Live review: Mojo Burning Festival – Hamilton Hotel, Brisbane – 14/4/18

The fifth annual Mojo Burning Festival proved that it continues to be a local musical force to be reckoned with at the Hamilton Hotel on Saturday night (14th April).

Positioned as an ‘outside-the-box’ blues, rock and stoner festival, the gathering has gone from strength to strength since its comparatively humble beginnings at the New Globe Theatre in 2014.

Thirty excellent bands over three stages and ten hours is an embarrassment of riches by any festival standard, and almost instant turnaround times between acts kept the momentum going throughout the day.

The Zed Charles Hendrix Experience in the psych room proved to be an early-evening highlight: the balance of showmanship and homage to the songs was just right, and a perfectly blazed ‘Hey Joe’ was a solid closer.

Over at the blues stage, Hat Fitz and Cara let loose a barnstorming set of country/blues numbers, working up a sweat before a baying audience, and climaxing with the stomping ‘Power’.

It was clear that Jeff Martin was a big reason for the presence of many at the festival, and not without good reason. The Tea Party singer-guitarist upped the ante with a solo set of style and class, with some humour thrown in for good measure. ‘Coming Home’, ‘The Bazaar’, ‘Stars in the Sand’ and ‘Line in the Sand’ were mashed up with NIN/Johnny Cash, the Doors and Martin’s heroes Led Zeppelin to make a hard-rockin’ audience happy.

Jeff Martin Mojo Burning Brisbane 2018

After the intensity of Martin, the light-hearted Henry Wagons was a fun point of difference. The Melburnian, with trademark leopard-print jacket and headband, jokingly teased the audience between alt-country numbers, before getting among them during final song ‘Willie Nelson’.

Henry Wagons Mojo Burning Brisbane 2018

Then came Wolfmother and bedlam. Stockdale and co. still know how to rock, and HARD, and as the rock stage became a barrage of headbanging, big riffs and bigger hair, keeping track of anything became increasingly difficult. ‘New Moon Rising’ and ‘Dimension’ were highlights, as were Stockdale’s wardrobe changes. Everything else was lost in a haze of noise and exhilaration.

Wolfmother Mojo Burning Brisbane 2018

Throughout the evening there was a rail-thin and somewhat bookish-looking guy moving among the crowd, fixing a dark-eyed, intense stare on anyone crossing his path while sipping on a schooner with an almost un-Australian restraint. Seconds after Wolfmother was finished, he (Rafael Cohen, as it turns out is his name) was onstage, having shed his glasses and all restraint in his role as guitarist for Elephant Hive – an Israeli power duo who rocked as hard as anyone at the festival. Cohen and drummer Tom Bollig were spotted by chance by the festival director at a show in Tel Aviv, and will have won many new fans on their first Australian jaunt.

Elephant Hive Mojo Burning Brisbane 2018

That left Money For Rope (with two drummers in their four-piece setup) and Hobo Magic, switched from the psych room to the larger blues stage, to kill off any remaining eardrums and complete a festival the organisers can be proud of. Consider all mojos well and truly burnt.

Money For Rope Mojo Burning Brisbane 2018

For Scenestr

Andrew WK: Philosophising with the King of Partying

Andrew WK

“A professional partier and an amateur human being.”

How Andrew W.K. would introduce himself to someone who doesn’t know anything about him reveals the depth behind the hard-rocking, party-anthem-wielding force of nature his fans have come to adore since he blew up internationally with single ‘Party Hard’ in 2001.

The reveal is appropriate.

Since 2010, the 38-year-old American has stepped back from recording to explore motivational speaking, writing, authoring an advice column, and collaborating with other artists. His work has recently seen him named person of the year by suicide prevention group the American Association of Suicidology.

Now, he’s back with You’re Not Alone: his first album of new songs in nearly twelve years. It’s a typically triumphant collection of rock tracks featuring his trademark big riffs, infectious hooks and buoyant choruses.

While he acknowledges he is lucky to have made another album at all, the finished product was only ever going to have one goal: make the listener feel better.

“I only want to put good vibes out into the world, and I’m very focussed on that mission,” he says.

“I imagine we have a perpetual need for positivity. The best things in life give us the strength and resilience to face the challenges that are worth solving.”

For the King of Partying, partying can mean a whole lot more than just getting drunk with friends.

“I’ve had a lot of experience with getting drunk, but it’s not limited to that,” he says.

“First and foremost, it’s a decision to break away from the torturous debate over whether life is good or bad, and it’s an acceptance of the possibility that it is intrinsically good. Then it’s finding the wherewithal to celebrate all that goodness. It’s basically looking at life as a celebration of not being dead, and trying to find the value in the difficult parts of that experience.”

