of media framing.

The story ‘Man Arrested Over “Sydney Terrorism Plane Bomb Plot” Released Without Charge’ (2017, online) on 2nd August allows one of the alleged plotters to have a voice for the first time in The Age, when he is quoted as saying he was “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time”, providing some balance to the story after three days.

The publication continued to refrain from relating the alleged plot to religion or terrorist group until 5th August, when the story ‘Sydney Terror Arrests: One Week On, One Man Remains in Custody Without Charge’ (2017, online) refers to the alleged plot being directed by an “Islamic State operative in Syria”. The Age‘s reporting of the story generally veers away from portraying Muslims as the “enemy within” (Ewart et. al 2017, p.147), and instead refers to the alleged plotters’ origin in terms of their home city, Sydney.

The ABC, for the most part, reported the story with minimal sensationalism and with a fair and balanced approach, as per its Principles and Standards document states (2017, online). All stories until 4th August used restrained language, balanced reporting, avoid linking any religion to a terror group, and avoided framing any particular Australian community in a particular way.

On 4th August, the story ‘Sydney Terror Plot: Why Police and Government Concern Shouldn’t be Dismissed as Hyberbole’ (2017, online) changes this approach suddenly, by linking the alleged plot with a greater worldwide “problem” involving Islamic-inspired terrorists and ties the alleged plot to a list of historical Islamic-inspired terrorist attacks. Australian Muslims are immediately framed in a way that is likely to bring about othering, or seeing them “classified … as ‘not one of us’” (Norriss 2011, online). If agenda-setting is “learning how much importance to attach to [an] issue” by the way in which a story is positioned or presented, as defined by McCombs and Shaw (1972, p.176), the ABC potentially contributed to changing the news agenda with this story, by clearly linking the alleged plot to international problems involving Islamic-inspired terrorists, and directly tying it to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. The article asks whether the plot signifies a change in tactics for Islamic State, and mentions how “intelligence agencies around the world will be paying close attention” (2017, online) to how Australia deals with the alleged plotters. Linking stories in this way is likely to contribute to othering of Muslims in Australia and perpetuate the idea of Islam in Australian as being “under siege” (Cherney & Murphy 2016, p.5).

The Daily Telegraph, for the most part, reported the story with a clear agenda of linking the alleged plot to the greater international problem of Islamic-inspired terrorism, framing Muslims as somewhat lesser than non-Muslim Westerners, and encouraging the idea that Muslims are the ‘enemy within’. The Daily Telegraph broke the story on 31st July using sensational and unrestrained language, clearly linking the alleged plot to to Islamic-inspired terrorism from the beginning, using the word ‘jihadi’ in the headline, and describing a “meat mincer bomb” (2017, online) for sensationalised impact. Further links to Islam are quickly made, with a mosque mentioned as being near to one of the arrested men’s homes. Later that day, the story ‘Imminent Attack: The Terror Plots Foiled on Australian Home Soil’ (2017, online) links the alleged plot, similarly to the ABC story on 4th August, to a range of foiled attacks involving Islamic-inspired terrorism, and included unrelated photos of ISIS fighters, again given the impression that all Muslims are the same.

The problem of media reports “imply[ing] that all Muslims are the same” (Kabir 2007, p.313) is evident in The Daily Telegraph‘s reporting of the story – particularly so in the story ‘Terror Raids in Sydney: Police Storm Homes in Lakemba, Wiley Park, Punchbowl and Surry Hills’ (2017, online), in which the clothing and pets owned by the Muslim occupants of an apartment are described in a negative way. This also fits with Edward Said’s view of orientalism as framing Western society as a “superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133) or the “uncivilised ‘other’ in the dichotomy between Western and Eastern culture” (Kabir 2007, p.315).

The 5th August story ‘Flight Crackdown on Security: The New Rules at Airports Coming After Terror Scare’ (2017, online) again uses sensationalised language to describe the alleged plot and plotters, and links them to Islamic State. The Daily Telegraph, however, then dedicates a story to the statement by a Muslim GP, describing how Muslims and security forces need to work together to defeat terrorism. In the story ‘Muslim GP Asks Residents to Report Terror Activity Following Foiled Terror Plot’ (2017, online), it could be asked whether The Daily Telegraph has provided an opportunity for balanced reporting with the inclusion of a Muslim voice, or contributed to the idea that Australian Muslims are “all the same” (Kabir 2007, p.313) or a single, homogeneous mass, and thus all Muslims should think and act the same, or heed the wishes of a single Muslim quoted in a newspaper.


In conclusion, it can be said that the Australian media’s coverage of the foiled July 2017 terror plot was balanced and informative by The Age, largely balanced and informative by the ABC, and arguably somewhat unbalanced and sensationalised by The Daily Telegraph.

The Age‘s “progressive values and ideas” (Hills 2010, p.298) appear to have shaped how the story was reported in the days following the alleged plot’s uncovering, coverage of the story remains consistently factual, and mostly stays away from linking the alleged plot to any greater national or international problem involving a terrorist group or religion. Despite some minor references to terrorist groups being inevitable, othering is unlikely to occur as a result of the framing of The Age’s story, or of the language or images used in its reporting.

Similar to The Age, the ABC reported the story in a balanced and informative fashion for the most part, as per its pledge to “ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial” (ABC, online). On the whole, the story was framed in way that would not be likely to cause othering to occur, until the 4th August story ‘Sydney Terror Plot: Why Police and Government Concern Shouldn’t be Dismissed as Hyberbole’ (2017, online). This story linked the alleged plot to a greater worldwide problem of Islamic-inspired terrorism, in a way that is likely to contribute to the idea that all Muslims are the same (Kabir 2007, p.313). This story has the potential to affect its audience’s view on Islam in a negative way.

Out of the three media organisations studied, The Daily Telegraph is most likely to contribute to othering of Australian Muslims by the way in which in reported the story of the alleged foiled terror plot. It reported the story in the least balanced manner – most likely guided by its traditional political alignment and favoured methods of using “loaded words to favour conservative causes” (Media Bias/Fact Check, online). The Daily Telegraph goes to the greatest lengths to point out what it apparently sees as the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, by describing making points of difference like clothes and pets, and includes images of ISIS fighters (one holding a severed head) to allow Westerners to feel, what Edward Said described as, “superior … in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133). The Daily Telegraph consistently and unrestrainedly links the alleged plotters to terrorist groups, with the potential result of othering of Australian Muslims. Research shows that if reporting is “ignorant, unethical, sensationalised or inaccurate it can have devastating consequences” (Reporting Islam, online), and if many Australian Muslims are feeling “under siege”(Cherney & Murphy 2016, p.5), from The Daily Telegraph‘s reporting of this story, some of the reasons are evident.


The ABC, ‘Principles and Standards’, online, accessed 12th August 2017: http://about.abc.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/EditorialPOL2011.pdf

The ABC, ‘Sydney Counter-Terrorism Police Carry Out Raids Aimed at Foiling Attacks, Prime Minister Says’, online, accessed 13th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-29/terrorism-raids-in-sydney-sees-streets-closed-one-arrested/8756802

The ABC, ‘Sydney Terror Plot: How Police Dismantled Alleged Islamic State Plan Hatched on Home Soil’, online, accessed 13th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-04/sydney-terror-plot-how-islamic-state-allegedly-infiltrated/8774844

The ABC, ‘Sydney Terror Plot: Why Police and Government Concern Shouldn’t be Dismissed as Hyberbole’, online, accessed 14th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-04/sydney-bombs-destined-for-aircraft-make-governments-take-notice/8775168

The ABC, ‘Sydney Terror Plotters “Tried to Blow Up Etihad Plane, Unleash Poison Gas Attack”’, online, accessed 13th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-04/sydney-terror-raids-police-say-plane-bomb-plot-disrupted/8773752

The ABC, ‘Sydney Terror Raids: Airport Delays Expected as Security Increased Over Alleged Plot’, online, accessed 13th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-30/passengers-face-lengthy-delays-as-security-measures-ramp-up/8757472

The ABC, ‘Sydney Terror Raids “Disrupted” Plot to Bring Down Plane, Malcolm Turnbull Says’, online, accessed 13th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-30/plot-to-bring-down-plane-disrupted,-pm-says-after-sydney-raids/8757386

The ABC, ‘Sydney Terror Raids: What We Know About Those Held Over Alleged Plot to Bomb a Plane’, online, accessed 13th September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-31/terrorism-raids-sydney-what-we-know-about-those-arrested/8757492

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Orientalism and the Media’s Treatment of the 1st January Istanbul Nightclub Attack

istanbul nightclub attack

The entire study of mass communication is “based on the premise that media have significant effects” (McQuail 1994, p.327). In the realm of hard news reporting, this can be especially true when negativity and sensationalism are used to skew perception, exploit fear, or craft a news story so that it appeals to as many people as possible. In today’s mediascape, in which a large number of organisations compete for audiences’ attention, a news story may be presented or framed in many different ways. Examining how this is done and the likely outcomes are valuable in understanding the functions and effects of mass communication. This essay will examine four news organisations’ – two English, one Turkish, and prominent Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera – coverage of the 1st January Istanbul nightclub attack in the days immediately after the incident. Instances of media framing and use of rhetoric will be recorded and potential motivations for framing suggested. Edward Said’s work on Orientalism provides a theoretical framework in which media framing of this news story can be contextualised.

Public communication occurs when individuals or organisations communicate with a large audience: the effects and implications of which have been scrutinised for decades. Framing by news organisations can influence the actions and choices an audience makes with a piece of information (Scheufele 1999, p.114). Entman (1993, p.52) described media framing as “select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text”, with the aim of “promot[ing] a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation”.

Edward Said wrote that the West’s view of the East – the societies and countries in the Middle East and Asia – is a “regular constellation of ideas” created as a “system of knowledge”, providing Europeans with an identity which is a “superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133). In Orientalism (1978), Said is concerned with establishing the context of the East as an “arena of continual imperial ambition” (Scott 2008, p.64) and describes the West’s ‘othering’ of the East as being forged in the realms of empire, patronisation and interference. This otherness is described as being created over centuries by Westerners viewing the East as a place of despotism, arbitrary lawlessness, and servility (Lockman 2004, p.48), which creates a “willed, imaginative and geographic distinction … between East and West” (Said 1978, p.140). While some critics have charged Said with cherry-picking evidence to create a case of Western racism against the East (Lockman 2004, p.182; Scott 2008, p.64), his work on Orientalism has been hugely influential since it was published. It is still relevant today, in that it can provide a framework for examining how the gap that exists between one human consciousness or set of societies and another can widen rapidly and tragically under “circumstances of time, distance, or oppression” (Scott 2008, p.64). Prejudice against Muslims preceded the 9/11 attacks and the so-called ‘War on Terror’, but those events and many terrorism attacks which followed have created a climate of distrust surrounding many Muslim communities (Ogan et. al 2013, p.28). These feelings of distrust continue to be perpetuated by some Western media organisations.

In the early hours of 1st January 2017, a gunman opened fire in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, which was filled with revellers celebrating New Year’s Eve. Thirty-nine people were killed and dozens wounded before the gunman fled the scene. Citizens of Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and France were killed, officials later said (Pamuk & Tattersall, 2017, online). Witnesses said the gunman shouted Islamist slogans as he discharged his weapon. He was arrested by Turkish authorities on 16th January, and it was reported he had links with Islamist militant groups (Arslan, 2017, online). News organisations picked up the story within minutes of the incident happening.

The Guardian has traditionally operated and been regarded as a left-wing or centre-left publication on the left-right political spectrum, and has been known for portraying Middle-Eastern refugees with empathy (Pupavac 2008, p.270). On 1st January, it first reported the nightclub attack story with a piece entitled ‘Turkey nightclub shooting: Istanbul on alert after gunman kills dozens’ (The Guardian 2017, online). The story labels the perpetrator a “gunman” and “attacker”, and by the fifth sentence, notes that “no group has claimed responsibility for the attack”, before moving on to describe the known series of events in simple, factual detail; including the number of dead, their nationalities, and details of the police search for the attacker. The publication quickly began a blog of rolling coverage for the news item, running through the following 24 hours (The Guardian 2017, online). Again, writers described the perpetrator as the “assailant”, “attacker” and “gunman”, with no reference to nationality, religion, or skin colour. A single mention of religion exists in a quote by Turkey’s most senior cleric, who condemned the attack as “savagery … that no Muslim conscience can accept” (The Guardian 2017, online). In a story published on 5th January entitled ‘Istanbul nightclub gunman identified, says Turkish foreign minister’, The Guardian reported that the identity of the gunman had been established, but did not give further details as his identity was not yet confirmed. In the same article, it was mentioned that “Isis claimed responsibility for the attack” (The Guardian 2017, online) and that Turkey is a NATO member working with the United States against Isis in Syria and Iraq. No direct implication was made that this fact and the attack were linked.

The Daily Mail has traditionally operated and been regarded as a conservative or right-wing publication, and has received criticism for portraying Middle-Eastern refugees in a negative fashion (Khosravinik 2009, p.477). Shortly after the attack took place, the Daily Mail reported the story in a piece entitled ‘Terrifying moment terrorist dressed as Santa stalks Istanbul nightclub where he killed 39 and wounded 69 before leaving his weapon behind – as funerals are held for victims just 13 hours after the atrocity’ (Daily Mail 2017, online). The fourth sentence in the story includes the words “it is unclear who carried out the shooting, however recent terror attacks in Turkey have been carried out by groups such as ISIS and Kurdish militants” (Daily Mail 2017, online); immediately suggesting the motivations or background of the attacker. Several sentences later, it is noted that the Turkish President “has vowed to fight to the end against all forms of attack by terror groups and their backers” and that the attack “had been carried out with Kalashnikov rifles” (Daily Mail 2017, online); again framing the attack as having been carried out by a terror group of ‘Eastern’ origin. On 2nd January, the Daily Mail ran a story with the headline ‘ISIS claim responsibility for Istanbul nightclub atrocity as police hunt gunman who murdered 39 revellers in five-minute shooting spree’ (Daily Mail 2017, online). The first sentence of the story begins with the words “ISIS fanatics…”, mentions the type of weapon as a Kalashnikov, states that the killer “shouted in Arabic during the attack”, lists a series of unrelated attacks which occurred in Turkey throughout 2016, before moving the focus to the United Kingdom by describing London as being on “high alert” and having an increased number of police officers on patrol (Daily Mail 2017, online). The Daily Mail published further stories daily until 16th January with a heavy focus on the attackers supposed links to ISIS, along with a ‘selfie’ photograph of the alleged attacker described as “menacing” (Daily Mail 2017, online).

