In 2012, an online campaign launched on Communityrun rapidly developed into a powerful social movement of more than 97,000 supporters and a coalition of 16 state and national interest groups.
Together, their campaign forced the Australian Government to stop Seafish Tasmania’s plans to bring super trawler FV Able Tasman into Australian waters and secured a nationwide legislative ban on all super trawlers exceeding 130m. The grassroots campaign—spearheaded by the Stop the Trawler Alliance (STA)—spilled across social media and mobilised support via sites such as GetUp!, Communityrun, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Care2 petition site. Through the coordination of both online and offline activities, the STA used the public as a vehicle to lobby the government, get voices heard, and achieve major legislative change. Drawing on key political communication theories surrounding media framing, social movements, and post-modern campaigning, this essay will analyse and critically reflect on the successes and limitations of the Stop the Trawler movement both online and within in the Australian community. Conclusions will be drawn as to the benefits and risks associated with social media campaigns, and whether these new platforms for citizen empowerment are cause for concern or celebration.
Stop the Trawler Campaign
In July 2012, the second largest super trawler in the world, FV Abel Tasman, set course for Australian waters, where it planned to harvest more than 18,000 tonnes of pelagic fish—some of the most critical in our ecosystem (Wroe, 2012). What followed was a rapid national uprising led by Environment Tasmania Marine Coordinator, Rebecca Hubbard, who brought together 16 international conservation groups, Green politicians, recreational fishers and tourism groups to form the Stop the Trawler Alliance. While the vessel made its way from Europe, public opposition intensified through political lobbying and social media campaigns run by nongovernmental organisations such as Greenpeace, the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, and the Australian Conservation Foundation (Tracey et al., 2013) (Figure 1).
Social and Print Media interest in the Super Trawler
Figure 3. Social and print media interest in the super trawler (colored lines) in relation to key events (shaded bars). Public interest in the super trawler grew slowly during its transit from Europe to Australia. Local protests and parliamentary debate resulted in clear peaks of media interest. Interest spiked with the arrival of the super trawler in Australia and its reflagging (which suggested impending commencement of fishing). Interest peaked dramatically as legislation was amended to permit a moratorium on the trawler. In Australia this peak is on par with other major issues during this period, for example, a similar number of Google searches related to the collapse of Australia’s biggest forestry company and twice as many related to the worst day of Australian casualties in the Afghan conflict.
This included a National Day of Action, where hundreds of Australians took to the seas and streets to protest, and the delivery of 44,000 paper fish—each with the name of an Australian opposing the super trawler—to the front lawn of Parliament House (Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 2012). An online petition was created by Hubbard on campaigning platform Communityrun, and was followed by petitions on the sites including Greenpeace and GetUp!, encouraging citizens to directly lobby Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig. By the end of the campaign, over 18,000 emails had been sent to Ludwig and other government officials (Gilmore, 2012). With nearly 7,000 likes on Facebook, and 900 Twitter followers, the STA used the hashtag #stopthetrawler to generate a supportive dialogue within the online sphere.
To add further pressure, the STA used GetUp! to crowdfund a full page protest advertisement worth $47,000, which featured on page 9 of The Australian Newspaper in August 2012 (Hicks, 2012). The protest surged and gained international attention, with world champion surfer Kelly Slater, Australian singer Guy Sebastian, and other celebrities tweeting support and adding their names to the campaign. After graphic images of dead seals and dolphins caught in a Dutch super trawler were strategically leaked by the STA, it was mere minutes before social media sites were flooded with photos and corresponding vows of support from concerned Australians. This media framing technique (Entman, 1993) visually and publically emphasised the damage done by the super trawler, tapping into society’s empathy towards protected marine animals.