Taking a philosophical approach to partying is fairly unique among hard-rocking musicians, but Andrew W.K.’s power of positivity reaches further, into all areas of his life. His remedy for feeling low is a common one.

“Music never fails. There are people out there, and they’re few and far between, who don’t get the power of music. I could be in a completely defeated frame of mind and turn to music, and it will instantly change not just my thoughts and mood, but the way my body changes physically. It changes the way it feels to exist for the better. Like so many people, we can just imagine a song, and it sounds so much better in our heads than it does being played. It permeates the best part of our soul, and if we can hold onto that in the face of difficulty, it will see us through.”

Another uncommon thing for a hard-rock musician to do is to include spoken-word pieces in an album, of which there are three on You’re Not Alone. Again, the themes are positivity and overcoming doubt.

“Including those was suggested to me by someone in my management team, and it never would have occurred to me,” he says.

“It’s a very exposed and vulnerable contrast to very dense and celebratory music. I didn’t allow my own fears or trepidation to sway me from recording them. I recorded them at the very last second – I literally could not have delayed putting them off any further. I recorded them in the mastering phase – you’re supposed to be completely done with all your recording by that point. The engineer was very generous, and I recorded them quickly and spontaneously. I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I transcribed them for the lyric book, those words were what I was telling myself through the recording of the album and what I tell myself in everyday life. I thought maybe someone else could relate to them as well.”

While he is reinvigorated and empowered by his new album and seemingly feeling freer than ever, Andrew W.K. is sticking firmly to his stated mission – albeit with 17 years more experience and maturity since ‘Party Hard’ made his name.

“I’ve not yet done most things, as far as what I would like to do,” he says.

“I would like to get better as a person and serve this calling. That’s really all I should allow myself. There were times in the past I felt pressure to be ambitious, to think bigger and broader, and do all sorts of other things. I’m not cut out for those things – I’m barely cut out for this. I just want to get better and better at delivering on the promise that I have committed myself to, and that’s party power.”

Australia, known internationally for its party power, is firmly in mind for a visit.

“We have been talking about coming over for concerts and I’m extremely excited about that,” he says.

“Australia has never faltered in not only appreciating party power, but conjuring it up. It would be great to be re-energised and refuelled with a Down Under trip. Hopefully it will happen this year.”

You’re Not Alone by Andrew W.K. is out Friday 2nd March 2018 via Sony Music Australia

For The Brag

Live review: Fatboy Slim – Electric Gardens Festival, Brisbane – 25/1/18

It’s Australia Day Eve, it’s hot as hell, and thousands of thirsty Brisbanites are looking to cut loose.

Fatboy Slim Brisbane January 2018 Electric Gardens

Sunnyboys are at the Tivoli and Foo Fighters’ brand of bro-rock is across town at Suncorp Stadium, meaning Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, has some big-hittin’ competition for the collective attention of Brisbane’s gig-goers at Electric Gardens Festival at the Showgrounds.

The question of whether Cook is able to top his triumphant performance at Riverstage exactly two years to the day is another uncertainty hanging over the gig – that was a hell of a show.

Needless to say, the night proves to be business as usual for the EDM renegade master – complete with a typical array of hits, mesmerising visuals, tantalising sonic snippets, air horns and high energy.

After sets by Tim Fuchs, Motez, MK and Gorgon City, panic sets in at the drinks line when ‘Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat’ kicks off a couple of minutes before the slated 8:30 start time. After ten minutes of high-quality Fatboy, however, the party is well-and-truly underway.

From here, the master is in control of his disciples.

Brief blasts of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ get huge responses, as do ‘Renegade Master’ and ‘Star 69’. Two years ago it was Bowie featuring in a brief minute-or-so tribute, and this time it’s Prince; the Purple One’s image on the big screen is a nice touch.

Fatboy Slim Brisbane January 2018 Electric Gardens Prince

Much like Foo Fighters were probably doing over at Suncorp, Fatboy drops some Queen into his set with a bit of ‘Radio Ga Ga’, as the audience claps when he demands it. It’s not quite Freddie at Live Aid (nothing is), but it’s a lot of fun.

By 9:50pm another hit is well overdue, and ‘Praise You’ does the job, evoking an atmosphere somewhere in the region of bedlam. It only takes ‘The Rockafeller Skank’ mixed with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ to put the icing on this sweaty, leg-weary cake.

For Scenestr

Fatboy Slim: Stormin’ Norman Heads Down Under

Longevity in the entertainment business is an elusive concept. Slippery as an eel. Statistically pretty bloody unlikely.

fatboy slim 2018-1

Evidence shows that lengthy success requires an artist to either (a) regularly reinvent their showbiz persona and take a punt (see: Bowie, Madonna, Prince), or (b) find something they do particularly well and just keep hammering away (see: AC/DC, The Rolling Stones).

