#Hansonism: The impact of new media, internet and mass media on Pauline Hanson

16 minutes to read
Ram Subbiah

Digitalisation has opened up an alternative space where extremist ideologies have festered and metastasized under the palatable climate of social media. In this article I will analyze the political behaviour of Australia’s Pauline Hanson, the Reclaim Australia movement and the alt-right on social media and the Internet. 

Hanson is carving out her own space by using new media as a tool to wage a discursive battle of meaning (Maly, 2016). Through social media, Hanson is able to communicate with thousands of people and help build a nationalistic movement - Reclaim Australia. Her 'alt-right' supporters add a global dimension to this nationalistic movement. Platforms as 4chan function as online infrastructures and their memes are used locally, in Australia.

Beware of the underdog

Just like America has Trump, Australia has Pauline Hanson. The discourse of the mainstream media constantly ridicules her racist views and preposterous policies on immigration and has even dubbed her the “Trump of Australia” (Grant, 2017). In doing so, they contribute to constructing her image as an outsider, as someone who dares to say what needs to be said. Similar to Trump’s campaign, the mainstream media fails to notice that humour, backlash and ‘Hansonisms’ are actually contributing to her success and “supports the image of [Hanson] being anti-establishment” (Maly, 2016). 

The alt-right in the US, and new right activists in Australia feel unified, and are addressed under the leadership of Hanson. Although the alt-right is primarily an American movement, we should understand it as part of a global new right movement (Maly, 2018), and the Internet has spread to Australia as well. For instance, a Google Trends analysis of both the terms “alt-right” and “Pauline Hanson” within Australia, shows a substantial increase in her popularity over the past three years (Figure 1). Something as simple as a Google search coupled with the surging interest in white supremacy coverage in the mass media can be the key towards radicalization.  

Orange indicates Google search for the term "alt-right" and blue indicates "Pauline Hanson"

New Right activists see the internet as a powerful tool for mobilization and what they call meta-politics (Maly, 2018). As the prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer said,

“[the internet] is a clear sign that we have power. Even if it’s just in our own little small way — even if it’s just sending a sarcastic tweet or two — we have power, and we’re changing the world.” (Romano, 2016)

And it is through the internet that this global new right movement, and its local Australian manifestation, grows.

Facebook: Likes and Shares

While new media such as Facebook and Twitter, do not create global 'unity' it does create niched connectivity. This connectivity is becoming increasingly important as the world is challenged by more complex problems today from climate change to immigration and national security. To reach the masses, besides simply relying on the mass media as in the past, politicians are increasingly involved with social media to express their political opinions and engage in ideological battles. After all, “it is the media who have the power to construct deep ideological messages out of insignificant events and phenomena” (Blommaert, 2005). As Castells conveys, social movements need media. Counter-movements use their own and mass media to mobilise and to have an impact (Castells, 1996). Pauline Hanson supports counter-movements that appeal to her policies such as anti-immigration. She opposes the majority’s views on numerous national policies such as immigration, Muslim ban, and climate change.

To spread her message, Pauline Hanson uses social media to the full extent. Her “Pauline Hanson: Please Explain” official Facebook page has over 217,000 followers, coupled with her One Nation Party’s page with another 255,000 likes, her followers reach over half a million. Facebook, the largest social media platform, plays a crucial role in Pauline Hanson’s political career. Beyond just liking, new advancements allow people to express emotions and even have the option to live stream videos. In fact, since 2015 alone Pauline Hanson has posted over 400 videos on her Facebook with each video averaging between 50,000 and 300,000 views. 

Additionally, not only does Hanson conduct numerous live Q&A sessions allowing people to communicate directly, she also offers the option to sign up for a mailing list to receive prompt updates on her policies. The immense impact of social media is further evident through the fact that for every live video update, all her followers receive a notification which makes it very difficult to miss.

Hanson’s radical ideologies combined with the algorithmic nature of these platforms create a“personal ecosystem of information and alters the way we encounter ideas and information” (Sunstein & Pariser, 2006) and as such it has the potential to alter the way her followers encounter ideas and information. To illustrate, simply showing interest by following a page results in the page’s posts appearing on the news feed, influences the types of ads and suggests similar pages to follow – essentially, an endless loop of one’s online identity is surrounded by homogenous online communities. This unprecedented level of personalization creates information risk by removing us from environments and ideas that make us question our beliefs. It creates a normality that simply strengthens one’s prejudices. 