By September, 2012—just 35 days after it was created—the Communityrun petition was handed to the Federal Government to ban all super trawlers in Australian seas, having gained 93,863 signatures (Gilmore, 2012). The next day, Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig gave into unprecedented public opposition and announced a two-year moratorium on the Abel Tasman trawler. He acknowledged the public’s role in the decision, referring to the “uncertainty in the community…about the environmental, social and economic impacts of a fishing vessel of this size” to justify the ban (Denholm, 2012). Seafish Director Gerry Geen said, “There was nothing coming out of government that even hinted at any kind of problem until that aggressive social-media campaign took off, at which point government started getting nervous…that was the genesis of the change.” (Denholm, 2012).
Whereas scientific evidence is usually deployed in support of conservation efforts, in this case, it was a perfect storm of political protest and media exposure—particularly on social media—that ultimately ended in a political decision that threatened to destabilise the government. The temporary ban was upgraded to a legislated ban on all super trawlers exceeding 130m in March 2014 by Prime Minister Abbott, setting a significant precedent for future fisheries decisions. However, the Stop the Trawler Alliance agues this, “didn’t go far enough” (Lewis, 2014), as it still leaves Australian waters vulnerable to smaller, equally destructive trawlers (About, 2016). For this reason, the campaign continues; urging the public to support the STA in lobbying the Turnbull government to enact a plan for low-impact, sustainable fishing industries; not super trawlers that send profits offshore, risk recreational fisheries and destroy precious marine life (Mr Turnbull – Stop the Super Trawlers, 2016).
Social Media Campaign
There has been heated debate over whether online activism is simply ‘slactivism’, or whether it will soon replace, or even eliminate, direct or offline forms of grassroots activism and lobbying. It is my belief that social media campaigns complement—and even have a positive impact on—offline mobilisation, and are, therefore, the future of social activism. Social media are the ultimate disruptive technology: they are the central nervous system of postmodern campaigns and often seem to dominate the political process (Darrell, 2011). As I see it, these technologies have heightened the media’s effectiveness in spreading environmental awareness, instituting change, and connecting people locally and cross-nationally on major issues at a low cost; as evidenced in the STA’s campaign.
Sites like Facebook and Twitter are highly conducive in inspiring environmental activism and ‘cyberdemocracy’, as the more ‘likes’, shares, or ‘tweets’ an issue or story receives, the more likely this issue will become an online social trend. These online spaces foster ‘advocacy democracy’ (Kriesi, 2013), where public interests are represented by unelected interest groups and social movements, rather than elected officials. The STA used social media to organise ofline meetups with like-minded activists, epitomising the ‘netroots to grassroots’ (Feld & Wilcox, 2008) type of online activism. Hashtag activism is also effective in increasing awareness, as it creates an opportunity for sustained public engagement and is easily shareable. By using the hashtag #stopthetrawler, individuals were able to show solidarity and have their say within the wider national conversation while sparking further public action.
Digital Campaigning Platforms
Platforms such GetUp! and Communityrun have successfully harnessed the internet as a campaigning tool; promising empowerment and a voice to the voiceless. In a world where individuals struggle to be heard, gain recognition, and make a contribution to society, digital media and activism platforms give citizens the power to be ‘visible’ and to feel that their voice is heard and can make a difference (Couldry, 2010). As explained by Dahlberg in discussing liberal individualist digital democracy, virtual advocacy groups provide individuals with the means to have their particular interests realised by decision makers, via e-voting, web feedback systems, petitions, emails, online polls and much more (2011).
I believe that GetUp! was the ideal platform for the Stop the Trawler campaign: known for its story-telling and emotion-laden approach in campaign messaging, it creates a “shared, positive narrative that is more likely to lead to collective action than negative, adversarial politics” (Halpin, 2016). It also states a particular ‘big picture’ agenda: “to advance environmental sustainability, social justice, economic fairness and empower everyday people to be active participants in our democracy” (About Us, 2016). The site was also responsible for crowdfunding the $47,000 Stop the Trawler national newspaper advertisement. This demonstrates that the public were motivated to take further action and donate to the cause, rather than take the ‘slactivist’ approach and simply click a button. Rebecca Hubbard’s Communityrun petition was also an effective campaigning tool. In a campaign where big numbers were necessary to make an impact on the government, this digital petition was invaluable, and played a huge role in securing legislative change. The political landscape of Australia is changing—people are beginning to identify less with political parties, and more with specific social issues (Arndt, 2012), and they are using online platforms like GetUp! and Communityrun to do so.