For every rule there are exceptions, however, and it could be argued that Fatboy Slim is pretty unique in that he has done a bit of both.

On one hand, the Englishman has spent over 20 years honing an instantly-recognisable DJ-ing style and hasn’t put out a studio album since 2004. On the other, he’s the guy with an armful of aliases, a continually-evolving method of effecting euphoria, and a back story as interesting and varied as most.

With appearances locked in at the third Electric Gardens festival in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide through January, the bonafide EDM legend is bringing his unique party-starting style (and trademark Hawaiian shirts) back to Australia just two years after his last shows here.

It’s safe to assume he’ll be bringing his A game, as always.

“Australian crowds, they’re not shy,” he told Red Bull last year.

“And that’s always my favourite kind of crowd. It’s also a beautiful country to visit.”

While music-lovers now have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a Fatboy Slim show, it’s been a long journey for the 54 year-old to get to where he is today.

The man also known as Norman Cook has come a long way, baby, since being a skinny, pale Housemartin singing a cover of Isley-Jasper-Isley’s ‘Caravan of Love’ on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1986 or reinventing The Clash’s basslines for Beats International’s smash ‘Dub Be Good to Me’ at the turn of the ’90s (and the coming of ecstasy).

In 1996, his world changed. The Fatboy Slim moniker was born (a name plucked from “thin air” he told NPR in 2001), he released the triple-platinum-selling You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby album a couple of years later, and a swag of awards and international recognition in the process.

A superstar DJ was born.

The transition required a new persona, meaning he became “like James Brown without the band,” he told The Guardian recently.

“I started cheerleading the crowd and showing off. Whenever I play, I kick off my shoes, put on my Hawaiian shirt and revert to being a 17-year-old who’s had one too many ciders.”

More hit records and a never-ending whirlwind of parties, festivals, gigs, travelling and even more festivals, gigs and parties lead to him not only becoming one of the biggest names in dance music worldwide, but also alcohol-dependent – a situation he didn’t address until 2009.

Sobriety called for further transition so the Fatboy Slim party didn’t suffer. He says a genuine love of the music and his audience keeps him as keen as ever.

“The people I play the music to … keep me inspired and amused,” he told Time Out this year.

“Last year was fun and I fully intend to deliver more of the same. I just try and makes sure there’s a little bit of everything for everyone.

“If you wanna party, age doesn’t matter!”

“It’s strange, especially when you travel around, [but] I always have a look at the crowd before I go on to see roughly how I’m going to approach it,” he told Noisey.

Naturally the transition to a sober life was a more serious affair than simply adjusting his approach to a show.

“I kind of lived the life of Fatboy Slim 24 hours a day for about a decade, and it nearly killed me,” he said in an interview with Digital DJ Tips.

“It’s untenable to try and live like that all the time, you’re not a responsible citizen, and you shouldn’t be left in control of children.

“So I kind of figured that the only way I’d do it was quit drinking, for starters, just to give me a bit more longevity, and also just to separate the onstage person from the offstage persona.”

Fans old and new are benefiting from the change too.

“[Sobriety has] prolonged my DJing life,” he told Noisey.

“And my actual life. It’s nice to be 54 and able to jump around at 5am. A lot of that is through being fit. But seriously, the whole thing is just vanity; self-preservation.”

Now a veteran of EDM and a stalwart of the music business, he’s in a good position to assess the scene – with the help of a clear head.

“A lot of the old school DJs are properly weird characters, whereas the new school are young, good-looking, but not hugely interesting,” he told Noisey.

“A lot of them are interchangeable.”

With fire still clearly in his belly and a desire for playing shows stronger than ever, Fatboy Slim is not in the mood to hang up his headphones just yet.

Retirement is an impossibility when he’s only just successfully learned how to separate his onstage and offstage personae, he recently told The Guardian.

“For me, Pete Tong, Carl Cox, we are the first wave of big DJs so there’s no precedent [to retirement],” he said.

“As I get older, Norman’s increasingly obsessed with fridge management and being a responsible dad and husband. He only lets Fatboy out of the box on stage now – Fatboy’s still a lunatic hedonist.”

For someone who has been there from the start to still be at the top of his game more than 20 years later is more than unlikely; it’s almost impossible, and Fatboy Slim’s long and eclectic contribution to music has arguably earned him the right to dictate his own future.

“I’ll step down when either the crowds or I stop enjoying it,” he told The Guardian.

“Neither of which has happened thus far.”