Al Jazeera, despite its relatively short history, has been described as having “changed the face of a formerly parochial Arab media” (Zayani 2005, p.1) and as an organisation that has “scooped” Western media many times (El-Nawawy 2003, p.1). The broadcaster has helped to shape Arab identities in the public sphere, while “rattling the status quo” in the West (Seib 2008, p.7). On 1st January, Al Jazeera first reported the story under the headline ‘Istanbul attack: Dozens dead at Reina nightclub’ (Al Jazeera 2017, online), referring to the perpetrator as “attacker” and quoting a Turkish minister as “hunting one ‘terrorist’”. The story mentions that no claim of responsibility has been made for the attack, but that “experts say the needle of suspicion points at” ISIS (Al Jazeera 2017, online), and goes on to describe other terrorist attacks which occurred in Turkey during the previous twelve months. On 2nd January, Al Jazeera published a story with the headline ‘Istanbul: Police release photo of Reina attack suspect’ (Al Jazeera 2017, online), which displayed the photo with no accompanying description. The article quotes the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister on the country’s state of emergency and reports the attack as being claimed by ISIS, but does not state this as fact or make unsubstantiated claims on terrorism-related activity. By 17th January, in a story published with the headline ‘Istanbul Reina club suspect “confesses”: official’, Al Jazeera quotes Istanbul’s governor as saying that a suspect, Uzbekistan national Abdulgadir Masharipov, has confessed to the attack, and that it was “carried out in the name of [ISIS]” (Al Jazeera 2017, online). The story again sticks to quoting officials rather than making firm statements about the perpetrator’s arrest or possible motivations for the attack. Interestingly, the writer of the story deems it important to mention that the perpetrator was found and arrested in the Esenyurt district, which is “on Istanbul’s European side” (Al Jazeera 2017, online). This is not mentioned in any of the Western-published stories on the arrest.

Turkey is ranked lowly on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index (Solmaz 2015, online), but only one of its top-four selling newspapers is pro-government: the Daily Sabah. On 1st January the Daily Sabah reported the attack with a story with the headline ‘Terror attack on Istanbul nightclub leaves 39 dead, 65 wounded’, which describes the perpetrator simply as an “assailant” (Daily Sabah 2017, online) and makes no mention of religion. By 2nd January, a story is published with the headline ‘US denies having intelligence on Istanbul nightclub attack which killed 39’ (Daily Sabah 2017, online), bringing a potentially important new issue to the public’s attention, and one which is not mentioned anywhere in Western media. The story quotes the nightclub owner, Mehmet Koçarslan, as claiming U.S. sources had intelligence on the attack (Daily Sabah 2017, online). On the same day, the story ‘Istanbul nightclub attacker’s identity coming to light as Turkish police deepens probe’ is published (Daily Sabah 2017, online), in which the alleged perpetrator’s wife is reported as saying she is unaware of her husband’s “sympathies with the Daesh terrorist organisation”. Again, the name ‘ISIS’ is not mentioned. Use of the term ‘Daesh’ in media has been described as a better choice by a range of world leaders, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said “This is a terrorist group and not a state … the term Islamic State blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists” (Khan 2014, online).

Aristotle described rhetoric as fundamentally “the political art of persuasion” (Varisco 2011, p.96): this ‘art’ was present in various amounts in the news organisations’ stories analysed. From this analysis, it can be said that The Guardian reported the story with little to no framing of the attack as being of ‘Eastern’ origin, and mentions of religion and appearance of the attacker were minimal or non-existent. The Guardian showed very little evidence of Said’s description of the West ‘othering’ the East. The Daily Mail almost immediately framed the attacker as an “ISIS fanatic” (Daily Mail 2017, online), and the majority of related stories in the days following the attack mentioned ISIS in the headline or opening paragraphs. The Daily Mail was the only publication to mention the weapons used as being Kalashnikovs, and described the alleged perpetrator’s unremarkable photograph as “menacing” (Daily Mail 2017, online). Known for portraying Muslims as an “alien other” (Saeed 207, p.1), the Daily Mail displayed the largest amount of reporting which fitted Said’s description of the West’s ‘othering’ of the East. This framing fits with Entman’s description of “select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text with the aim of promot[ing] a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (1993, p.52). A likely result is that Europeans are presented with an identity which Said described a “superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133) and that the resulting idea of Europe is “a collective notion identifying ‘us’ Europeans as against all those non-Europeans” (Said 1979, p.134). Al Jazeera displayed restraint in not making unsubstantiated claims about the attacker’s identity or links to terrorist groups in the days following the attack; instead quoting the Turkish Prime Minister and government officials. It is interesting to note that Al Jazeera found it necessary to mention that the perpetrator was found and arrested “on Istanbul’s European side” (Al Jazeera 2017, online), perhaps confirming its status as a broadcaster which “rattl[es] the status quo” in the West (Seib 2008, p.7). The Daily Sabah, it could be argued, was bold in raising the question over whether the United States had any prior warning of the attack, and was the most careful of any of the news organisations analysed in its labelling of the group allegedly responsible as Daesh, not ISIS (Daily Sabah 2017, online).

In conclusion, it can be said that Western media frames a vision of the East through its mass media organisations, although the extent to which this occurs varies depending on an organisation’s traditional position on the left-right political spectrum. Reporting news stories concerning terrorism or religious extremism in the East can be particularly problematic for Western news organisations. Said’s theory that the West allows the East into its consciousness through a filtered grid – a complex relationship between power, domination and varying degrees of hegemony – is still as relevant today as it was in the late 1970s. It could be argued that Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera provides a reliable, alternative option to Western media for coverage of stories concerning the Middle East and Asia.


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Digital Technologies and the Erosion of Social Trust

Paul McBride Brisbane essay

Social trust and the negative impact of its decline has been interesting and concerning economists and political scientists for some time (Hakansson & Wittmer 2015, p.517). As digital technology evolves, modern forms of media communication have become increasingly complex and discursive in terms of developing trust relations (Berry 1999, p.28), and concerns involving social trust and digital technology have become increasingly intertwined. Societies benefit from high levels of social trust, and while we are now communicating quicker and in a greater variety of ways than ever before, it is not immediately obvious whether the many forms of digital technology and their rapidly-evolving natures have a positive or negative impact on the social trust within a society. Social trust relies on many factors, and while digital technology is far from being the only, or even major, factor in influencing the amount of social trust within a society, it can play a major part. This essay will examine the question of whether digital technologies erode social trust, and the potential implication of the effects of digital technologies and related issues on social trust.

Social trust is a “belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others” (Taylor 2007, p.1). It provides the “cohesiveness necessary for the development of meaningful social relationships” (Welch 2001, p.3) and is highly important for both social and political reasons. The level of social trust within a society has implications in the fields of sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology and others. It contributes to a wide range of social phenomena and attributes, from stable government, social equity, market growth, and public harmony, as well as elements on an individual level, such as optimism, physical and mental well-being, education, community, and participation (European Social Survey, online). Individuals benefit from being part of a society with high social trust, as well as contributing to, and participating in, it. Social trust is a “deep-seated indicator of the health of societies and our economies” (Halpern 2015, online) and, when averaged across a country, the levels of social trust “predict national economic growth as powerfully as financial and physical capital, and more powerfully than skill levels” (Halpern 2015, online). Abundant social trust in a society is often see as “a lubricant facilitating all types of economic exchanges” (Krishna 2000, p.71).

In 1994 there were just 10,000 websites globally (Swire 2014, online). This changed with the launch of search engines – particularly market leader Google – as so-called ‘walled gardens’ such as AOL “were killed” (Swire 2014, online), allowing users to easily and quickly find what they were looking for. E-commerce exploded, and in 2001, well over 100 million Americans had purchased a product online (Mutz 2009, p.439). Blogs, chat websites, and early forms of social media followed, and broadband Internet began to increase in availability in 2005. Sites such as YouTube, which allowed users to upload and watch videos, became hugely popular, and social media emerged as a major online presence with Facebook and Twitter in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Smart phones (particularly Apple’s iPhone) brought the Internet to mobile phones in the early 2010s and have “completely changed the way that people consume content on a daily basis” (Swire 2014, online). The majority of Internet time is now spent on mobile devices worldwide, and around 50% of people now get their news from a digital source such as a website, app or e-mail alert (American Press Institute 2016, online). The media’s role in mediating experience by bridging the gap between events and audiences is a broad but extremely important one (Berry 1999, p.28), and media organisations now have to take into account the presentation of their news more than ever, as users of digital media place high importance on the presentation and delivery of news.

The Internet’s early architecture was built on a foundation of trust (Hurwitz 2013, p.1580), but as it matured, its uses and users became increasingly complex. Online social networks are now a major part of everyday life and the method by which many of us stay connected with friends, consume news, and conduct business. They are a prominent method by which people foster social connections, and the significance and depth of these connections and their relationship with fostering trust has been extensively studied. The Internet’s transition from an early “community with a common purpose” to one that “supports myriad, often conflicting, private interests” (Hurwitz 2013, p.1580) has both positive and negative aspects, with corresponding effects on social trust.

Variation across individuals in their levels of trust in the Internet supports the view that the Internet is an ‘experience’ technology – users’ views of it are greatly shaped by their experience (Dutton & Shepherd 2003, p.7). The rapid proliferation of social media websites since the mid-2000s has accelerated this notion, as users’ experiences of using social media can differ widely. It has been suggested that social networking websites should inform potential users that “risk-taking and privacy concerns are potentially relevant and important concerns” before they sign up to become members (Fogel & Nehmad 2009, p.153), as one of the major negative aspects of social networking sites is the potential for users to cause harm to other users, and thus causing a drop in social trust. Internet users initially experience a high level of trust in online communities, but as time passes, trust rapidly declines (Parker 2015, online).

Social networking on the Internet takes place in a context of trust, but trust is a concept with many dimensions and facets (Grabner-Krauter & Bitter 2013, p.1). Studies suggest that the lay public relies on social trust when making judgements of risks and benefits when personal knowledge about a subject is lacking (Siegrist & Cvetkovich 2000, p.1), so Internet users place trust in other Internet users with expertise, identity, personal information and some even with money lending (Lai & Turban 2008, p.387). This can often cause distress or harm as a result, with a corresponding drop in social trust. Trust in the Internet and the information that is obtainable from it is critical to the development of electronic services such as public service delivery to online commerce, and these are harmed if social trust is low.

However, Hakansson and Witmer (2015, p.518) argue that greater use of social media and an increase in number and variety of online communities can affect social trust positively. They suggest that because information and knowledge is vital to building trust, and digital media transmits information much faster than face-to-face relationships, social trust can be increased as a result. Similarly, social media also makes it easier to find new relationships and opportunities for marketing.

As the Internet has matured and the number of users suffering harm or having a negative experience online has increased, there have been increased calls for Internet providers to mediate use of the Internet, which has caused concern for people who place high value on privacy. Various methods have been proposed to calculate levels of, and manage, social trust in online social networks, but none have proved to work definitively (Carminati et. al 2014, p.16). In today’s Internet, intermediaries are increasingly active (Hurwitz 2013, p.1581), and can protect users from experiencing harm online, and thus prevent a drop in social trust. Parigi and Cook (2015, p.19) explain how digital technology operates as an assurance structure when mediation is a factor in interactions. Mediation “reduces overall uncertainty and promotes trust between strangers”. At the same time, it removes any of the human emotions connected with meeting new people. Social interactions are often uniform and stripped of uncertainty or individuality, and are therefore devoid of the “cohesiveness necessary for the development of meaningful social relationships” (Welch 2001, p.3) that high social trust requires.

An additional concerning element of the proliferation of intermediaries is that is can often be unclear “which institutions, if any, safeguard users from harm” (Hurwitz 2013, p.1581). In the post-trust Internet, users “cannot embrace active intermediaries without assurances that their data will be handled in accordance with their expectation” (Hurwitz 2013, p.1582). Moving forward, it is the very nature of the Internet which makes establishing liability for intermediaries extremely difficult, as well as allowing it to thrive. A recent study showed that 48% of Americans expressed concern about corporate intrusion in their Internet activities (Brynko 2011, p.11).

In many cases, attempts to regulate digital technologies can erode social trust. In democratic societies, it is the role of legislators to defend and promote the public interest, but Australia is rare among Western democracies in that it has no constitutional guarantee of media freedom or free expression (Pearson 2012, p.99). Generally, journalists prefer to run their own affairs by creating systems of self-regulation (White 2014, p.4), but are often subject to intense scrutiny. In Australia, a proposed 2010 federal government review was meant to map out the future of media regulation in the digital era (Conroy 2010, online), but fell by the wayside after the News of the World phone hacking scandal shifted attention back to print media (Pearson 2012, p.99). Further government inquiries in 2011 and 2012 sought to establish the extent to which rapidly developing news businesses and their digital platforms required regulation, but no obvious solution was reached (Pearson 2012, p.99). The lack of a written guarantee of media freedom in Australia means that any attempts to regulate media is more of a threat to democracy, and hence social trust. Enforced self-regulation “is not a suitable option – at least not until free expression earns stronger protection” (Pearson 2012, p.99). A UK study found that current regulation of the Internet is “failing to address the democratic value in enabling citizens to navigate … public space” and “failing to support informed choices about content” (Fielden 2011, p.99).

While the Internet has no guarantees of freedom from regulation, it presents many challenges to those seeking to regulate it. A lack of centralised control, widely-used encryption techniques, its international nature, and anonymity of its users are just a few of the factors which make regulation of the Internet incredibly difficult. While cyberspace has been described as “a terra nullius in which social relations and laws have no historical existence and must be reinvented” (Chenou 2014, p.205), the nature of the Internet, and therefore its affect on the social trust of a nation or group of people, varies greatly depending on location. For example, Australia has legislation prohibiting abuse of market power to lessen competition, whereas in the United States, these laws are not as stringent.

However, not all legislation involving regulation of digital technology is likely to decrease social trust. It could be argued that the Spam Act 2003 is likely to prevent a decrease in a society’s social trust as it greatly prohibits online fraud and encourages self-regulation by users. Similarly, regulation of cyberspace for children is almost universally accepted as a reasonable form of mediation in digital technology with no decrease in social trust likely as a result. While the Australian Labor Party’s 2007 proposal for a blanket ban on content deemed harmful to children was rejected, further legislation has been implemented to protect children online in Australia with the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015. In the United Kingdom, a 2008 report by the government’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee expressed concern about the amount of time taken for the most extreme content to be removed from video-sharing websites such as YouTube (Fielden 2011, p.78). While YouTube introduced a ‘safety mode’ in 2010 to address concerns over parental controls, there is still much concern over the amount of inappropriate material children can access, and the lack of regulation faced by the hosts of this material. As so much data is uploaded to sites such as YouTube every minute, hour and day, it is physically impossible for every piece of content to be checked, so the future of online content regulation for sites such as these is, essentially, crowdsourced (Fielden 2011, p.77). The YouTube community guidelines state: “Every new community feature on YouTube involves a certain level of trust. We trust you to be responsible, and millions of users respect that trust, so please be one of them” (YouTube, online). Discussions at government level concerning the possibility of further regulation of online content still exist in many Western democracies.

Another area which has potential for eroding social trust is in the area of copyright. Copyright has developed over centuries, and friction between users of digital technologies and regulatory bodies has existed for as long as digital technology has been a medium for communication. The digital age has made many traditional modes of reproduction of intellectual property obsolete, and despite many positive aspects of faster and more widely available communication options, methods of creativity and ownership have been tested in profound ways (Fitzgerald 2008, online). The Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998 criminalised copyright infringement on the Internet, but has attracted criticism for overzealous application of its powers and undermining free speech, and therefore having the potential to erode social trust. In the digital age, copyright activists argue that overzealous use of copyright laws online restrict access to information (Lessig 2008, online). Organisations such as Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provide alternatives to copyright, and aim to protect the public interest regarding new technologies (Lambe 2014, p.448). The EFF is especially active in the fields of intellectual property, free speech, anti-surveillance, and bloggers’ rights, and has been in legal disputes with several commercial entities and law enforcement agencies as a result.