Twitter: #Reclaim Australia 

This digital dimension has changed political engagement and information distribution to an unparalleled level (Halupka, 2014) and in turn, has created a more visible form of participation as countless individuals are able to voice their opinions online. This leads to networked social movements which are “usually triggered by a spark of indignation either related to a specific event or to peak of disgust with the actions of rulers" (Castells, Communication Power, 2013). However, some claim that this new media form of participation is merely slacktivism or clicktivism, meaning that it is the outcome of the “multiplicity of possibilities and the easy availability of quick spiritual and intellectual fixes” which causes a lack of 'real' commitment (Morozov, 2012). 

Liking and sharing alone won't change the world, but this academic discourse can be challenged for its bias. Social media are in numerous instances being used as new mass media, and as tools to organize online and offline protest. They have in some cases proven to help evolve online movements into offline protests. Gerbaudo coined the term choreography of assembly to explain this phenomenon (Gerbaudo, 2012). He suggests that social media can be thought of as tools for collective action – to communicate, set dates, organize and provide instructions for protestors. This bridges the divide between the digital world and the real world and enables even extremist movements to take action. A good example of such a complex hybrid movement, one that combines face-to-face interaction along with social media to transform into offline choreography, is the Reclaim Australia movement.

The social media platform, Twitter, played a prominent role in the mobilization of over 16 rallies in several Australian cities with thousands of protestors.

Reclaim Australia is a radical nationalist group that began as a movement in July 2015 led by Pauline Hanson and some other politicians with the objective of 'restoring Australia’s cultural identity by opposing Islam migration' (Reclaim Australia, n.d.). 

Twitter played a prominent role in the mobilization for at least 16 rallies in several Australian cities with thousands of protestors. The planning was well coordinated with a separate “@ReclaimAus” Twitter account in addition to Pauline Hanson using her own account to spread the message, to provide information on where and when protests were held and to communicate information on events to assemble thousands of people from across the nation in a matter of days. 

Furthermore, a few days prior to the protests, the organizers of the movement provided supporters with access to their account and increased their digital reach (Figure 2). By providing everyday people with access to their account, they convey the message that they are at the same level as the people. They gave activist co-ownership of the movement. Furthermore, the hashtag "#ReclaimAustralia" is used by both activists who support the movement and those who condemn it. This further escalated the controversy and increased the popularity of the hashtag on Twitter resulting in celebrities and traditional media also joining in. 

Pauline Hanson also made a surprise appearance at one of the rallies causing a frenzy on Twitter. Her supporters at the rally took advantage of the 140-character simplicity of tweets and conveyed it to the mass media who were not present at the rally. One Twitter user’s tweet to ABC News was retweeted by 65 others along with countless comments (Figure 3). The hundreds of “#ReclaimAustralia” tweets following the protests served as a catalyst for Hanson to spread her message as radio stations invited her to speak on air the very next day (Figure 4).

It is clear that even if mass media silences the movement, the movement keeps mobilising and informing participants using social media. However, Reclaim Australia’s success is not purely the work of the information age. It is a hybrid movement that combines the old structures with some characteristics of the ‘networked social organizations’. The old structures involve Hanson as the leader and her One Nation Party to provide an overarching structure to communicate using various channels such as social media, their mainstream website and news networks. Of course, the most vital and visible channel is social media as it can be used at a local level as seen earlier in the tweet to ABC news relating to the one specific Rockhampton rally. 

Furthermore, the movement is branded when supporters use the "#Reclaim Australia" hashtag to convey their involvement. It is “digital media used alongside – and intertwined with – classic politicising instruments: organising debates, [to politicize] youth through face-to-face encounters, organising parades, counter-actions, etc." (Maly, New Media, New Resistance and Mass Media, 2017). Thus, the mobilization of power and choreography of assembly is realised through a whole spectrum of infrastructures - Hanson guides the movement, uses social media to spread news about events, and the supporters convey it to mass media such as news channels. 

Online Alt-Right: Memes 

Over the past few years the role of new media has allowed the Alt-Right and more specifically Pauline Hanson’s supporters to go from near obscurity to a force to be reckoned with. The Alt-Right, at a high level, can be seen as a polycentric non-homogeneous social movement identifying itself as consisting of right-wingers who at least up until the election of Trump operated as one movement under the hashtag #altright (Maly, 2018) and challenged the status-quo of the political establishment primarily through the means of new media (Minsky, 2017). The nature of the digital age is that it is easily accessible, allowing the receiver to interact with the sender in a way that was not possible with the traditional media, such as newspapers and televisions. This has made it possible for followers of the alt-right to collectively take part in internet trolling. In fact, the Alt-Right are all over the Internet from blogs to social media, from YouTube to Reddit pages but have been able to disguise themselves and promote their dangerous ideologies in the form of memes, trolls and fake news.