Fatboy Slim plays Electic Gardens Festival:

Friday 19th January
Red Hill Auditorium, Perth

Thursday 25th January
The Marquee, Brisbane

Friday 26th January
Centennial Parklands, Sydney

For Scenestr

Interview: Tommy Stinson

As a founding member of legendary alt-rock pioneers the Replacements, Tommy Stinson cemented his place in music history and had a hand in influencing artists as diverse as Green Day, Wilco, the Hold Steady and Lorde.

tommy stinson the replacements

Described as both the “best band of the ’80s” (Musician magazine) and “the greatest band that never was” (Rolling Stone), the Replacements were critical darlings during their lifetime, yet achieved little commercial and mainstream acclaim.

After their 1991 implosion, Minneapolis native Stinson added an 18-year stint as bassist of Guns N’ Roses to his rock and roll résumé, becoming a bonafide rock stalwart in the process, while appreciation of the Replacements’ discography grew steadily.

Following a much-lauded and somewhat tumultuous Replacements reunion in 2013-15, a new line-up of Bash & Pop, a band vehicle for Stinson’s solo work, was formed last year. The group’s first album in 24 years, Anything Could Happen, was released in January, and marked a return to the spontaneous recording methods that were a feature of early Replacements records.

Now 51, the amiable and down-to-earth Stinson is enjoying making music as much as ever.

What’s life been like since the new album came out?

We’ve been touring a lot. We’ve just done a five-week tour with the Psychedelic Furs here in the States and we had a rip of a time. However you would categorise the Psychedelic Furs, their audience was really sweet to us – a rock and roll band – and we had a really good run. I look forward to hopefully doing that again some day.

Is Bash & Pop back for good?

We’re going to keep fuelling it and moving forward. The reason it became Bash & Pop was that we made a band record. On the first Bash & Pop record, I played more instruments than I wanted to play and it ended up being me, the drummer and sometimes the guitar player making that record. This was more of a group effort. We would hash out the songs and do them in five takes, tops. We kind of took the template from how we used to do things in the ’80s.

When we started the Replacements, we would record in a particular way. Paul would show us the basis of a song, either in our basement or in the studio. He would say “Hey, Bob [Stinson, lead guitar], play the melody like this,” and we would record it, getting the best recording we could in as few takes as possible. Back then, tape was expensive for us, so we had to do it quickly. I took that template and applied it to my new record and I think people understand why and I think they can feel that in the record.

Do you prefer being in charge of making your own record, as opposed to being at the whim of a Westerberg or an Axl?

I like all different kinds of things. I like producing and I like playing a role in a band – all of those things I’ve done over the years. With Bash & Pop, the songs we write together end up guiding us instead of us trying to guide the song into being something it’s not. That’s why I like playing with these guys – we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.

With the advent of all these computerised recording devices, people can get so bogged down. And I’m not saying I’ve never done that, because I did two solo records on digital devices that I maybe spent too much time thinking about. You can overthink a whole lot of things with them. But when you’ve got a whole band in the room, and they’re there for a weekend only, they’re sleeping in your house with you, and you’re getting all stinky together, you can maybe capture something in one great moment.

Were you generally happy with how the Replacements reunion went, and would you have liked it to be longer?

To be honest with you, I think we could’ve stretched it out a little bit longer. I don’t know if Paul wasn’t having fun with it, you know about that whole T-shirt thing? [Westerberg wore T-shirts with a single letter spray-painted on them over a number of shows, which, in order, spelt “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past”.] Dude, if you’re so not into it, then why the fuck did we do it? I’ll be super frank with you about that.

When we did the Mats reunion, I thought it would make people happy, it would be super fun, and we’d maybe make some money. We did it, and I thought it was fun, but if it wasn’t fun in [Westerberg’s] head, then why the fuck did we do it? I don’t know if that was directed at me, or who it was directed at, but he kind of made a statement with his shirts that meant the tour finished up with a negative purpose and we should have stopped when we were ahead.

I say this candidly because I think that, at this point in our lives, whatever message you are trying to get across, this is not the best way to do it. The best way to do it would be to play until you don’t want to play, then move on and do something else. That’s what I do – call me kooky for calling it what it is. We only live here once, and when you get in your 50s, why would you do that you feel that you have to do, instead of what you want? Neither one of us had to do any of it, and it was fun for a while, but the T-shirt thing bummed me the fuck out.

Will you play together again?

Not if he pulls out another T-shirt message – fuck that [laughs]. I’m kidding a bit. I never say never, but it would have to happen only if the stars align in the perfect way, where we thought we could have fun with it and not get caught up in the bullshit.

Are you happy with the amount of respect the Replacements got in the band’s lifetime?