Today, every social media user is a publisher of sorts (Cuddy 2016, online). Social media provides instant access to potentially huge audiences, and huge potential for copyright infringement too. Social networking sites provide perhaps the greatest risk of an erosion of social trust in the realm of copyright by providing a platform for users who have shared their creative work with the world to have it stolen and used by others (Legal Aid NSW 2017, online). Copyright law in Australia covers works that are created or shared online, but a social media website’s terms and conditions may change the rights to the work, and these conditions are not always clear or understood.

Another element of digital technologies which has vast potential to erode social trust is the concern of government and corporate Internet surveillance. Post 9/11, the United States government and its federal agencies greatly increased surveillance of its citizens online and introduced a large amount of of cybersecurity legislation as an overall part of their anti-terrorism policy (Nhan & Carroll 2012, p.394). Many watchdog groups expressed concern as a result, although the effect of the legislative and policy changes were perhaps unclear until notorious NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information regarding government surveillance of private citizens’ online information and habits. In 2014, a survey found that 60% of respondents had heard of Snowden, and that 39% of people have changed their online behaviour as a result of the information he leaked (Jardine & Hampson 2016, online). Jardine and Hampson (2016, online) also found that that many people’s routine online activity had changed substantially, with the most common change being a move from ‘public’ search engines to private search engines with built-in anonymity technology. Similarly, recent scandals in the United States exposing surveillance by the government on its citizens’ online information is likely to have greatly eroded trust in digital media, and thus, social trust (Anderson & Rainie 2014, p.20). This supports the theory that that digital technology has a negative effect on social trust. (Hakasson & Witmer p.518).

There are many real-life examples of digital technology affecting democracy worthy of study, and many of them display potential to erode social trust. Govier (1997, p.20) points out that distrust in politics is “especially prevalent, and, while it may be well-founded, can have pernicious effects” on a society. The 2016 United States presidential election saw the Electronic Frontier Foundation involving itself in an attempt to force a recount in three key states after evidence showed that hackers had manipulated voting machines and optical scanners (Hoffman-Andrews 2016, online), most likely affecting the overall result of the election. In its role as the Fourth Estate, the media is hypothetically the guardian of the public interest and the regulators of those holding democratic power. However, as Coronel (2003, p.9) explains, the media are often used “in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust”. In these cases, media contribute to public cynicism and apathy, and have a negative effect on democratic processes, and hence a decline in social trust.

President Trump’s first 100 days in office have seen him launch numerous verbal attacks on the media, which have likely eroded social trust for many Americans, but interestingly, polls have provided conflicting results on whether the American public trust the media or the President more (Farber 2017, online; Lima 2017, online; Patterson 2017, online). The goals of advocates for free speech online and anti-regulation groups are often intertwined with those seeking political reform, and those operating at the same time as the current political administration are no different. Ericson (2016, online) goes as far as saying that Lawrence Lessig has “already transformed intellectual-property law with his Creative Commons innovation, and now he’s focused on an even bigger problem: the US’ broken political system”.

In conclusion, it can be said that as societies function on the basis of trust, and users of digital technology are no different, social trust is paramount to a well-functioning democracy. For a high level of social trust to be maintained, users need to trust the Internet and associated digital technologies to keep their information secure and private. Trust is the bedrock of the Internet, is the basis for much of its success, and, in many ways, the philosophy behind much of what keeps it running. However, the Internet provides many opportunities for social trust to be eroded, and trust in digital technologies, and especially the Internet, is arguably declining. When trust in digital technology starts to wane, or government agencies or organisations are shown to be breaching privacy or perceived as being dishonest, users change how they behave and social trust declines. Recent copyright and regulatory conflict, and scandals involving surveillance and privacy have likely had a negative effect on social trust in many Western democracies. The resulting drop in social trust has a negative effect on a society, in terms of public harmony, economics, and other areas. Social cohesion can be established or demolished by high or low social trust.


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Asylum Seekers, Migrants and Illegal Immigrants: How the British Media Reported the 2015 European Refugee Crisis

Asylum Seekers, Migrants and Illegal Immigrants:

How the British Media Reported the 2015 European Refugee Crisis

A Research Paper

By Paul McBride
30th November 2015


British mass media has represented refugees with a range of terms and labels; some fair and accurate, others not. Correct application of the words ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ is important, as a refugee is someone forced to flee conflict or persecution, whereas a migrant is someone who moves from one place to another for better work or living conditions. This paper examines British mass media’s representation of refugees during the European refugee crisis of 2015, to investigate whether news outlets potentially contributed to the demonization and marginalisation of refugees in the receiving country. Results showed a news outlet from the left of the political spectrum to be largely sympathetic to refugees, and news outlets from the centre and right to be largely unsympathetic to refugees. Each news outlet had clear and obvious agendas in how they framed their refugee stories. There is potential for audiences to view refugees in a negative light as a result of a majority of stories examined.

KEY WORDS: refugee, asylum seeker, migrant, refugee crisis, Syria, agenda-setting, media framing, mass media, media audiences


In 2015, it is estimated that global refugee numbers exceeded 50 million people for the first time since World War II (UN Refugee Agency, online). While much of Western media seeks to portray refugees as an unstoppable human tidal wave bringing instability and cultural decline to overwhelmed receiving countries, refugees make up only a little more than half of one percent of the global population. Stories on refugees traditionally polarise public opinion, but a near-universal public outpouring of sympathy occurred when the story of Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, broke on September 2nd.

It has been suggested by communications scholars that mass media only reinforces existing beliefs (Ross and Nightingale, 2003, p.100) without playing a part in creating them, and this paper will test that theory. By studying three British media outlets’ coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis during the month of September 2015, beginning at the time of Aylan Kurdi story, conclusions will be drawn concerning the extent to which the British media’s coverage was balanced and informative, whether were refugees represented fairly and accurately, and if any evidence of framing or agenda-setting existed.


More than five centuries after the printing press was introduced to Western audiences (Eisenstein, 1980, p.3), the first mass media agenda-setting theory was formally developed by McCombs and Shaw with their seminal 1972 work ‘The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media’ in Public Opinion Quarterly. By conducting a study on audiences in the 1968 American presidential election, they were able to show a strong correlation between the importance placed on an issue by mass media and the perception of the issue by the audience (1972, p.178). This ground-breaking work has since been expanded on, including by Rogers and Dearing (1988, p.555), who described the connection between the media’s, the public’s and public policy agendas as being tightly intertwined.

Media framing is a subject closely linked to agenda-setting. It was concisely described by Entman (1993, p.52) as “select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation”. In 1999, American communications professor Dietram Scheufele wrote an extensive article on the subject entitled ‘Framing as a theory of media effects’ in Journal of Communication. In this work he clarified and defined the subject of media framing in terms of how it relates to agenda-setting, and went even further than many works on agenda-setting by analysing how a subject presented to an audience (‘the frame’) can influence the actions and choices they make using that information (1999, pp.114). Similar to McCombs & Shaw (1972), this text and Entman’s description provide appropriate definitions, rationale and examples of framing and agenda-setting, to be used in the research design and analysis of findings for this research paper.

Britain’s cultural makeup has constantly evolved for thousands of years, with incoming groups receiving varying degrees of welcome, depending on circumstances. A contemporary watershed moment was reached with the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962, which dramatically provided opportunities to British subjects globally (Cesarani, 1996, p.65), although it also brought opposition in the form of the racist rhetoric of Powellism (Buettner, 2014, p.710). A range of terms for labelling immigrants and refugees followed, with status determination and labels “infusing the world of refugees” (Zetter, 1991, p.39). Quickly, the problem rose of immigrants and refugees viewing their identity in very different terms to those bestowing the labels (Harrell-Bond, 1986, p.15).

Much has been written about the wide variety of negative connotations of refugees used by mass media and the likely effects on audiences. Philo and Beattie (1999, p.171) described how coverage of refugees in British media uses disaster terminology, presenting the receiving nation as being victim to ‘floods’ and ‘tidal waves’. Van Dijk (2000, p.33) explained how Western media consistently described refugees as a threat, Lynn and Lea’s (2003, p.425) analysis of readers’ letters to newspapers showed that ‘asylum seeker’ is “more often taken to mean ‘bogus asylum seeker’”, whereas Goodman (2007, p.35) argued that there is a tendency in Western media to liken the movement of refugees to animals breeding. A study by Kaye (2001, p.53) showed that traditionally right-wing newspapers are more likely to label asylum-seekers as making bogus claims or as ‘economic migrants’. O’Doherty and Lecouteur (2007, p.1) analysed the social categorisations and marginalising practices applied to asylum seekers in the media, arguing that certain terms, when used by mass media, including ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘boat people’, encouraged marginalising practices resulting in social isolation and fear. Leudar et al (2008, p.187) took an interesting approach to the subject, by using a collection of global refugee experiences to analyse hostility displayed towards asylum seekers in the British media and the social and psychological effects arising as a result. They found the majority of asylum seekers in Britain formed their new personal identity around the hostility they experienced in the media and many suffered psychological problems as a result. Innes (2010, p.456) explains how, in Britain, asylum seekers, despite being some of the most vulnerable people in the world, are constructed in the media as a “homogeneous collective that threatens the nation’s interests”, and how government policy has been complicit in supporting this approach, which links back to Rogers and Dearing’s (1988, p.555) view that the media and public policy have tightly-linked agendas. By looking at marginalising practices used by media and the real-life results, existing studies have described the harmful consequences for refugees already living in an environment of immense stress and fear.

Many studies on the British media’s treatment of refugees are either fairly general or lacking specificity (King and Wood, 2013, p.55). This work will fill that gap by concentrating on how refugees are portrayed in stories produced by a set number of publications across the left-right political spectrum during a time period of just the month of September 2015: a time when the 2015 European refugee crisis saturated mass media following widespread publication of pictures of drowned Syrian three year-old, Aylan Kurdi. The only similar work is that of Majid Khosravinik (2010, p.18), who conducted a critical discourse analysis on British newspapers’ strategies towards representing asylum seekers between 1996 and 2006, taking into account traditional ideological stances on the political spectrum, concluding that all newspapers represent asylum seekers similarly. This is a useful study for academic comparison, but this work narrows the focus and provides a more current analysis of the subject.


While the subjects of agenda-setting, media framing and the representation of refugees in the media have studied in a general sense or in a particular nation, this work goes further by examining the approaches used by a selected group of publications over a designated time period, and bringing research in this area into the contemporary sphere while doing so. By doing so, it answers the question: to what extent has the British media’s coverage of the European refugee crisis in September 2015 been balanced and informative, and were refugees represented fairly and accurately as a result? It also examines the extent to which British media outlets’ traditional political alignments affected the way they covered the refugee crisis, did media outlets cover the refugee crisis and describe refugees more sympathetically than others, was there any evidence of framing or agenda-setting by British media in this period, and to what extent did the differing terminology used by media outlets in this period have the potential to contribute to the demonization of refugees.

From the 1st to 30th September 2015, stories on the European refugee crisis were collected from news sections of The Guardian, Daily Mail, and the BBC. These publications were chosen for review as they provide a range of political alignments on the left-right spectrum. The Guardian, since its inception in Manchester in 1821, has traditionally been a left-wing or centre-left publication, and has been known for refugee advocacy (Pupavac, 2008, p.270). The Daily Mail, since its 1896 creation, has been considered a conservative or right-wing publication, and has received criticism for portraying refugees in an unfair light (Khosravinik, 2009, p.477). The BBC, however, is bound by its charter to be impartial in all matters (BBC Editorial Guidelines, online), so theoretically should report news from a neutral position at all times.

Refugee stories were brought together in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, sorted by publication and date. Around thirty stories were collected from each news outlet, from a range of dates and editions over the month of September. The stories were compiled and the journalists’ use of language examined, with particular focus on the use and frequency of the terms ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘illegal immigrant’, and whether the use of any of these terms was consistent throughout each of the news outlets. The stories were also examined for use of other forms of language which may portray refugees in a negative light, and whether the use of language matched the traditional political stance on refugees of each news outlet. Suggested limitations of the research method include the small range of news outlets examined, and the restricted period of time in which to examine stories produced. As with any study, a larger sample may produce a more accurate mean result.


On September 2nd, the story of Aylan Kurdi broke, and The Guardian dedicated more than ten stories to the subject over the next 24 hours. The first ran on September 2nd (The Guardian, World News, online) with the headline ‘Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees’ and follow-up stories included those with headlines ‘Family of Syrian boy washed up on beach were trying to reach Canada’, ‘Aylan Kurdi: friends and family fill in gaps behind harrowing images’, ‘Will the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?’, ‘Refugee crisis: what can you do to help?’, ‘Aylan Kurdi: funeral held for Syrian boy who drowned off Turkey’, ‘Syrian refugee crisis: why has it become so bad?’ and ‘Refugee crisis: “Love the stranger because you were once strangers” calls us now’ (The Guardian, World News, online). These initial stories used language which was sympathetic to refugees, contained no derogatory words or phrases, and described the trials they faced with words like ‘harrowing’ and ‘brutal’, while also describing in detail the extreme dangers refugees face making the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. The word ‘migrants’ did not appear in any of these stories; instead, ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ were used, or, in more than 50% of cases, simply ‘family’, ‘Syrians’ or ‘people’ (The Guardian, World News, online).

By September 10th, the Aylan Kurdi story was no longer being covered by The Guardian, but coverage switched to the refugee crisis in a broader sense. Over the following ten days, stories with the headlines ‘Refugee crisis: Juncker calls for radical overhaul of EU immigration policies’, ‘Refugee crisis: “Europe needs to take big numbers. Until then, chaos reigns”’, ‘Refugee crisis: we must act together, says Merkel ahead of emergency summit’ and ‘Refugee crisis: Giving Europe the chance to evolve’ appeared (The Guardian, World News, online). The words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ were still used to describe Syrians crossing the sea by boat in all cases (The Guardian, World News, online), and the news outlet’s editorial policy was still one of portraying the plight on asylum seekers in a sympathetic light, particularly in its scathing article on the Hungarian President’s, among others’, apathy regarding the situation (The Guardian, World News, online).

During the last ten days of September the word ‘migrant’ appeared in two stories: ‘Refugee crisis: EU splits exposed at emergency summit – as it happened’ and ‘EU refugee crisis “tip of the iceberg”, says UN agency’ (The Guardian, World News, online). However, during this time The Guardian published an article criticising the Daily Mail’s representation of refugees, entitled ‘Three problems with the Daily Mail’s story about Syrian refugees’, in which the Daily Mail’s claims about number of refugees, validity of asylum claims, and country of origin of the majority of refugees are strongly refuted (The Guardian, World News, online).