Limitations of Online Campaigning
However, digital and social media campaigns like the Stop the Trawler movement have limitations as to how much effective change they can generate, and raise concerns about celebratory views of citizen digital empowerment. Digital movements, like any social issue, are vulnerable to the issue-attention cycle (Downs, 1972), whereby the public’s attention rarely remains focused on one matter for very long before the media refocuses the public’s eye elsewhere. This occurrence is seen at the conclusion of the STA’s campaign, where media coverage of the campaign peaked in 2012 when legislative change was achieved (Figure 1), but dropped off considerably once the public saw the issue as a closed case. Another common criticism of digital campaigns is that they are merely a form of ‘slactivism’ or ‘clicktivism’; where little to no effort is made by users in supporting a cause and the real life impact of activities is limited (Slacktivism, 2016). With this in mind, many are critical of GetUp!’s ‘membership’, since joining involves little more investment than a ‘mouse click. It is also difficult to determine the long-term involvement and level of engagement of people via the internet, which can lead to a diffused and passive media environment (Dosemagen, 2016). I believe that this notion reflects our progressively neo-pluralist, mediatised, postmodern society: we are seeing increased secularisation, the decline of physical group memberships, and the rise of technologies which shape and frame messages for targeted audiences.
Furthermore, now that social media streams are a primary source of news and information, independent vocalization by citizens and interest groups can be positive and empowering, yet also problematic when information isn’t verified or truthful (Dosemagen, 2016). Mathew Hindman (2009) points out that, “it may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard.” With so many competing interests involved in online political conversation, many minorities or counter-publics may find it difficult to have their interests and concerns heard by decision-makers. However, I would argue that this increased competition actually fosters an environment for public engagement in the political process, and suggests an advance towards new, more inclusive and participatory forms of democracy. While social media sites can be used for manipulation and social control, they also empower people by providing new spaces for information, debate and participation—rendering the political process more transparent and democratic.
Although many see these claims as idealistic and representative of technological determinism (Iosifidis & Wheeler, 2016), I strongly believe digital citizenship is more about empowerment than caution. With this in mind, I believe that all online campaigning should be coupled with offline activity in order to have a maximum impact. Instead of only encouraging likes, shares, follows, and retweets from passive, unengaged users, future digital campaigns should also aim for active results, like donations and physical demonstrations of support; as evidenced in the Stop the Trawler campaign. This relationship between digital activism and real-world results—between intention and action—must be further investigated to increase the effectiveness of postmodern campaigning activities (Albright, 2015).
The emergence of digital spaces for interaction among citizens has created a free flow of information and encouraged public deliberation, political activism and democratic participation. I believe that, coupled with online advocacy sites such as GetUp!, Communityrun, and Change.org, social media campaigns represent the future of social activism. With public support, these digital, people-powered campaigns are unstoppable in disseminating information, spreading awareness and creating social, political and environmental change. The Stop the Trawler campaign reeled in 16 state and national interest groups and almost 100,000 public supporters to lobby the government and create unprecedented policy change within the Australian Fishing Industry. This social movement was a perfect storm of online activism—via petitions, social media, and email lobbying—and physical activism—via protest rallies, human signs, and the National Day of Action. In the digital age, social media allow instant connections to be made across the globe—bringing people together to have their voices heard and show support for a collective cause. However, although successful activism in the digital age is dependent on social media, I argue it must also include traditional methods of grassroots protests and offline campaigning; so as to transform passive, unengaged users into powerful and effective social activists.
This essay was compiled in 2016 for the subject POLS2113 and received a Distinction.