I never look back like that. We’re from Minneapolis – the music community in Minneapolis when we were kids in the ’80s rivalled, in my opinion, any music community in that era, or in any other era I’ve even seen. We had Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs, there was us, and lots of art-y bands. We all hung out together, played shows together, travelled together, and it was a real community.

Back in the day, Minneapolis was like the World Series for bands. Whatever bands we played with, we wondered who was going to win the game tonight – it was very competitive, but in a healthy way. I haven’t seen it yet. I lived in L.A. for over 20 years and only saw it in some ways, but completely different. It was a very special scene and I would love to converse with anyone who thinks they lived in a similar kind of music community.

What’s your favourite Replacements album?

I can’t listen to any of them, but if I were going to be straight-up honest with you, the one I can listen to the most is All Shook Down. It didn’t sell as much as Don’t Tell a Soul, but I think that’s when the Replacements were appreciated in a greater realm because of the songwriting. Paul wrote some great songs on that record.

If you listen to that record, and it was hard enough for me to listen to it to even remember the parts I played, that’s a great record. He did what Paul is best at – he basically produced that. Some of is is perhaps a little over-thought, but that whole record stands up completely, from top to bottom. It’s dark as fuck, though. You don’t know want to throw on your headphones on a sunny day and go for a walk in the park with that one on, because you’ll want to fucking slit your throat. But whatever.

Will you play with Guns ‘N’ Roses again?

I never say never about that either. I’d say it’s about as likely as doing the Replacements again. I think they don’t need me – they’ve got Duff and Slash and they’re doing their thing. They’re all my friends and I’m glad they’re all out there, working their butts off and having a good time. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about them. Unless Duff quits, and he was the last man standing the last time, there’s a pretty good chance they’re not going to need my fucking bass-playing skills any time soon [laughs]. Just sayin’.

You’ve been in bands since you were 12, 13. How do you stay grounded and stop yourself going crazy?

I’m still working that out [laughs]. It isn’t easy. A lot of people think that because you’re on stage, everything is great, but a lot of hard work goes into that at every level, whether you’re playing a club, theatre or stadium. It is a hard thing, and I’m not going to boo-hoo about my woes or anything like that, but it’s hard to balance that life and have some semblance of normality for yourself.

Any chance of a trip Down Under?

I’ve been talking to [You Am I guitarist] Davey Lane about it a lot, and trying to get You Am I to be my backing band [laughs]. We’ve been talking for years about it. Maybe I can go over go myself, although I hate doing the solo acoustic thing by myself – I like to have someone I can spitball with, and make shit up or whatever. I’ve always had a good time in Australia, so never say never. I can do a whole bunch of things that’ll either be fun or completely fucking disastrous [laughs].

Anything Could Happen by Bash & Pop is out now.

Check out all things Tommy Stinson here.

For The Brag

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 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.


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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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Fortenbaugh, WW, 2007. ‘Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric’, A Companion to Greek Rhetoric, Wiley, pp.107-123

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Khan, Z, 2014. ‘Words Matter in “Isis” War, So Use “Daesh”’, The Boston Globe, online, accessed 2nd February 2017:

Khosravinik, M, 2009. ‘The Representation of Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants in British Newspapers During the Balkan Conflict (1999) and the British General Election (2005)’, Discourse & Society, Volume 20, p.477

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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’ (, 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 (, 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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Feature: The Preatures Get Personal on Album Number Two

Three years. That’s how long The Preatures toured around their hit single ‘Is This How You Feel?’ and the subsequent album, Blue Planet Eyes. When the band finally returned home early last year, they were completely exhausted.

The Preatures 2017

“Stepping out of the slipstream of that whole touring life was really welcome,” guitarist, co-songwriter and producer Jack Moffitt says. “In a good sense, we had reached the peak of what we were probably capable of achieving during all the time we spent together.”

But getting back to Sydney was also about The Preatures getting back to their roots. They holed up in their inner-city Sydney Hibernian House recording studio and set about writing material for a new album. The result is Girlhood, released last month. It’s an intensely personal collection of songs.
Moffitt says after the roller-coaster ride of a seemingly never-ending touring cycle, getting back to basics simply felt “right”. But the extent to which the band would incorporate their hometown into their music would eventually break new ground for them, and at the same time help introduce a new audience to an Indigenous language.

“We recorded it [at Hibernian House] because we have roots in that place; roots that have a lot to do with us growing up as a unit,” Moffitt says. “We didn’t see ourselves making this record in any other way. Sometimes you just know these things, so we made that choice.”

Forming in 2011 as a country-rock-soul quintet (the now-departed Gideon Bensen was the fifth member), The Preatures steadily built a large and loyal Australian following before taking a more mainstream pop approach with ‘Is This How You Feel?’ in 2013. Blue Planet Eyes was released the following year.