On September 2nd, as the Aylan Kurdi story broke, the Daily Mail’s initial response was to run a story with the headline ‘Migrant crisis shows the EU at its worst’ (Daily Mail, Debate Homepage, online). The story referred to ‘lifeless migrant children’ and placed blame for the lack of a solution to the situation away from British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A series of stories followed with the headlines ‘The final journey of tragic little boys washed up on a Turkish beach’, ‘God be with you, little angel: The world shows its grief and anger over the death of tragic Syrian toddler Aylan’, ‘”Breathe, breathe, I don’t want you to die!”: Father of Aylan Kurdi relives the terrible moments he tried to save his two sons but they died in his arms’, and ‘Tragic Aylan’s final journey’ (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online). These stories referred to the tragedy using sympathetic language, and used the word ‘refugee’ or, quite simply, ‘families’ instead of ‘migrant’.

By September 6th, editorial policy changed, and in the vast majority of stories for the rest of the month, refugees were referred to as migrants. In a story with the headline ‘Britain wants to quit Europe: Shock new poll shows EU “no” camp ahead for the first time as Cameron prepares to face down Tory rebels’, the journalist referred to the ‘migrant crisis engulfing the continent’, using a synonym of inundate/flood/deluge to describe refugee movement (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online). Continuing use of the word ‘migrant’ in place of ‘refugee’ occurred on September 7th in a story with the headline ‘The image of Syrian toddler Aylan, three, washed up dead on a Turkish shoreline has shocked the world – but he is not the only child victim of the migrant crisis’, while on September 8th, a story with the headline ‘Aylan’s father just wanted better dental treatment: Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s brutal claim that drowned Syrian boy wasn’t a “real refugee”’ correctly labelled them as refugees despite the message of the story (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online). From September 10th, the Daily Mail exclusively used the word ‘migrant’ in place of ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ without exception, and on September 11th, the validity of Aylan Kurdi’s father’s story was called into question in a story with the headline ‘Father of Aylan Kurdi angrily hits out at Iraqi mother who accused him of being a people smuggler’ (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online).

By September 23rd, all refugee stories were moved to a section of the website labelled ‘Immigration’ (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online). In stories with the headlines ‘Migrant crisis proves Britain’s case for EU reform’, ‘Rape and child abuse are rife in German refugee camps’ and ‘Police clear migrant camp between Italy and France and accuse them of using electricity and water without paying for it’, refugees are described as seeking ‘job opportunities and better social care’ as the authorities attempt to ‘stem the tide of migrants’ (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online).

From September 3rd, the BBC ran all stories on refugees under the banner ‘Migrant Crisis: _____’, such as ‘Migrant Crisis: Photo of drowned boy sparks outcry’ and ‘Migrant crisis: Drowned boy’s father speaks of heartbreak’ on September 3rd, and ‘Migrant crisis: Why the Gulf states are not letting Syrians in’ on the 7th (BBC, World News, online). In a September 3rd story with the headline ‘Migrant Crisis: Canada denies Alan Kurdi’s family applied for asylum’ (BBC, World News, online), refugees were consistently referred to as ‘migrants’ while it was simultaneously acknowledged military attacks forced them to flee.

On September 9th, an online petition was created under the banner ‘Request BBC use the correct term Refugee Crisis instead of Migrant Crisis’ (Change.org, online), which quickly gained 30,000 signatures (the figure had reached 73,000 at the time of writing). The same day, the BBC published a story with the headline ‘Migrant crisis: How Middle East wars fuel the problem’, in which the journalists included the words “”The new crisis is about refugees” and “Some Western politicians, and journalists, are taking proper notice for the first time of a refugee crisis” (BBC, World News, online).

On September 14th, the BBC published a story with the headline ‘Migrant crisis: What next for Germany’s asylum seekers?’ which used the words ‘asylum seekers’ in place of ‘migrants’ despite the ongoing use of the word ‘migrant’ in the headline (BBC, World News, online). For the rest of the month, the word ‘migrants’ only appeared sporadically, and was dropped from headlines. The word ‘refugee’ began to appear from September 16th, including in the stories ‘Middle East refugees who chose Brazil over Europe’ and ‘Portsmouth takes more asylum seekers than other cities’ (BBC, World News, online). By September 18th, refugee stories began with the words “Syria Refugee Crisis: _____”, such as ‘Syria refugee crisis: Yarmouk pianist’s perilous journey to Greece’ (BBC, World News, online).


On September 2nd, the story of Aylan Kurdi broke, and The Guardian published a series of articles which reported on the refugee crisis sympathetically and framed the situation in such a way to potentially provoke further thought and discussion. Matching Entman’s definition of a frame (1993, p.52) as “select[ing] some aspects of a reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text”, The Guardian deliberately reported on the situation with humanity and empathy, with little likelihood of demonization or marginalisation of refugees as a result.

This sympathetic framing continued throughout the time period studied. With stories with headlines such as ‘Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees’ and ‘‘Will the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?’ (The Guardian, World News, online), The Guardian’s policy of reporting provided a wider frame of reference with which its audience could understand the situation, and show empathy and sympathy for refugees as a result. This is consistent with Hartmann and Husband’s (1974, p.479) description of mass media being “capable of providing frames of reference or perspective within which people become able to make sense of events” and McCombs and Shaw’s (1972, p.177) theory that mass media does not only set the public agenda on an issue, but influences “the salience of attitudes towards the issue”.

This approach is also consistent with the findings of Khosravinik’s (2010, p.488) study, which showed The Guardian, probably due to its traditionally liberal political alignment, “draws on topics of human rights, ethics, human values, usefulness and contribution in the positive representation of immigrants and refugees”. The Guardian’s policy on reporting refugees also counters King and Wood’s (2013, p.55) view that British media’s treatment of refugees is lacking specificity, with more in-depth stories like ‘Aylan Kurdi: friends and family fill in gaps behind harrowing images’ (The Guardian, World News, online). Overall, over the month of September 2015, The Guardian consistently reported on refugees fairly and accurately, displayed evidence of agenda-setting and framing which gave its audience a broader understanding of the situation, contributed only minimally to potential demonization of refugees by using almost consistently appropriate terms and categorisations, and was most likely influenced by its traditional political alignment in doing so.

The Daily Mail began September with balanced and informative reporting, before quickly changing its policy and pursuing an agenda of demonizing refugees for the rest of the month. For four days after the Aylan Kurdi story broke, the Daily Mail used language sympathetic to refugees while reporting on the crisis, resulting in a fair and accurate representation of the people involved, as well as the general situation. A shift occurred on September 6th, with the words ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ being replaced with ‘migrant’ in all refugee stories (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online). This change had the potential to contribute to the marginalisation of refugees, as is consistent with O’Doherty and Lecouteur’s (2007, p.1) study on social categorisation. By applying the same terms in monotonous fashion every day in its stories, the Daily Mail did what Scheufele (1999, p.105) describes as “media fram[ing] images of reality in a predictable and patterned way” in order to achieve a particular result; in this case the potential alienation of refugees. By choosing to place all its refugee stories in a news section of their website with the title ‘Immigration’, the Daily Mail played an important part in shaping the reality of the crisis, and – as McCombs and Shaw (1972, p.176) describe any situation in which mass media determines what is important – setting the agenda of the situation.

Choice of wording with which to describe and categorise refugees was the Daily Mail’s biggest contribution to unbalanced and inaccurate reporting during the time period studied. By using phrases such as “migrant crisis engulfing the continent” in a September 6th story (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online), the Daily Mail used what Philo and Beattie (1999, p.171) describe as disaster terminology; words which have the potential to alienate and marginalise refugees. In the last week of the month, the Daily Mail turned to reporting stories about rape and child abuse in refugee camps, refugees allegedly stealing water and electricity, and refugees allegedly “seeking job opportunities and better social care” (Daily Mail, News Homepage, online). This is consistent with Van Dijk’s (2000, p.33) description of Western media consistently describing refugees as a threat and as being associated with crime, and is likely to bring about the type of result confirmed by Lynn and Lea’s (2003, p.425) analysis of readers’ letters to newspapers, which showed that ‘asylum seeker’ is more often taken to mean ‘bogus asylum seeker’. This also matches Kaye’s (2001, p.53) study which showed that traditionally right-wing newspapers are more likely to label asylum-seekers as ‘economic migrants’. Overall, over the month of September 2015, the Daily Mail consistently did not report on refugees fairly, displayed evidence of agenda-setting and framing, potentially demonized and marginalised refugees through poor choice of language and social categorisation, and was most likely influenced by its traditional political alignment in doing so.

In a mirror image of the Daily Mail’s reporting on the crisis, the BBC began September reporting on refugees inaccurately and with incorrect categorisation, before improving as the month progressed. By headlining all refugee stories with ‘Migrant Crisis: _____’ (BBC, World News, online), the BBC, despite its charter binding it to neutrality, showed evidence of agenda-setting to inaccurately represent refugees. This is consistent with McCombs and Shaw’s (1972, p.178) description of how the agenda of a news outlet is determined by its “pattern of coverage on issues over some period of time”. By framing the mass movement of people as economic migration instead of people fleeing conflict, the BBC not only potentially breached its charter, but also seemingly confirms Dearing’s (1988, p.555) view that the media and public policy have tightly-linked agendas (for the 12 months up to June 2015, the UK accepted only 166 Syrian refugees under the government’s ‘vulnerable persons’ initiative (Eurostat, online)). By framing refugees in this way, the BBC potentially contributed to its audience being more likely to consider refugees as economic migrants. This is consistent with Scheufele’s (1999, p.106) definition of a media frame as being “largely unspoken and unacknowledged” and something that “organize[s] the world for [those of] us who rely on their reports”.

The improvement in the BBC’s fairness and accuracy of reporting may have been affected by an online petition on September 9th challenging it to use more appropriate terminology (Change.org, online). Overall, over the month of September 2015, the BBC reported on refugees with inconsistent levels of fairness and accuracy, displayed evidence of agenda-setting and framing, potentially demonized refugees through poor choice of language and social categorisation, and potentially breached its charter in doing so.

Of the three publications studied, there was found to be unbalanced reporting, agenda-setting, framing, and the use of incorrect terminology in each, all of which had the potential to demonize refugees during September 2015. The extent to which this happened differed greatly, though. The Guardian, likely affected by its traditional political alignment, reported on the crisis with stories of which the vast majority were sympathetic, the BBC reported on the crisis with stories of which a slight majority were sympathetic, and the Daily Mail, likely influenced by its traditional political alignment, reported on the crisis with stories of which the overwhelming majority were unsympathetic.


Refugees were represented poorly by British media during the European refugee crisis of 2015, with no publication examined in this study completely blame-free. For the 30-day period examined, there was evidence of a determined agenda to dehumanise refugees and call into question their motives through incorrect social categorisation, poor choice of language and questionable framing. The likely impact of this is that refugees will face an increased number of social and psychological obstacles in their quest to make a safe and stress-free life for themselves and their families.

As refugee numbers reach an all-time high in 2015, it is vital that those who have had the good fortune and dumb luck to have been born in a war-free nation give refugees the greatest possible chance of a safe and happy life.


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A Critical Analysis of Blade Runner as a Resource for Speculation on the Possibilities of New Media and Cyberspace

blade runner poster

Humanity has a complex and sometimes concerning relationship with technology and the roles it plays in our lives, and this relationship has been examined in an array of cultural forms and contexts over a long period of history. Technology not only provides us with new tools for communication and expression, but continually-evolving social contexts for our daily existence (Lunenfeld 2000, p.1). From the conception of human engagement with technology, there has been concern about the potential for the end of humanity (Hansen 2004, p.14), and while this may seem like an extreme way of viewing technological progress, these fears remain today. Some of the most powerful arguments for and against the use of technology in our lives have been made in utopian or dystopian texts. Film has, for many decades, been a vehicle for bringing these arguments to mass audiences; both in terms of their historical context and its possibilities for the future. Technology or new media has, at different times, been shown on film as being the saviour or the downfall of humanity, or sometimes both simultaneously. This essay will critically analyse the 1982 film Blade Runner in the realm of new media and technology as resources for speculation and possibility, and the science fiction genre of cyberpunk from which it was spawned, and show that it is a culturally-significant example of technology and humanity colliding in fiction.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner is partly based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The plot follows ‘blade runner’ Rick Deckard, as he hunts four renegade human-like androids, or ‘replicants’, who are on the run from authorities in a dystopian Los Angeles. The clash between “creatures engineered in biomedical laboratories and those who create them to achieve colonial ends” (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165) form the basis of the dramatic narrative. Originally released in 1982 to a poor showing at the international box office and mixed reviews, the film gained a cult following in the following decades, and, today, is “consistently listed as one of the most important science fiction movies ever made” (Latham & Hicks 2015, p.1). Hailed for its production design, showing a retrofitted future, Blade Runner remains a leading example of the neo-noir genre, is heavily indebted to the femme fatale and cyberpunk genres, and has been the subject of much scholarly debate and examination since its release. It is a difficult film to examine as it exists in so many states, having been re-released in 1992 with a ‘director’s cut’ label, and again as a ‘final cut’ in 2007 (Dienstag 2015, p.107), and latter versions of the film make increasing suggestions that Deckard himself may be a replicant. Despite this, it is a prominent early depiction of the questions posed by combining high technology and humanity.

An obvious question posed by Blade Runner and similar texts is one which concerns the point at which technology moves from being beneficial to humanity to being a threat. The complex relationship between the two principal characters, Deckard and Rachael, could be seen as symbolising the relationship between humanity and technology. At first they are highly sceptical of each other: Deckard because Rachael is not human, and Rachael because Deckard is a murderer (Dienstag 2015, p.108). At the start of the film, Deckard remarks “replicants are like any other machine” (Locke 2009, p.115), and when he meets Rachael, asks her maker “how can it not know what it is?” (Locke 2009, p.115). Immediately, Rachael challenges Deckard’s ideas about the difference between human and machine by asking him “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” (Locke 2009, p.115). Deckard breaks the news to her that she is a replicant and a single tear is shown to fall down her face. In this scene, it is the machine which is shown to have emotion, while Deckard remains cold and detached. As the story progresses, the pair come to respect and rely on each other, to the point at which their lives become irreversibly intertwined and they escape to be together. In a speech delivered four years after the publication of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick suggested that: “In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves” (Galvan 1997, p.413). Suggesting that technology is infiltrating our lives and changing our characters in subtle ways, Dick said we risk being reduced to “humans of mere use – men made into machines” (Galvan 1997, p.414). The film tempts viewers to imagine themselves in Deckard’s position and wonder if they would succumb to the same temptations posed by technology. The answer, in most cases, is likely to be in the affirmative.

The film also explores the difference between what defines humanity and technology (Locke 2009, p.113). The most obvious answer is the ability to feel emotion, or most importantly, empathy. However, the suggestion that artificial intelligence has the potential to become ‘human-like’ while humans themselves become increasingly less so is perhaps one of the most interesting areas for speculation within the film. The predominantly human traits of community and togetherness are more apparent in the replicant world of Blade Runner than in Deckard’s lonely existence – they fight to survive together and mourn when one of their group is killed. Batty, leader of the replicants, is, at times, playful and amiable, despite the certainty of his impending doom. Batty exhibits a sense of high culture and “proves his humanity by demonstrating that he is physically, intellectually, and even morally, superior to everyone else in the film, humans as well as slave” (Locke 2009, p.120). At the film’s climax, the exemplary and human-like behaviour of Batty, as he dies on the rooftops fighting the blade runner (and also saving his life), sees him transferring his freedom to Deckard (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165), and Deckard, as a result, is free. Deckard realizes that similarities between men and replicants “run deeper than their differences and that they are in fact the same type of man, ‘brothers’, regardless of any distinction between human and android” (Locke, 2009, p.138). Deckard comes to grips with his own humanity by falling in love with a replicant and deciding that he wants to live his life with her.