The single, the album and the subsequent time on the road turned The Preatures into proper internationalists with fans all across the world, but Moffitt reckons there will always be something intrinsically “Sydney” about the band.

“Everything has something innate that you can’t escape, and when you start writing, you’re pulling on threads of things that you don’t know how to explain,” he says. “Having made the last record in another part of the world [Austin, Texas], even though it was really hospitable to us and felt good, it wasn’t our place. We wanted the opportunity to really explore what it would be like to be here and work on a record.”

“It was a real catharsis to put a lot of energy into exploring that. Now that I reflect upon it, I can hear everything I’ve grown up with in this city on this record.”

It was during this writing process that singer and co-songwriter Isabella Manfredi attended a production of The Secret River by Sydney Theatre Company. Based on a novel by Kate Grenville, it tells the story of first contact between European setters and the local Dharug people, who lived scattered around what is now much of modern Sydney. Inspired by the play and armed with a desire to include Indigenous language in a song, Manfredi and the band wrote the single Yanada.

“It really moved her to hear that language,” Moffitt says. “I think it stirred in her a longing to find a connection to this place after so many years spent abroad, speaking or learning Italian and German. Then, coming home and hearing that language … she wanted to use [that] when we started writing for the album.

“When we were writing Yanada, [Manfredi] gradually set out to speak with and learn from the Indigenous community about the language. She came across [Aboriginal elder, musician and educator] Jacinta Tobin, which was such a special thing. To have the song acknowledged by Jacinta and all the people we’ve encountered through that process was such an amazing education. It started our relationship with this great heritage we all share.”

Working out how to include Dharug in a pop song respectfully and appropriately took time, Moffitt says.

“It was a real experience to … be guided by members of the community like Jacinta Tobin and [actor and Indigenous campaigner] Richard Green. Everybody was so generous and supportive of what Izzi was trying to pull out of this song with respect to language. It was an eye-opening experience, and has had a profound impact on my life.”

Intertwining the Dharug and English languages in a modern-day track not only connected the band to their area’s history, but to a branch of Australian music stretching back to Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band.

“Neil Murray from Warumpi Band worked and spent a lot of time in communities in the Northern Territory, and wrote My Island Home,” Moffit says. “We’ve grown up with that as an echo in our consciousness from what was around in popular music when we were kids. It seemed to disappear for a long time, but maybe it was because our awareness of it was only there because of our exposure to it in popular music.”

The Preatures have an enormous presence in Australian music and Moffitt recognises the potential for the band to start a conversation about shared history and language.

“Even if the discussion turns to the definition of “yanada”, which in Dharug means ‘moon’, you’ve got two terms that could be the start of someone’s path into learning about their communities,” he says. “For me, I’m not even qualified to really pass any comment on it other than what my experience is, which is that I feel like I’m at the start of a lifelong journey.”

A new album of course means another round of touring. There have already been performances at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney and the Forum in Melbourne. Next up is a performance at the Spiegeltent for Brisbane Festival, followed by shows in Adelaide, Perth and a clutch of regional dates. Moffitt reckons they’re ready.

“We’re at that point where we’re looking forward to being back in that vacuum,” he says. “That mode of touring.”

Girlhood is out now on Mercury Records.

For Broadsheet

Q&A: Hatchie


Anyone who’s been to more than a handful of gigs in Brisbane will be familiar with Harriette Pilbeam. As bassist, sometimes singer and songwriter for indie-rockers Babaganoüj since 2011, and previously as a member of sugary pop outfit Go Violets, she is an established figure on the local scene.

Now, barely three months since Pilbeam introduced her solo project Hatchie to the world via Triple J Unearthed, she has signed management and PR deals, seen her music charting on the Spotify Viral charts, been added to the Bigsound Live line-up, and gained the kind of attention many other young artists would sell their mother for.

The reason is debut single ‘Try’ – a shimmering pop gem unlike anything the 24-year-old has been involved in so far. Pilbeam explains how ‘Try’ came about and what the future holds for the burgeoning project.

Why is now the right time for a solo project?

I started writing these songs that didn’t suit Babaganoüj any more – they were a lot more pop and not as grunge or ’90s-sounding as Babaganoüj. They required much different production and I wanted to play around with more ’80s UK references more than [those of] ’90s US bands. I thought it was a good time to pursue that, and I really wanted to experiment with that kind of stuff by myself, rather than in a band. I recorded ‘Try’ 18 months ago and decided to put it out on my birthday in May to make myself do it.

Your bio mentions Cocteau Twins, Sky Ferreira and Wolf Alice as influences. What is it about those artists that works for you?

With the Cocteau Twins, it’s a lot about the vocals, and the ambience with the guitars. I really like the production of some Sky Ferreira songs because they’re pop songs but the production is more alternative, with the drums especially. She’s not just a straight pop singer. I wanted to do an amalgamation of all those things, and play around with vocals and harmonies, but with more pop writing.

Is ‘Try’ indicative of how the project will sound overall?

I think it’s maybe too early to tell. I have a lot of demos I haven’t produced yet, so they can go in any direction. I think that ‘Try’ sits in the middle of the kind of music I’ll probably be making. There are a few songs I’ve already got done which are a bit on the poppy side of ‘Try’, and a few songs which are a bit darker, ambient and shoegaze-y.

You’ve had so much attention in a short amount of time.

I’m very excited and it’s pretty overwhelming. I did not expect half of the things that have happened to happen so quickly. I thought I would be self-managed for at least six months or something, and I got a manager within a day of releasing Try. So many things have happened so quickly and it’s shocking to me. I’m very grateful that it’s even got this far.

How did the deal with Jacob Snell of Monster Management come about?

He just contacted me when ‘Try’ got played on Triple J. I put it up on Unearthed and he contacted me within a few hours of its release. We spoke on the phone two days later, got on really well, and it just made sense. I thought I’d maybe want to keep my options open a bit longer, but as soon as I had the phone call with him I wanted to just do it, and didn’t care about who else comes along. I don’t think I’ll regret it.

Brisbanites will recognise landmarks in the clip. Is where you’re from important to you as an artist?

Brisbane has a unique music scene in that it’s quite small and everybody knows each other. I don’t think I needed to incorporate my home town because of what it means to me, but it probably affects me without me realising.

What does being on the Bigsound Live line-up mean to you?

I’m excited to see a lot of the other people who are playing, but it’s also exciting for me as an artist to meet people I wouldn’t meet outside of Bigsound. It’s really cool because they get so many international people coming in. I’m really excited to meet people, not even in a business-y way, but just to talk to people about what it’s like to work in the music industry. I am really interested in that as I studied it at uni. I’m excited about all aspects of it, not just playing.

What makes up a Hatchie live set?

I’ve got about a set’s worth ready to go now, and I’m still in the process of teaching the other members the songs now. It’ll probably be about seven songs – mainly poppy and upbeat. I’ve got my friend Ritchie [Daniell] on drums – he’s in the Grates. I’ve got the two guitarists from the Creases and me on guitar and samples. It’s pretty fluid at the moment and depends on the touring schedule that is worked out for the next six months, which is all being decided at the moment.

How do you build on what you’ve already done?

I suspect a support tour with another Australian band, and then hopefully lots of shows overseas in the next six months to a year. There are a lot of things about to be locked in. I would love to go to the UK and play the Great Escape Festival next year. The UK would be my number-one priority.

For Broadsheet

Live review: London Grammar + Guests – Riverstage, Brisbane – 23/9/17

Billed as Brisbane Festival’s “marquee music event”, the five-act line-up of London Grammar, James Vincent McMorrow, The Kite String Tangle, Mansionair and Wafia provided perfect vibes for a chilled evening at Brisbane’s Riverstage on Saturday (23rd September).

London Grammar Brisbane Riverstage September 2017

With the tunes kicking off at 4pm in scorching sunshine, and running for close to six hours, the atmosphere was not unlike a mini festival, with the comforting aroma of Dagwood dogs and mid-strength beer reinforcing the feeling.

Wafia is a rare talent whose vocal power is more than enough to fill the amphitheatre, while Mansionair play a slick set and get a big response with ‘Hold Me Down’.

Hometown boy Danny Harley of The Kite String Tangle is delighted to be playing Riverstage for the first time, as he tells us twice. The sun aptly drops over the horizon as he plays ‘Illuminate’, but it’s his final track ‘Arcadia’ which is the perfect ending to the best set of the day thus far.

But hold on, the best set of the day is immediately bested, as things get international-class with James Vincent McMorrow. The Irishman’s soulful delivery is just about perfect on ‘Get Low’ and ‘National’, while the towering ‘Cavalier’ provides a goosebump-y moment or four.

London Grammar are all darkness and mystique as they take to a sparsely-lit stage and singer Hannah Reid begins proceedings with ‘Rooting For You’. It’s a controlled start, but one that grabs the audience’s attention and ensures it stays firmly on the band for the rest of the night.

‘Rooting For You’ perfectly rolls into ‘Flickers’, and while the trio’s sound is somehow both delicate and huge simultaneously, it is, of course, Reid’s ethereal, choral tones that are the highlight of the set.