Blade Runner Roy Batty

Writers have also, at different times, used an analysis of the themes in Blade Runner to explore issues affecting vast numbers of people in the world today. Workman likens themes in the film to issues of a medical nature, comparing the replicants’ desire to not die an early death to that of people with fatal diseases. “Almost all of us shall feel the pain and frustration that comes from living with the knowledge that we will in some sense die prematurely” (2006, p.95), he suggests. It has also been argued that Blade Runner uses the relationship between technology and humanity to make political statements. The film’s humanization of its replicants is a “compelling statement against exploitation and domination” (Dienstag 2015, p.101), although this could be tempered with the argument that it is necessary for humanity to control technology to prevent technology from controlling it. Dienstag (2015, p.108) argues that Blade Runner shows us that to “live freely in any regime, we must understand the dangers of representation, even if, in a large state, we must continue to make use of it”. If the success of democracy relies singularly on representation, it risks being dehumanized, much like the initial relationships in the film (Dienstag 2015, p.119). Furthermore, Brooker (2009, p.79) proposes that the ‘final cut’ of the film constructs it as “a fictional world with some parallels to contemporary transmedia franchises”, as it creates a narrative path with several possible routes.

Blade Runner is an early example of a film containing cyberpunk elements, as defined by Bukatman’s definition of cyberpunk as being particularly concerned with the “interface of technology and human subject” (1993, p.54). Mead (1991, p.350) describes cyberpunk as depicting the type of radical technological change seen in Blade Runner as an opportunity to positively change the “perceptual and psychic definitions of what it means to be human” (Mead 1991, p.350). Deckard fits the description of an archetypal cyberpunk character perfectly: he is a “marginalized, alienated loner who live[s] on the edge of society in [a] generally dystopic future, where daily life [is] impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body” (Person 1998, online).

Despite its roots lying in the cyberpunk genre, Blade Runner offers so much more thematically. It considers political, moral and technological issues, has stood the test of time and is more popular today than when it was released, unlike many early cyberpunk works. Many of these set out to demythologise technology and failed, but, interestingly, Blade Runner found a greater number of fans as time passed and technology – especially the Internet and robotics – evolved and flourished. It also influenced films featuring similar android or human-like robot storylines which are still popular in cinema in the 21st century (such as The Terminator series of films). In this way, it could be argued Blade Runner contributed to expanding our ideas about the limits of technology, and how it interacts with humanity, in exciting and possibly concerning ways.

Blade Runner also sits thematically within the postmodernism movement, and adopts and puts creative spins on many of its assertions about society and technology, although it has also been argued that the differences between the 1982 and 1992 versions “thus establish a foundational tension that fuels both modern and postmodern interpretations” (Begley 2004, p.186). Jameson explains that “cyberpunk offers privileged insights into contemporary culture providing a cognitive space through which we can understand the postmodern condition” (1991, p.96). Harvey (1990, p.323) suggests that “Blade Runner hold[s] up to us, as in a mirror, many of the essential features of the condition of postmodernity”, while Clayton (1996, p.15) explains that “[s]ince its first release in 1982, Blade Runner has been taken by critics as a vision of a particular historical epoch, the period many people today are calling postmodernism” (1996, p.15). The film rejects the idea of social progress and promotes pluralism in the form of multiple, co-existing realities, while the human-replicant bond between Deckard and Rachael “manifests a form of hybridized love” (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165). This bond becomes a crucial plot device for the film, as well as contributing to the “continued relevance of Romanticism for postmodernism” (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165). The film’s depiction of Los Angeles is of an orientalised, post-modern, noir-ish city that is an archetypal cyberpunk landscape, offering the viewer at a glimpse at both a high level of technological advancement and increasing social breakdown. A dark, despoiled environment, dominated by the towering pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation headquarters – a metaphor for the class system depicted in the film – is the setting in which the story plays out. The postmodern cityscape depicted “shares the attributes of the globalised, transnational, borderless space” similar to the notion of cyberspace (Yu 2008, p.46).

In conclusion, it can be said that Blade Runner’s many narrative and thematic complexities offer ample opportunity to explore the world of new media and technology as resources for speculation and possibility. The relationship between technology and humanity is at the core of the film, and, in essence, the film tells the story of one individual’s gradual acceptance of the changing parameters of how technology and humanity interact and operate together. How this happens is a complex tale with many elements open to interpretation. The ability for artificial intelligence to show humanity, while humans simultaneously become increasingly dehumanized, is perhaps the most interesting subject presented by the film, and worthy of further examination. The system of master and slave is turned on its head by the very suggestion that machines may have the ability to show humanity. By being saved from death and set free by Batty, has Deckard been set free by technology, or set free by humanity? It’s an interesting question which leaves plenty of room for speculation and possibility.


Begley, V, 2004. ‘Blade Runner and the Postmodern: A Reconsideration’, Literature/Film Quarterly, Volume 32, pp.186-192

Bukatman, S, 1993. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, Duke University Press, London, p.54

Clayton, J, 1996. Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa, and the Cyborg, Raritan, p.15

Dienstag, JF, 2015. ‘Blade Runner’s Humanism: Cinema and Representation’, Contemporary Political Theory, Volume 14, pp.101-119

Galvan, J, 1997. ‘Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”‘, Science Fiction Studies, Volume 24, pp.413-429

Hansen, MB, 2004. New Philosophy for New Media, MIT Press, p.14

Harvey, D, 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell, p.323

Jameson, F, 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham, p.96

Latham, R & Hicks, J, 2011. ‘Blade Runner’, Cinema and Media Studies, Oxford University Press, p.1

Locke, B, 2009. ‘White and Black Politics versus Yellow: Metaphor and Blade Runner’s Racial Politics’, The Arizona Quarterly, Volume 65, pp.113-138

Lunenfeld, P, 2000. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, MIT Press, p.1

Lussier, M & Gowan, K, 2012. ‘The Romantic Roots of Blade Runner’, Wordsworth Circle, Volume 43, p.165

Mead, D, 1991. ‘Technological Transformation in William Gibson’s Sprawl Novels: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mono Lisa Overdrive’, Extrapolation, Volume 32, pp.350-60

Person, L, 1998. ‘Notes Toward a Post-Cyberpunk Manifesto’, Nova Express, online, accessed 22nd April 2017: https://slashdot.org/story/99/10/08/2123255/notes-toward-a-postcyberpunk-manifesto

Workman, S, 2006. ‘Blade Runner’, BMJ: British Medical Journal, Volume 332, p.695

Yu, T, 2008. ‘Oriental Cities, Postmodern Futures: “Naked Lunch, Blade Runner” and “Neuromancer”’, MELUS, Volume 33, p.46

The Banana Pancake Trail as a Cultural Tourism Route

the beach movie film

Recorded travel is as old as the earliest pilgrimages, and Buddhist routes existed in Asia before the establishment of Christianity. Much like for those who ventured on early pilgrimages and the wealthy young European men who popularised the Grand Tour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, travel is still a vehicle for self-understanding and self-transforming. A prominent travel destination for many young backpackers and tourists of the past few decades is the so-called Banana Pancake Trail in South-East Asia, named for the cheap breakfast food to be found at many locations in the area. Existing roughly within the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Singapore, and often including Nepal, India, Indonesia and The Philippines, the trail is used heavily by backpackers and other travellers and tourists. It can broadly be defined as a circuit “linking backpacker urban enclaves, coastal and inland resorts, and the main attractions within a region” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Academic interest in backpackers’ motivations and experiences has grown in recent years (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.4), as the cultural and economic importance of South-East Asia is increasingly recognised. This essay will examine the Banana Pancake Trail as a cultural tourism destination, including its evolution from its early appearance as a destination in Western literature to its contemporary position as somewhat of a rite of passage for many young Western backpackers, the motivations for backpackers visiting the area, and the outcomes for both visitors and the region as a result.

In the 1950s, young Westerners began travelling through South-East Asia, following the route set out by Marco Polo 700 years earlier. The route became known in popular Western culture as the Hippie Trail, similar to its North American counterpart the Gringo Trail, and was closely linked to the transnational counter-culture movement of the time (Sobocinska 2014, p.1). As a result, ‘oriental’ lifestyles moved from being denigrated to romanticised in literature (Neville 1970, p.205), and the modes of travel developed on the Hippie Trail heavily influenced backpacking culture in the region from the 1980s onwards (Sobocinska 2014, p.1). Backpacking offers an “unlimited level of flexibility” (Smith et. al 2010, p.18) compared to types of travel used by the conventional tourist, but the mythification of backpackers as ‘anti-tourists’ is a concept both questionable and complex. Backpackers carry not only the physical baggage which gives them their name, but cultural baggage which helps form backpacker culture wherever they go (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.3), and ultimately change the places they visit as well as themselves. The concept of the Banana Pancake Trail evolved from the Hippie Trail as tens of thousands of young Westerners began to travel it, some “bent on experiencing the ‘real’ Asia, others pursuing their notion of an Eastern spiritual quest” (Rea 2006, p.50), and others “reacting to the alienation of modern society” (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.3). While an abundance of literature and technological options have placed a wealth of information on the trail at the fingertips of millions worldwide, research shows that many backpackers still view the countries on the trail as “exotic” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). This is despite the fact that infrastructure for backpackers that began to grow in South East Asia from the 1970s is now firmly established (Noy 2006, p.39) and visitors to the region can find the same tourist amenities available as just about anywhere else on the planet, providing they can pay for them.

A useful way to examine the Banana Pancake Trail’s position as a cultural tourism destination is to consider backpackers’ motivations for going there. One such motivation is adventure tourism, or tourism involving activities that are physically challenging or unexpected. The culture of the early Hippie Trail was promoted as being the “final grasp of authentic adventure” in the face of the ensuing influx of mass tourism (Sobocinska 2014, p.1), but the Banana Pancake Trail has since become a much more commoditised version of the original trail. It has been argued that risk and adventure are constructs in South-East Asia, facilitated by backpacker-targeting tour companies which market themselves as alternative or adventure tourism (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.49). Many backpackers are willing to adopt the fantasy exploited by certain sections of the industry, as a way of constructing a new, temporary identity while visiting the Banana Pancake Trail, with the aim of becoming more independent and adventurous, and to revolt against the regulations of society (Maoz 2007, p.122).

The increase in numbers of young backpackers seeking adventurous or risky activities on the Banana Pancake Trail has resulted in significant changes to certain areas and the communities who live in them. A prominent example is the small Laotian town of Vang Vieng on the Mekong River. Laos has only officially welcomed international tourists since 1989 (Hitchcock 2009, p.168), and Vang Vieng quickly underwent a “sudden metamorphosis from hippy hangout to water-propelled club strip” (Little 2016, p.13), fuelled by a party industry centred on the many tourist bars and river ‘inner-tubing’ businesses which attract young thrill-seekers. A sleepy village was turned into a partying hotspot, but tourist deaths from drug overdoses and drowning led to government intervention and a clampdown on the number of bars and nightclubs in 2010-2012, although the town has since been partially returned to the state of its “good old days” in order to “convince hedonistic Western tourists to make the trip” (Little 2016, p.13). Incomes for much of the town’s poor have been increased as a result of the transformation (Hitchcock 2009, p.179), but the area has arguably been changed irreversibly for the worse, losing much of its original culture.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Another motivation for backpackers visiting the Banana Pancake Trail is for the purposes of dark tourism: tourism which provides “potential spiritual journeys for [those] who wish to gaze upon real and recreated death” (Stone 2006, p.54). Travel to sites of dark tourism “links representations of reality with deliberately cultivated forms of subjectivity” (Adler 1989, p.1384) and has long inspired debates about morality. It has been argued that motivations for visiting dark tourism sites currently exist alongside other motivations (Seaton 1996, p.243) or that dark tourism should be classified not as one homogeneous category, but as “an array of tourisms, each entailing different histories, geographies, tourist subjectivities and specific, embodied performances that continually (re)produce both ‘dark’ places and their visitors” (Hughes 2008, p.318). Since the numbers of backpackers visiting the trail increased rapidly from the 1990s, many dark tourism sites in South-East Asia went through a “process of commercialisation from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination” (Hiebert 2014, online). The commoditisation of death has “long been a theme of the morbid gaze” (Stone 2012, p.1565) and with consumption so inherent in post-modern culture, it is almost inevitable that dark tourism sites create opportunities to develop a tourism product (Smith et. al 2010, p.36). As a result of increased interest, sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia now appear often in registers of dangerous destinations. A major problem with the concept of dark tourism is the fact the framing of instances of death and suffering by victims and aggressors often clash (Gezgin 2009, p.49). Vietnam, for example, has numerous dark tourism sites and is still feeling the affects of both the French and American occupations and conflicts from 1945 to 1975, but, paradoxically, Americans contribute to the tourist economy of the country more than visitors from any other nation (Gezgin 2009, p.49). Masanti (2016, p.113) suggests that the exploitation of death as a tourist experience is much less acceptable to local communities than to visitors to the destination, with suffering seen as being turned into a leisure activity for contemporary tourists (Smith et. al 2010, p.38). Dissonance or discord is often evident at dark tourism sites in South-East Asia as a result, especially where the views of victims and perpetrators are “not given equal prominence” (Tunbridge & Ashworth 1996, p.120).

Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Killing Fields, Cambodia

Further motivation for backpackers visiting the area is for the purposes of screen tourism: tourism that provides a link with locations where film or television productions were shot. Alex Garland’s best-selling book, The Beach, is about a very particular form of tourism, relating a story of a group of self-styled travellers who seek to distance themselves from more conventional tourists in Thailand’s isolated islands. The book and its subsequent film adaptation “provide a cultural critique of attempts to uncover the ‘authentic’, ‘real’ and ‘different’” (Law et. al 2007, p.142), and have likely shaped cultures of travel on the Banana Pancake Trail more than any other. It has been estimated the film has injected US$13 million into Thailand’s economy (Law et. al 2007, p.143), but increased film spectatorship as a form of tourism has also increased pollution and environmental destruction in the area of the island of Ko Phi Phi, where much of the film was shot. Additionally, the set was dramatically altered to appear more ‘tropical’, providing an unrealistic impression of the location. Film locations turned into tourism destinations can be problematic, as what visitors are seeing is the “front stage chosen and presented by the director of the film, and are using in effect a film goer’s gaze” (Butler 2011, p.93).

The effects of increased numbers of visitors to the trail over the last three decades have been remarkable in many ways. The growth of mass-produced travel literature from the early 1970s promoted South-East Asia as “one of the great travel adventures” (Wheeler 1979, p.27), although the continued success of Lonely Planet arguably has had negative effects on the region as a place for ‘off-the-track’ travel. While it has been said that early travellers to a region widen lifespaces by “exploring not only unknown geographic areas but also unknown/strange social situations” (Loker-Murphy & Pearce 1995, p.827), and as routes change due to constant seeking-out of new places, the seeds for later mass tourism are sewn (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.1). It has been argued that since a large number of backpackers have visited the Banana Pancake Trail since the 1970s, and despite increases in “heritage protection and management, conscientization and participatory planning, grassroots development and pro-poor tourism, co-management, and corporate social responsibility” (Hitchcock 2009, p.313), large swathes of the trail have succumbed to the inevitable commercialisation that follows tourism. The recent proliferation of institutionalised backpacker enclaves in cityscapes is a strong indicator of this. A prominent example is Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a small stretch of the inner city made up of cheap guesthouses, backpacker lodges, bars, budget restaurants and internet cafés (Muzaini 2005, p.144). From two guesthouses in the early 80s, there are now several hundred in the area (Cummings & Martin 2001, p.231).

khao san road, bangkok

Khao San Road, Bangkok

It is useful to examine the extent of any economic benefit to communities on the Banana Pancake Trail, as a measure of the cultural significance of backpackers in the region. Backpackers on the trail have been condemned for a number of reasons – their appearance, attitudes to drugs and sex, cultural insensitivity, stinginess and seclusion (Wilson & Richards, 2004, p.43) – but it has also been argued they contribute greatly to the economy of marginal communities (Scheyvens 2002, p.144). The manner in which backpackers travel on the Banana Pancake Trail – longer stays mean less economic leakage – benefits the economically weak members of the travel industry (Connell 2005, p.538). Looking at the national economy of Laos, as an example, evidence points to tourism benefiting the poor (Hitchcock 2009, p.179), although it has also been argued that members of communities through which backpackers pass “have frequently represented little more than pawns in a much larger game controlled by outsiders” (Westerhausen & Macbeth 2010, p.71). Interactions between communities and backpackers over small transactions can be viewed as a microcosm of the wider relationship and attitudes between backpackers and communities. Scheyvens (2002, p.147) explains that some backpackers “regard haggling as a game, to the extent that they may [so] exploit [traders] for a sale that they accept unreasonably low prices for their products”. So, while the practice of bartering or haggling over prices of goods can ingratiate a tourist to locals, it also has the potential to burn bridges. Sobocinska (2014, p.1) explains that power dynamics in such circumstances tend to replicate colonial practices, and can bring about mistrust or stronger feelings between the two parties. Studies have also concluded that many backpackers choose to travel on a budget as a lifestyle choice or philosophy rather than necessity, which can further evoke unfavourable reactions from members of communities who have no such choices (Wilson 1997, p.52; Murphy 2001, p.50).

The question of whether backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail should be regarded as travellers or tourists has been studied in increasing detail over the past two to three decades. Culler (1990, p.2) explains that the traveller is someone who seeks authenticity off the ‘beaten track’, or is “working at something”, while the tourist is solely “a pleasure seeker”, although tourism as a leisure activity becomes “ever more complex as it shades into such other activities as ‘lifestyle migration’ and longer-term sojourns” (Hitchcock 2009, p.312). Historically, the characteristics of travel began to change in the mid-nineteenth century, with the success of Thomas Cook and Sons and mass transportations systems brought about the “the decline of the traveller and the rise of the tourist” (Boorstin 1992, p.146). As travel methods evolved, tourist attractions became more numerous, offering “an elaborately contrived indirect experience” (Culler 1990, p.1), and the discrepancy between the “intentions of tourists and their practice [became] endemic to tourism itself” (Scheuch 1981, p.1089). While it can be argued backpackers are the “antithesis of the modern-day tourists”, who avoid conventional elements of the tourism industry (Kontogeorgopoulos 2003, p.177), it can also be said that wanting to be less touristy than other tourists is, in itself, part of being a tourist (Culler 1990, p.4). A connecting element among backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail is the “self-established and maintained contrast to mass tourism, which becomes apparent” (Spreitzhofer 1998, p.980), although it can be problematic to group all backpackers together into a group seen to be having the same motivations, goals and methods of immersion in the cultures in which they travel. Many strategies can be used to set backpackers apart from tourists or other, more inexperienced, backpackers, concerning how they construct their identity in relation to both locals and other travellers.

halong bay vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

In theory, backpackers’ use of budget guest houses and bungalows is a way in which “encounters with the ‘other’ are made possible” (Muzaini 2005, p.148). The ‘other’, in this case, is a closer or more prolonged exposure to locals’ families, manners, and daily lives in general; the theory being that locals are more likely to own and run small establishments than they are big hotel chains, and domestic tourists are more likely to also stay at cheaper establishments, facilitating backpackers’ contact with them. The same philosophy often also applies to shops and restaurants, with the idea that roadside stalls offer a more authentic experience than a restaurant franchise with Europeanised or “visitor food” (Suvantola 2002, p.149), although it is not always easy to dispense with other factors, including safety and cleanliness (Muzaini 2005, p.149). Backpackers generally consume what is produced locally as a method of identifying and maintaining familiarity with locals (Hampton 1998, p.639). However, with some exceptions, backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail have largely been criticised for not seeking the authentic in their destination, and the extent to which backpackers choose to be with each other, instead of locals, has been described as similar to that of the “’tourist bubble’, in that very few travellers encounter local people in non-commercial settings” (Fitzgerald 2000, online). Although friendly local staff are appreciated (Murphy 2001, p.50), relationships with other backpackers are often more important (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.47), and some studies suggest many backpackers have little or no interest in meeting, and learning from, local communities; rather they often show blatant disregard for social norms (Maoz 2007, p.122). Additionally, the greater role played by the Internet in tourism since the early 2000s has “allowed the individual backpacker to invoke a personal virtual community to supplement face-to-face interaction”, easing access to consumption of backpacker tourism (Sorenson 2003, p.847).

To measure its importance as a cultural tourism destination, it is useful to examine the history and evolution of the Banana Pancake Trail in terms of its commercialisation, from its position as “one of the great travel adventures” (Wheeler 1979, p.27), to a region where guest houses, restaurants and bars “proudly display signboards stating ‘as recommended in Lonely Planet‘” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Backpacker routes have undergone significant changes since the 1970s, due to the increased proliferation of budget travel options and the “interaction between the increasing commercialization and institutionalization of backpacker tourism” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Backpacker choices can be viewed as being heavily guided by growing commercialisation operating in conjunction with other variables such as low-cost air and rail networks and external factors such as terrorism and political instability (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Indeed, the rise of corporate selection of backpacker routes since the 1990s and the advent of the Internet has meant less backpackers on the trail are making and following their own routes, meaning a greater supplier-driven system is in place in the region. This has contributed to the growth of the theory that, despite frequently describing themselves as independent travellers rather than institutionalised mass tourists (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556), backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail have ultimately largely become the “major affirmation of the modernity of tourism” (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.253) through their attempts, and failure, to avoid the modernisation of backpacker consumption.

In conclusion, it can be said that backpackers of the 1950s and 1960s blazed trails for those who followed, but the rapid commercialisation of the Banana Pancake Trail has meant fewer options for travelling in an ‘un-tourist-like’ fashion in the area. In recent years backpackers, and the culture which follows and manifests itself where they travel in numbers, often have negative effects on local communities and landscapes on the trail, including the destruction of natural features, creation of enclaves and inauthentic communities, and discord between locals and visitors. Backpackers’ motivations for visiting the trail are varied and complex, but have been described as misguided and fantastical, and it has been argued that they often avoid interacting with local communities, despite intending or professing to do the opposite. Countries through which the Banana Pancake Trail runs benefit financially from the presence of backpackers, but often at significant cost to their traditional cultures.


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Masanti, M, 2016. ‘Understanding Dark Tourism Acceptance in Southeast Asia: The Case of WWII Sandakan–Ranau Death March, Sabah, Malaysia’, Development of Tourism and the Hospitality Industry in Southeast Asia, pp.113-125

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Dark Tourism and Mass Media

killing fields cambodia

A large amount of tourism literature deals with the marketing and consumption of “pleasant diversions in pleasant places” (Strange & Kempa 2003, p.386), but a number of communications scholars have recently attempted to explore tourism sites of a darker nature. This has helped popularise the form of travel known as dark tourism: tourism which provides “potential spiritual journeys for [those] who wish to gaze upon real and recreated death” (Stone 2006, p.54). In modern Western societies, normal death is hidden from public consumption, yet “extraordinary death is recreated for popular consumption” (Stone 2012, p.1565). Marketing of dark tourism often overlaps with historical or heritage tourism (Mullins 2016, online), and can present promoters with challenges not present with the tourism of ‘pleasant diversion’. This essay will examine some of those challenges and the relationship between mass media and dark tourism in the context of this rapidly developing tourism form.

Dark tourism has a long history, having existed since the earliest pilgrimages and times when people would travel to witness public executions (Jahnke 2003, p.6). When academic research on the topic became significant in the 1990s, at the same time as growing numbers of tourists were seeking these new experiences, the complexities of dark tourism’s relationship with mass media became apparent. Just as all cultural production and consumption is complex and dynamic, the production and consumption of dark tourism has been described variously as “continuous and interrelated as demand appears to be supply‐driven and attraction‐based” (Farmaki 2013, p.281), fuelled by “an increasing supply of carnage and blood” online (Hiebert 2014), driven by factors “extend[ing] from an interest in history and heritage to education to remembrance” (Yuill 2004, p.1), and as a “source of private pleasure” (Seaton 1996, p.235).

The issue of how death is presented to mass audiences is particularly complex. In the realm of dark tourism, media can bring about a “neutralisation of death” (Jahnke 2003, p.8), helping tourists to become more aware of the mortality of others and themselves, or a mental state of being which Stone (2012, p.1565) describes as “a space to construct contemporary ontological meanings of mortality”. In many ways, mass media and dark tourism are “in the same business” (Walter 2009, p.41) in that they both mediate death to mass audiences. Many Western societies have relinquished their attachments to the dead, yet retain a vibrant interest in history (Walter 2009, p.40) and the people who inhabited familiar spaces, setting the stage for two key industries to bridge the gap between the dead and contemporary living: mass media and tourism.

Mass media plays a central role in marketing many dark tourism sites, using tourism literature, Hollywood films, television, newspapers, and comic strips in the role of public relations. Similarly, mass media can keep other sites from public view (Yuill 2004, p.125). By placing sites and events in the forefront of communications, mass media have the ability to attract visitors to dark tourism destinations. Media can provide the public with a general understanding of, and encourage an interest in, dark tourism sites, although Seaton and Lennon (2004, p.62) describe how many Western media outlets tend towards creating a moral panic around dark tourism sites through “sensational exposes of dubiously verified stories”: the result of moral debates about dark tourism within society.

At the same time as promoting and marketing dark tourism destinations, mass media has a distinct influence over public opinion and interpretation of many sites of dark tourism (Ntunda 2014, online). New media technologies can “deliver global events into situations that make them appear to be local” (Lennon & Foley 2000, p.46), embodying simulation and interpretation of historical experiences for a mass audience. Public perception of the importance or prominence of dark tourism sites may also be affected by mass media. Dachau concentration camp, for example, was not one of the largest Nazi extermination camps, yet is one of the most visited, due to its appearance in many films and books (Young 1993, p.10). However, while media is central to understanding and interpreting historical events, it can cause dissatisfaction brought about by constant exposure to simulation (Lennon & Foley 2000, p.47). This can often be countered by the reality of visiting a permanent ruin, monument or preserved space.

Motivations of visitors travelling to dark tourism destinations are varied, and often not directly related to mass media. The need to reconcile comparisons between imagined landscapes and topographical reality (Podoshen 2012, p.263), an interest in history and heritage, educational reasons, collective and personal remembrance (Dunkley & Morgan 2010, p.860), and emotional attachment to a place (Rasul & Mowatt 2011, p.1410), among others, can be important factors encouraging dark tourism. Biran and Hyde (2013, p.191) suggest the primary motivation for many dark tourism participants is to “contemplate life and one’s mortality through gazing upon the significant other dead”, fitting with Stone’s (2012, p.1565) description of dark tourism destinations as “space[s] to construct contemporary ontological meanings of mortality”. Additionally, in the past two decades, many tourists have sought to escape the “sanitised version of reality that tourism has traditionally offered” (Robb 2009, p.51); with many no longer content to lounge by the pool or hotel bar, or embark on guided tours. It could perhaps be argued that each of these motivations could be influenced by mass media to varying degrees, but media is unlikely to be the main driving force. It is also problematic to group all dark tourism destinations together under one category, making it just as difficult to group together motivations for visiting them. Representations of death are unique from site to site and often from visitor to visitor (Robb 2009, p.51). Indeed, many managers of dark tourism sites no longer wish their destinations to be viewed as dark, but as sites of sensitive heritage with a focus on social engagement (Magee & Gilmore 2014, p.898).

In conclusion, it can be said that, despite many challenges, mass media plays a part in encouraging tourists’ interest in dark tourism sites, although it is neither the only, nor arguably the major, driving factor in promoting dark tourism destinations. Dark tourism sites are cultural landscapes which can be interpreted in many ways, as can tourists’ motivations for visiting them. Visitors to dark tourism destinations seek a variety of meanings from their experience and their reasons for visiting sites of real or recreated death are numerous and varied. Dark tourism is a complex issue, in terms of consumption and supply, and its relationship with mass media.


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Podoshen, J, 2012. ‘Dark Tourism Motivations: Simulation, Emotional Contagion and Topographic Comparison’, Tourism Management, p.263-271

Rasul, A & Mowatt, C, 2011. ‘Visiting Death and Life: Dark Tourism and Slave Castles’, Annals of Tourism Research, p.1410

Robb, E, 2009. ‘Violence and Recreation: Vacationing in the Realm of Dark Tourism’, Anthropology and Humanism, p.51

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Stone, P, 2012. ‘Dark Tourism and Significant Other Death: Towards a Model of Mortality Meditation’, Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 39, p. 1565

Stone, P, 2006. ‘A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Towards a Typology of Death and Macabre Related Tourist Sites, Attractions and Exhibitions’, Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, p.54

Strange, C & Kempa, M, 2003. ‘Shades of Dark Tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island’, Annals of Tourism Research, pp.386–405

Walter, T, 2009. ‘Dark Tourism: Mediating Between the Dead and the Living’, The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism, pp. 39-55

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Twin Peaks as Complex Television: An Evaluative Critique

twin peaks sign television

Television in the 21st century is more complex than that of the late 1980s and prior (Hundley 2007, p.3). This is largely due to the increase in complex narratives, characterisations and interesting plots that require stricter viewer attention: elements which have become commonplace in television series since they were first seen in the early 1990s. Much of this new complexity was conceived in the science fiction genre, with programs such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Lost ushering in a new era of complex television. The popularity of these shows had ramifications across all areas of television, transforming the mainstream television arena and enabling the success of complex storylines by “weaning audiences onto them” (Hundley 2007, p.6). This influence is still evident in the production of quality television today. This essay will make an evaluative critique of the American television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) in the realm of how it accords with the definition of complex television, including both its textual and contextual dimensions, and the various factors which played out in the series’ making.