‘Wasting My Young Years’ precedes a cheery rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for guitarist Dan Rothman, who is turning 28. A cake appears from somewhere and Reid asks the audience to confirm how young and handsome he is before pointing out how cake is bad for her vocal cords, “just like everything else delicious”. Boo hoo.

‘Hey Now’ receives perhaps the biggest response of the evening. It fills the amphitheatre from the river to the hot-dog stand and back again, as a captivated audience sings along. Conclusion: London Grammar’s music is built for big spaces.

The gig/mini festival vibes are over by the Brisbane City Council-approved 10pm, leaving plenty of time for reflecting on what was a pretty damn good day of music.

For Scenestr

Q&A: Glitter Veils

The Brisbane duo going international with the help of one of America’s most well-regarded record labels.

Glitter Veils

Glitter Veils wasn’t always Glitter Veils. Most recently plugging away on the Brisbane dream-pop scene under the moniker YOU, it was in July last year that Luke Zahnleiter and Michael Whitney (also of The Rational Academy and Nite Fields, respectively) were presented with a persuasive argument to change their band name.

Terrible Records got in touch. It was co-founded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and is home to Solange, Twin Shadow, Blood Orange, Moses Sumney and Australia’s Kirin J. Callinan, among many others. Terrible suggested the switch to the more memorable and SEO-friendly moniker. It then went on to release Glitter Veils’ album, Figures in Sight, on its Flexible imprint, which focuses on unique debut releases.

After listening to the album it’s easy to see why. Raw, abrasive, deep and mesmeric, the layers of sound play out like an experiment that may or may not reach a conclusion but will be a hell of a ride either way.

Zahnleiter and Whitney, champions of the album format, explain their processes and how they ended up on Terrible.

Was putting Figures in Sight together a complex process?

Michael Whitney: It started off as a bedroom project for me, and then I wanted to play it live. Then Luke came along and we became really good friends. I guess from that initial period it was about two years of writing, recording, restructuring and going back and forth to the studio.

Luke Zahnleiter: We were pretty fastidious and got a bit obsessive in parts of it, but, overall, we’re happy with how it came out and happy that the overall sound has been getting a good response. We’re kind of relieved in a way.

Was it important the album had an overall sound or feel?

LZ: Michael and I listen to similar music and we have quite a varied taste. I think it’s about the feeling and mood we can create in the music. We could attempt to make a style of music, but [the album is] essentially what came out at that period in time. Whatever was impacting our life was funnelled through that.

MW: Luke and I come from pretty different spectrums of how we play instruments, and I think that is reflected in certain ways. The guitar has a similar sound over the whole album. I tend to like a lot of older pop music and stuff like [American composer] Angelo Badalamenti [best known for his work scoring David Lynch’s films].

David Lynch is often mentioned in your reviews. How does that sit with you?

LZ: I’m happy with that. When people say “David Lynch”, I think they mean the Twin Peaks [theme] song [Falling]. I think it’s more of a mood thing.

MW: That kind of tragic beauty.

Describe the moment you heard Terrible was interested.

LZ: When we finished the album we had no idea what we were going to do from that stage. It’s not like we had been playing live. We just got so involved in making the record that we didn’t have a plan of attack afterwards. We just sent it to a bunch of labels – mainly international labels – and kind of hoped for the best. I emailed quite a few with some early mixes. Then Ethan [Silverman] from Terrible emailed. It was very vague – I think it was a one-line response, something like: “This is cool, I’ll sit on this …”. Then three months later we heard from them again, and he got back to us with another vague message saying they wanted to put out two songs on the Flexible imprint, then we figured out a way to put everything out. We wanted to bypass plugging away at the local scene and getting on a local label.

Why bypass the local route?

LZ: We wanted as many people as possible to hear the album – that’s my main goal.

MW: We were sending it to labels that were probably above our heads, but we tried anyway. I just want to make really great albums. The live thing has almost been an afterthought with this last record.

LZ: We’ve both played in bands before and done local gigs and touring, and it’s exhausting to do that, and you’re not really getting much exposure. It’s usually the same people who come to shows locally, and we just wanted to get a broader audience.

How does it feel to have Solange, Twin Shadow and Blood Orange as labelmates?

MW: It’s a great roster and I love Blood Orange and Solange’s album. It’s something to aspire to – to make albums in a certain way and to push us even further.

LZ: We’re definitely in good company and it’s a great label. I remember that Twin Shadow album from 2010 or 2011 – their first full-length. I used to love that album. To think we’re now with the same company is a really good feeling. There are some great artists on Flexible, too.

Any international touring plans?

LZ: We’ve got a few Melbourne shows coming up, but internationally, we’ll see how it pans out. It’s definitely something we’d both like to do, especially in America. Having Terrible on our side to help is a good position to be in.

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