Complex television is described by Mittell as an “alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception” (2015, p.17), and he explains that the viewer can derive pleasure from trying to figure out the kernels and satellites in plotlines of complex narratives (2015, p.24). Complex television texts are encoded with dense meaning and imagery, often including multiple characterisations and intricate plotlines. Narrative complexity can be considered a distinct narrational mode, or a “historically distinct set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension” (Bordwell 1985, p.1) that allows for “a range of potential storytelling possibilities” (Mittell 2015, p.22), and in which oscillation between long-term story arcs and stand-alone episodes is possible. A prominent example is the 1990s American television series The X-Files, which Sconce (2004, p.93) describes as having both an “ongoing, highly elaborate conspiracy plot” and “self-contained ‘monster-of-the-week’ stories”. Complex television rejects the need for plot closure within every episode, employs a range of serial techniques that build over time, is not as uniform as traditional serial norms, creates an elaborate network of characters, and is often highly unconventional in many ways (Mittell 2015, p.17; Booth 2011, p.371).

Twin Peaks was created jointly by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and premièred in the United States in April 1990. It was a ground-breaking series that “changed most norms about television at that time” (Hundley 2007, p.6), and despite consisting of only two series of 29 episodes in total, has inspired numerous complex debates about its interactions with its medium (Baderoon 1999, p.94). Nominated for fourteen Emmys and broadcast in 55 non-American markets (Muir 2001, p.250), Twin Peaks was described as “revolutionary” at the time of its release (Hundley 2007, p.24), and is still considered so today. The series primarily centred on an investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) into the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee): a beloved high school student, homecoming queen, and native of the fictional small town of Twin Peaks, close to the Canadian border. Cooper’s investigations quickly lead him to discover that Palmer was not so innocent as she might have seemed. He learns that the teenager lived a precarious, multi-layered life, the town and its people are full of secrets and mystery, and the surrounding woods are home to something supernatural and possibly evil. The viewer quickly becomes aware that Twin Peaks is a series “full of secrets, variegated orders, ambiguous characters and [with a] supernatural overtone” (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.624). In the company of an array of complex characters who “cheat, steal, kill, rape, and deal drugs” (Hundley 2007, p.24), Cooper solves the murder at the end of the first series, consisting of eight episodes. The second, and much longer, series moves the narrative ever deeper into the realm of science fiction, as Cooper investigates the malevolent spirit, Bob, who possessed Laura’s father, and visits the Black Lodge in the woods. Ratings dropped in the second series, perhaps due to the increase in some of the more bizarre science-fiction-oriented elements of the show, and the fact the murder-mystery had been largely resolved, but it is the aforementioned ingredients and the quality of their presentation which made Twin Peaks such a highlight of modern television.

Twin Peaks presents an isolated community beset by evil forces, and its narrative is driven by a murder investigation: an event which reverberates through the close-knit community. It has been argued that the first series constituted little more than an “above-average, literarily-allusive, highly exploitative mini-series about an honours student cheerleader by day/prostitute-drug dealer by night” (Dolan 1995, p.43), but this description does not begin to scratch the surface of the series’ depth. Twin Peaks was partially marketed as a police procedural (Collins 1992, p.345) and has many elements of a classic detective story, in which the investigator is the “traditionally-expected centre of signification” (Carrion 1993, p.242). It is easy to suggest that Dale Cooper is the “literal hero” of Twin Peaks (Baderoon 1999, p.94) and that the series revisits the staples of traditional televisual story-telling by “inhabiting the genres of detective series and soap opera” (Fiske 1987, p.237). However, the way in which each episode feeds back onto itself as the narrative progresses towards a conclusion, moves the narrative away from the traditional detective story and into a space much more complex and interesting. The narrative is also constantly undermined by evil forces, and many other televisual devices introduced by Lynch, which remove ontological certainty in the text and add to viewing enjoyment. There is an ominous sense that anything could befall any of the characters at any time (Woodward 1990, p.50), and deciphering and understanding the intricacies of their fates “became a national pastime and a boon for TV and film critics alike” (Muir 2001, p.251). The presence of these elements in Twin Peaks again point to its accordance with the definition of complex television, in fitting with Mittell’s description of complexity as being when the “ongoing narrative pushes outward, spreading characters across an expanding story world” (2015, p.52). Its multiple complexities led to it being labelled a “genre-splicing work of film art, a parodic, convention-defying detective story” (Lavery 1996, p.16).

Thompson (2003, p.120) suggests that Twin Peaks can be described as “art television, or television which brings elements from art cinema to the small screen”, and for Lynch, film and television are “art medium[s] that subvert and play with well-known boundaries, meanings – and with our senses” (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.621). He seemed thoroughly determined to push these boundaries throughout the entirety of Twin Peaks, with the most obvious challenge to reason and convention being the development of the story of Laura Palmer (Telotte 1995, p.162). Her double or ‘phantom’ life obscures the viewer’s desire to see her lead a normal existence; instead, “drugs, illicit sex, sadomasochism, and hints of devil worship are or were the hidden, yet real, highlights of Laura’s after-school life” (Telotte 1995 p.162), and become inseparable from her identity. Additionally, eccentric characters with sometimes odd or silly mannerisms are deployed generously throughout the narrative to challenge convention and question normality. Even Agent Cooper, the “literal hero” (Baderoon 1999, p.94), uses peculiar methods to solve cases, including speaking to a tape recorder, the use of dreams and visions, and Tibetan meditation.

Multiple uses of complexity on concurrent levels means Twin Peaks‘ narration is extremely effective at “frustrat[ing] the resolution of the murder mystery by revealing ever more elaborate networks of connections” (Baderoon 1999, p.102). It offers a radical rereading of the detective story and, at its close, “disavows the implications of its own subversiveness” (Baderoon 1999, p.94). In combining elements of a police investigation with soap opera and strong surreal elements, the series “prominently alters and undermines ‘normal’ orders, established boundaries and the ‘grid’ of common meaning – in television narratives, but also far beyond” (Telotte 1995, p.165). In the closing scene of the final episode of series two, in which Cooper is possessed by Bob, the hero of the story occupies the position held by the female victim in the opening scene. The audience is faced with a narration “simultaneously subversive and ambivalent” (Baderoon 1999, p.105), as well as dramatic and gripping.

Since the series aired, Twin Peaks has increasingly been framed in the context of science fiction (Weinstock & Spooner 2015, p.161), and it is useful to examine this contextualisation to see how it confirms the series as being complex television. Agent Cooper faces evil forces from not only within the town, but the surrounding woods – a historical link could be drawn to many 1950s science fiction films which presented monsters as a displaced form of communism (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example) as both an internal and external threat to the country. Lynch also includes many direct links to the decade throughout the series, from the inclusion of actors who rose to prominence in the 1950s in Piper Laurie, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer, to the fashion, style and music taste of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), and the pristine image of the 1950s diner. As the second series moves deeper into the realm of science-fiction, Major Briggs’ superiors further reference the era by warning Cooper that Brigg’s abduction “could make the Cold War seem like a case of the sniffles” (Hundley 2007, p.26).

Additionally, much of the ambiguity concerning the natural and supernatural elements of the murder of Laura can be seen as being influenced by 1980s science-fiction (Hundley 2007, pp.26-27). Lingering doubt over the extent to which Leland Palmer’s possession played in Laura’s murder, and the cliffhanger ending as Agent Cooper is himself possessed by Bob, leave the audience unsure of many elements of the story. It is uncommon for a traditional detective story to leave unresolved issues, further cementing the idea that Twin Peaks fits with Mittell’s (2015, p.17) definition of complex television, in that it is “highly unconventional in many ways”.

Another element of Twin Peaks‘ complexity, which can be seen throughout the history of horror and science fiction, is the inclusion of sites of deviance or different behaviour (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.622): places where otherworldly occurrences take place. These include The Great Northern Hotel, The Roadhouse and One-Eyed Jacks, and other sites which appear in an imaginary or dreamlike state: the Red Room, the Black and White Lodges, and the Ghostwood Country Club and Estate – a “space in the business imagination of Benjamin Horne” (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.622). Similar sites are used as spaces of deviance throughout television and film history, from the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Bates’s motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho and others, and in several screen adaptations of Stephen King’s work. The sites in Twin Peaks which exist between the real and the imaginary bring about many rapid changes in the narrative, add many layers of complexity to plotlines, and can leave the viewer puzzled or intrigued (Davis, 2010). There also exist sites which are presented as less deviant or evil, but are often just as affective in altering the course of the narrative: the Double R Diner or Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, for example (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.622). Agent Cooper’s meditative states and dreams are also arguably sites of deviance, although they are used for good in the solving of crime. Hence, it could be argued, the physical landscape of the town of Twin Peaks, and hence the series itself, is a “maze” (Blassmann 1999, p.49), made up of “multiple, seemingly contradicting and obscure formulas, codes and landmarks” (Westwood 2004, p.775): again adding to the complexity and overall quality of the viewing experience.

It is also useful to examine television’s history to see which factors may have influenced Twin Peaks‘ production and to contextualise it within the evolution of television in the United States over a number of decades. Beginning with visual and narrative style, it can be argued that Twin Peaks has been influenced by film noir; a genre of film which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s consisting of drama infused with fear, crime, shadows and violent death, or “films filled with trust and betrayal” (Duncan 2000, p.7). Lynch has drawn on many of the themes and styles from film noir throughout his career, most especially in his choice of settings in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. In Twin Peaks, the ‘otherness’ of the cold northern climate mirrors the psychological state of many of its characters. In his version of small-town America, a majority of characters feel and act like outsiders.

The town of Twin Peaks itself has multiple significances, and is the basis for much of the complexity throughout the narrative. Dienst (1994, p.95) explains that Lynch and Frost wrote the first storylines for the series based on an idea of the town, rather than any particular plotline. Small towns have a long tradition in the American narrative and are often mythologised in American television (Carroll 1993, p288), but this concept is quickly revealed to be a construct in Twin Peaks (Pollard 1993, p.303).

Much of Twin Peaks‘ style is deeply steeped in the Gothic genre of television: a genre generally including plot devices which “produce fear or dread, the central enigma of the family, and a difficult narrative structure or one that frustrates attempts at understanding” (Ledwon 1993, p.260). The Gothic is “a literature of nightmare” (MacAndrew 1979, p.3), where “fear is the motivating and sustaining emotion” (Gross 1989, p.1), and in Twin Peaks, the viewer is exposed to devices such as “incest, the grotesque, repetition, interpolated narration, haunted settings, mirrors, doubles, and supernatural occurrences” (Ledwon 1993 p.260). Its narrative breaks away from the uniformity of traditional television through transgression and uncertainty in a distinctly post-modern fashion. Lynch combines the mundane with the horrific repeatedly throughout the series; most especially when the evil Bob appears to Laura while she is performing simple tasks like writing in her diary or changing clothes. By “exploit[ing] the … potential of Gothic devices to the hilt” and “challeng[ing] the most deep-seated expectations of … television” (Ledwon 1993, p.269) Lynch blurs the distinction between the normal and abnormal, the everyday and the extraordinary, so that the Gothic becomes normal.

Additionally, the influence of many cultural factors are evident in Twin Peaks‘ narratives and its modes of production, and the combination of these lend further complexity to the series. A prominent cultural factor is that of gender and its treatment within the series. Following a decade in which concepts of masculinity and feminism had undergone significant public shifts and homosexuals had “moved from a position of outlaw to one of respectable citizen” (Rich 1986, p.532), Twin Peaks‘ writers were more free to challenge gender boundaries and “open up space for a wider range of acceptable masculinities” (Comfort 2009, p.44). This is done partly through giving value to a wide range of eccentric characters: many of the main male characters exhibit eccentric behaviours, and it can be argued that traditional gender roles are “freed up”(Comfort 2009, p.44) and the idea of what masculinity entails is opened up to greater scope as a result. This is most evident by the inclusion of the character of DEA Agent Denis/Denise (David Duchovny, future star of The X-Files), who alludes to Cooper that he is heterosexual despite dressing as a woman. In one short scene, the idea of masculinity is challenged and eccentricity is accepted at the same time.

However, another element of the culture which influenced Twin Peaks is of a more unsavoury nature. The series suggests that “the worst secrets of all … are the secret connections between culture and self that allow men to brutalise women” (Davenport 1993, p.258). Laura Palmer is first presented as a “stunning corpse wrapped in plastic” (Moore 2015, online), and while Lynch extended the narrative possibilities of television, he did so by telling a story of a girl whose downfall consisted of being abused – sexually and otherwise – by a variety of powerful men, although it has also been argued that Lynch is simply following a well-known formula of “exploiting our love affair with … sex and death” (George 1995, p.110). It is easy to ignore the reality of violence in Twin Peaks, as, when watching TV, people are “in their own homes and…well placed for entering into a dream” (Henry 1999 p.103), a mode of viewing that often overrides the opportunity television gives us to “critically and creatively reflect upon established, often idealizing images” (Weiskopf 2014, p.152). Upon release of the series, Lynch downplayed the violence, describing the plot as simply being “about a woman in trouble … and that’s all I want to say about it” (Blassman 1999, online).

Storey (2015, p.210) describes all television as “hopelessly commercial”: and Twin Peaks‘ displays commercial intertextuality, in the form of its follow-up feature film and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, to international sales of T-shirts featuring the words ‘I Killed Laura Palmer’. The series was produced to win back sections of a fragmented audience partially lost to cable, cinema and video (Storey 2015, p.210) and was marketed to different audiences in various ways, based on factors ranging from “Gothic horror, police procedural, science fiction and soap opera” (Collins 1992, p.345). Producers hoped the series would “appeal to fans of Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere and Moonlighting, along with people who enjoyed nighttime soaps” (Allen 1992, p.342). This attempt to create new, post-modern productions is now well-established in complex television (Nelson 1996, p.677).

In conclusion, it can be said that if complex television texts can be defined as being encoded with dense meaning and imagery, employing a range of serial techniques that build over time, containing elaborate networks of characters, and being highly unconventional in many ways, it must be said that Twin Peaks qualifies as complex television. Its signs and codes are open to a range of interpretations, and its influences are as varied as the range of television shows it went on to influence in turn. A plethora of factors are played out in the making of the series: historical, institutional, economic and cultural, and it presents many different genre resonances to audiences. It can be considered a particularly high-quality example of complex television: the wealth of academic study it has attracted is evidence of this. Twin Peaks is an important example of everything television can be.


Allen, RC, 1992. Channels of Discourse Reassembled, London: Routledge, p.342

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Carrion, MM, 1993. ‘Twin Peaks and the Circular Ruins of Fiction’, Literature/Film Quarterly, Volume 21, p.242

Carroll, M, 1993. ‘Agent Cooper’s Errand in the Wilderness: Twin Peaks and American Mythology’, Literature/Film Quarterly, Volume 24, p.288

Collins, J, 1992. ‘Television and Postmodernism’, The Politics of Postmodernism, p.345

Comfort, B, 2009. ‘Eccentricity and Masculinity in Twin Peaks’, Gender Forum, Volume 27, p.44

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Dolan, M, 1995. ‘The Peaks and Valleys of Social Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks’, Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, pp.33-50

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Henry, M, 1999. ‘David Lynch: A 180-Degree Turnaround’, in Barney, RA (ed.), David Lynch: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p.103

Hundley, K, 2007. ‘Narrative Complication through Science Fiction Television: From “Twin Peaks” to “The X-Files” and “Lost”’, Theater and Film, University of Kansas, pp.1-15

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Lost, 2004-2010. Television series, Touchstone Television/ABC Studios, United States

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Moore, S, 2015. ‘Never Mind How “Cool” Twin Peaks is, What About Taking it Seriously?’, The Guardian, online, accessed 6th February 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/06/cool-twin-peaks-david-lynch-abuse-sexual-murder-young-women

Muir, J, 2001. Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, p.250

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Twin Peaks, 1990-1991. Television series, Lynch/Frost Productions, United States

The X-Files, 1993-2002. Television series, 20th Century Fox Television, United States

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The Punk Movement in the Realms of Subculture, Fashion and Style

punk subculture

Style and fashion play important roles in distinguishing one social group from another and from the rest of society, and are vital in giving individuals and groups both a sense of belonging and of being unique. Through sartorial and behavioural choices group identification is produced, and just as fashion encodes style, members of a group bearing a particular fashion reinforce their tribalism. Simultaneously able to be both a whimsical pleasure or novelty and a bold social or political statement, fashion is, in modern society, a functional equivalent to good taste, although the idea of using dress to distinguish oneself is age-old. With their ability and track record of traversing class and social status, fashion and style can be discussed in relation to individuals and groups of people as diverse as monarchs and heads of state, to gatherings of fans of a particular band or genre of music. This essay will examine the punk fashion and youth movement of the late 1970s in Britain and America in the realm of the youth culture it was formed in and influenced, including how it was received by the wider Western society of the time, and its long-term impacts on Western society as a whole.

There is a strong argument for fashion not having existed in any major sense before the growth of capitalism and the formation of industrial cities in Western Europe, although there is some evidence of ancient Roman and Greek ideas of fashion remaining static (Wilson 1985, p.16). By the fourteenth century, trade expansion, the growth of urban life, and the increasing sophistication of aristocratic and royal courts led to an increase in tailoring (Wilson 1985, p.16). Communications technologies introduced at the end of the nineteenth century helped spread knowledge of the latest fashions worldwide, and fashion and style have been a part of Western societies ever since.

Although closely linked, fashion and style can be defined in different ways. A dictionary definition of fashion is “a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour” (Oxford Dictionary, online), whereas style is defined as “a manner or way” (Oxford Dictionary, online). However, the terms have much deeper meanings when explored further and compared.

While Gronow (1993, p.89) describes fashion as a “socially acceptable and safe way to distinguish oneself from others and, at the same time, it satisfies the individual’s need for social adaptation and imitation”, Mauss (1973, p.70) went further by explaining how even the most mundane bodily activity is a cultural technique. Fashion and style can have effects on societies and cultures on a much grander scale than the individual; a person’s fashion choices do not merely represent their taste in clothes or hairstyle, but the attitude they adopt to the world and the people and objects with which they choose to surround themselves (Merleau-Ponty 2004, p.63). With the arrival of mass communications technologies in Western societies, it became possible for individuals or entire subcultures to become famous on national or international scales, and for individuals and groups to seek fame with the use of fashion and style.

Style, in a broad sense, has been defined as “the counter-hegemonic practices of youth subcultures” (Hebdige 1979, p.2) and, in Hebdige’s description of style in the realm of subcultures, style is a form of social refusal or “criminal art” (1979, p.2). Like fashion, the concept of style can be relevant when discussing both individuals and cultures.

As the idea of ‘youth’ appeared in post-war Britain as one of the most obvious social changes, the social landscape changed accordingly. The appearance of youth brought about new legislation, official interventions, and was signified as something “we ought to do something about” (Jefferson 1989, p.10). Youth was a metaphor for social change in ways which took many years to pinpoint, and an idea aided by media constructions and exaggerations about what was organic and what was forced (Gramsci 1971, p.177). Images of youth were self-destructive, misdirected, criminal, impressionable, apathetic, victimised, cool, and cutting edge (Wilson 2006, p.5). As cultural social groups within the arena of youth developed, identified by their distinct patterns of life, they formed ideas about the meanings and values embodied in institutions and traditional customs (Jefferson 1989, p.11). Youth subcultures formed as “crimes against the social order” (Hebdige 1979, p.3); perpetuated by a change of clothes, hairstyle or adoption of fandom of a particular type of music or band.

Subculturalists have been described in many different ways, as both “postmodern in their identification with fragmentation and heterogeneity” and “modern in their commitment to individual freedom and self-expression” (Brodie-Smith 2000, p.174). It has also been argued that subculturisation is the result of urbanism; cities having large heterogeneous populations and thus weaker interpersonal ties (Fischer 1972, p.187). These newly-formed groups engaged in a struggle over cultural ‘space’ and expressed themselves in new ways, but were not able to solve many of the problems associated with the peripheral social position of youth (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.1).

The exact definition of a subculture is always in dispute and boundaries remain a problem, but the concept style is important as it is “the area in which the opposing definitions clash with the most dramatic force” (Hebdige 1979, p.3). Indeed, possibly the most important aspect of a subcultural group is its use of symbolic style (Brake 2013, p.12), with the dominant values of style being image, demeanour and ‘argot’, or a special vocabulary and how it is delivered (Brake 2013, p.13). The nature of subcultural groups’ clothes is very complex: they are the “system of signals by which [they] broadcast [their] intentions, projection of [their] fantasy selves, weapons, challenges, insults” (Carter 1967, p.10).

Historian Jon Savage said “Many of the people whose lives were touched by punk talk of being in a state of shock ever since” (1991, p.4). It is generally accepted that the punk movement began in America in the early 1970s, but it became to be perhaps most closely associated with Britain in the mid- and late-1970s: a time when an economic recession, with its high levels of unemployment and increase in poverty-line living conditions, provided a catalyst for a new youth movement. When John Lydon – then know as Johnny Rotten – wrote the lyrics to his band the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’ in late 1976, at a time when young working class English people were facing grim economic prospects, little did he know of the cultural and social impact his band and songs would have. The social meanings created by English punk bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Slits and The Damned, their American counterparts the New York Dolls and the Ramones, and Australia’s The Saints, have been pored over in the ensuing decades, and for good reason: very few youth subcultures have had such an impact on Western society as punk.

“Punk” is a vague concept, but its origins can be traced to the 1960s as a reaction to the cultural landscape of the time. It was “a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of the hippy myth” (Christgau 1976). It also followed the lead of much of the mod youth movement; bands like the MC5 and The Stooges brought a stripped-down version of rock and roll into the arena of popular music. There is an intersection between youth and extreme fashion as a method of asserting an attitude of dissent in times of crisis (Fury 2016, p.230), and strong visual styles accompanied punk’s music, with the American bands sporting mainly black leather jackets and blue jeans, and the British bands tending towards ripped shirts, safety pins, Nazi imagery, and bondage wear in a self-mocking, shocking image (Isler & Robins 2007, p.23). ‘Porn chic’ was a style of punk clothing which can be viewed as a critique of patriarchal fashion codes, giving female punks a new basis of empowerment and authenticity (Langman 2008, p.1). The power of ‘otherness’ was deliberately harnessed as a tool of protest, as a way to provoke and agitate. A post-modern society, transformed by evolving fashions, music, and attitudes, emerged as a challenge to the status quo; the prevailing social and cultural positions of modern life (Chambers & Cohen 1990, p.143).

The British punk movement was a much more politicised version of the American movement, and arguably had a greater cultural impact in its own country. However, it could also be argued that the British movement would not have happened without the American movement occurring first (Henry 1984, p.30). As a social movement it was considered fresh and exciting by many young people, with the feeling that “it made one feel that maybe music had some sort of relevant part to play in one’s life” (Vermorel 2006, p.1) being common.

The subculture’s high point was reach between 1976 and 1979, but throughout this period it had no set ideology or agenda (Sabin 2002, p.2). However, certain attitudes were prevalent across this time-frame and were common across all geographical locations where the subculture was apparent; including an awareness of class politics, a belief in spontaneity or “do it yourself”, and a focus on negationism (Sabin 2002, p.2). It is generally accepted that the movement ended in 1979, when other youth subcultures became more prevalent as fashion and social culture evolved. The movement’s most prominent band, the Sex Pistols, broke up in acrimony in January 1978 after a chaotic and shambolic North American tour. It has been claimed that the movement died with the death of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who overdosed on heroin in early 1979, shortly after the stabbing death of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in unknown circumstances (Sabin 2002, p.2).

In the summer of 1976 the punk movement gathered speed as the number of participants swelled, reproducing the “entire sartorial history of post-war working class youth cultures in ‘cut-up’ form” (Hebdige 1979, p.27). The rhetoric of punk as a subculture was steeped in apocalyptic words, many of which were painted or stitched brazenly across garments in the style of the movement, yet the movement as a whole was obviously innocent of literature (Hebdige 1979, p.28).

Alienation and cosmetic rage were the manners of choice for all the major participants, in the same way that most youth cultures are a reaction to bourgeois values (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.232). Langman (2008, p.1) describes how any form of fashion or lifestyle can be understood as a way of “claiming agency to resist domination, invert disciplinary codes and experience ‘utopian moments’”, although this theory has been disputed. The punk subculture was in many ways defined by the idea of its participants being ‘outsiders’, or opposed to bourgeois institutions, although it has been argued that the irony of this situation is that the punk movement’s reaction or resistance to bourgeois society takes place “as a result of their incorporation into bourgeois institutions” (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.236). Foucault (1972, p.778) described how, when a human turns himself into a subject, the human subject is “placed in power relations which are very complex”. Describing the punk movement’s reaction to institutional power is not as simple as saying “it was against it”. In examining possible answers to the question “What legitimates power?” (1972, p.778), Foucault suggests that in examining the aspects of power relations between two entities, there is more to be learned from the subject of power than the holder of power.

The idea of punks being oppressed by the state is therefore open to debate; they were self-excluding and went to great lengths to keep it that way. Similarly, it has been suggested that the concept of a ‘generation gap’ is not an appropriate reason for the prevalence of many youth subcultures, including punk: it is inappropriate for youth’s reactions and attitudes to institutions to be blamed on institutions, as their responses to them are likely based on the same value systems used by the institutions themselves (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.236). It is most likely that the combination of elements in their lives – including school, family, job, police, courts, youth clubs, social workers, mass media, and commerce – that decides a young person’s reaction to institutional power (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.237). Foucault (1985, p.28) describes how all moral action involves both a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out and with the self. Self-formation as an “ethical subject” concerns a participant deciding on a certain method of being which will serve his moral aims (Foucault 1985, p.28).

In other ways, the punk movement has been described as “dole queue rock” (Marsh 1977, p.10), and it has been argued that level of education and income are unrelated to fashion leadership (Goldsmith et. al 1991, p.37). The punk movement was initially a reaction not to institutional power, but to the over-inflated ‘superstar’ stadium rock acts of the early- and mid-1970s. In an era when musical technical virtuosity pointed to commercial success and concert ticket prices were often too high for most working class youth to be able to afford, gaps emerged between millionaire musicians and unemployed fans (Brake 2013, p.77). The punk movement has also been described as a “condition of postmodernity” (Moore 2010, p.305), or a crisis of meaning caused by the commodification of everyday life, bringing about a reaction in the form of a “culture of destruction” (Moore 2010, p.305).

In saying this, there were more than one class of subculturalists within the movement itself, ranging from the art school students and cultural rebels who developed bohemian careers, to working class youth who refused to conform to anything and remained unemployed (Brake 2013, p.78). In some cases, the punk fashion movement saw the blurring of boundaries between art, fashion and everyday life; in others, art, fashion and everyday life were seemingly disparate objects and behaviours (Henry 1984, p.30). There also existed a hierarchy of members based on their perceived level of commitment to the scene (Fox 1987, p.344), and a paradox between the unaffordable fashion items sold by the primary trendsetting designer of the movement, Vivienne Westwood – partner of the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren – and the ‘garbage bag’ fashion she created.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate how the fashion and music of the punk movement had an effect on Western society in the 1970s is to examine the wider public’s reaction to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of December 1976. ‘Moral panic’, or a process by which “politicians, commercial promoters and media habitually attempt to incite” (McRobbie & Thornton 1995, p.559), surrounded the band’s concerts, and many were picketed by local residents, cancelled by venue owners, or overcrowded by hostile press. London councillor Bernard Brook Partridge infamously declared in a television interview: “Some of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death” (Simpson, 2007, online). The response in the form of a moral panic to a youth culture shows the complexity of feeling towards subcultures, and while the response to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour was partially socially-constructed by media and politicians, “reactions by trade unionists, students, feminists and socialists show that concerns about British society in 1976 were not confined to religious pressure groups, conservative media commentators and political elites” (Gildart, 2015, online). The band played up to their supposed role as trouble-makers, deliberately provoking media and politicians alike, and the result was a general increase in intensity of the moral panic.

Although the intensity of, and participation in, the original punk movement was high for only a short time in the 1970s, it had a sizeable impact on fashion, music, and culture, and thus wider Western society as a whole. The fashion, music and attitudes of the Sex Pistols, in particular, facilitated a “reframing and a re-imagining of English culture” (Adams 2008, p.469), which has been drawn on by a number of subsequent fashion, art and music subcultures. The evolving punk subculture of the 1980s attempted to tackle many of the problems of inner-city life, most especially on the east coast of the United States, and soon after embraced much larger social and ethical issues (Parkes 2014, p.42). Although the original punk subculture failed to create the revolution in everyday British and American life that many of the bands involved called for in their lyrics, the punk fashion and music movement changed the way people thought about and discussed social stratification in Britain and America from the late 1970s onwards (Simonelli 2010, p.121). Unfortunately for the participants themselves, their efforts – using fashion and music – to protest and agitate against the bourgeois culture of their home countries was doomed to failure, as the main players involved could not resist becoming professionalised themselves (Simonelli 2010, p.121). A prime example of this happened in 2005, when the Sex Pistols’ logo and branding appeared on a Virgin credit card, with many news headlines containing words similar to the affect of “Punk Rock Dies a Little” (Tuttle 2015, online).

Towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s the punk movement “began to produce its members, as opposed to its members producing it” (Parkes 2014, p.80). The punk aesthetics of awareness of class politics, a belief in spontaneity or “doing it yourself”, and a focus on negationism (Sabin 2002, p.2) largely disappeared; an ironic turn typified by subcultural patterns. The musical, and accompanying fashion, form found a new audience in the 1990s, when mainly American bands like Green Day, The Offspring and Blink-182 brought a more pop-oriented version of the genre to the mainstream. The genre as a subcultural movement has since not been able to match its 1970s heyday for social and cultural impact (Brake, 2003, p.24). It is no longer the subculture ‘of the moment’ since going mainstream, but the after-effects are still present: it is studied in universities and art colleges across Britain, America and Australia, and its music press has long since made the move from the underground to the overground (Sabin 2002, p.2).

In conclusion, it can be said that the punk fashion and music movement had effects on the wider society of which it was part, albeit a lesser one than was intended by many of the participants of the subculture. If culture is defined as “all the characteristic activities and interests of a people” (Hebdige 1979, p.137), then the punk subculture took – however temporarily – a prominent position, and had an affect on, those cultures. While initially a subculture alienated from contemporary mainstream culture, the movement was absorbed into the mainstream within a few short years; completing what is considered by many to be an inevitable cycle (Hebdige 1979, p.137). This is perhaps best summed up by Barthes (1972, p.10), who wrote: “Everything nourishing is spoiled; every spontaneous event or emotion a potential prey to myth”.


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