The users conveyed the similarity between Trump and Hanson through the infamous Pepe the Frog meme

One specific weaponizing tool used by Hanson’s alt-right supporters are memes: cultural units that are distributed through copying, imitating, sharing, and reworking (Webster, 2017). Memes utilize humour as a message-instrument to mainstream radical ideologies. The alt-right social movement has a global dimension and it is evident concretely through 4chan -  an image-based bulletin board with almost 30 million monthly visitors - used as an infrastructure where the Australian activists can connect with other new right activists. 

Pauline Hanson and pro-Hanson activists have a rather significant presence on the site. In 4chan'smost notable imageboard i“/pol/” otherwise known as Politically Incorrect, for instance, Pauline Hanson tweeted that she has been invited to Donald Trump’s Presidential Inauguration, and the anons of 4chan took notice. The users conveyed the similarity between Trump and Hanson through the infamous Pepe the Frog meme (Figure 5). Within minutes hundreds of individuals conveyed their support for Hanson with messages such as “a common voice for common people” and “she has so many votes in the 2010s because guess what, she was right about the Asians” (Figure 6). In addition, Hanson has tens of other 4chan pages including a page for when she wore a burqa to the Senate to oppose Muslim immigration. In the end, Hanson’s followers convey their regressive ideologies with the disguise of memes and sensational videos and remodel white supremacy into a more palatable ideology. 

All publicity is good publicity 

New media have enabled ideology dissemination through participants' own channels, making it possible to no longer be dependent upon mass media for fighting a discursive battle for hegemony. Hegemony is the coming together of power and ideology (Blommaert, 2005). Hegemony in any political context is fragile and requires renewal and modification through the assertion and reassertion of power. The discursive battle for hegemony (Maly, 2016) between mass media and social media on the portrayal of Pauline Hanson has only fueled her extremist messages and made her more popular. This battle is made possible because new media, according to Castells (2013), is a domain that is principally beyond the control of governments and therefore allows the flourishing of anti-hegemonic ideas.

"Unless you see me live on TV or hear me live on radio, don't believe a thing you read in the newspapers or hear on the news." (Pauline Hanson)

New media has created critical junctures with a political crisis as the existing order is no longer working and institutions are challenged. Just like Trump challenges this juncture by framing mainstream media as the producers of fake news, Hanson is waging a similar war. On numerous occasions, she firmly says, “unless you see me live on TV or hear me live on radio, don't believe a thing you read in the newspapers or hear on the news”. She also supports the boycotting of mass media by supporting alternative sources of viewing the news; stating that "if the media can't be truthful and give me a fair go, there's another app here, it's called Newzulu…then we won't need the media at all. You guys will be out of a job” (Kruger, 2016). The mass media’s discourse also frames Hanson’s actions out of proportion and thus distorting the context. The fundamental issue with such reporting is that just as during Trump’s campaign the mass media fail to realize that publicity – even negative publicity – contributes to Hanson’s success and to the spread of her message (Maly, 2016).

This effect of going from niche media to dominance due to hegemonic battles is prevalent around the world. When Former President Barack Obama used the N-word once in a podcast to discuss racism and gun ownership, it was in the spotlight for every major news network (Yuhas, 2015). Just like Obama, Hanson too has been in the international spotlight. When she wore a burqa to the Senate to discuss the effects of Muslim immigration and terrorism, it made the front-page of every major newspaper in Australia and many other countries (Figure 7). Although this is a radical and clearly racist action, in comparison to Obama using the N-word once, the effect of niche to dominance still applies. 

The headlines simply read “Pauline goes Burq-o” and articles almost entirely focus on the act, where she purchased the burqa, and how she entered the Parliament building, rather than providing the context for the action. This distorts the overall message by taking attention away from the central issue and instead offering attention to Hanson. At first glance, most people think Hanson would be upset by this antagonism from the mass media, but in fact, it was the opposite. When the leader of the opposition party, George Bandis, slammed Hanson for the stunt, she thrived off the attention as mass media reports “Hanson smiled throughout Brandis’ answer, and visibly delighted with the commotion caused by her intervention” (Murphy, 17). This increased popularity created by the mass media further backfired as following the burqa stunt she appeared on an American Comedy Central talk shows. She took this opportunity to promote her ideologies through comedy to millions of viewers around the world.


Power of the Internet

The digital age has allowed for unimaginable ways of communication and information distribution. It allows for individuals to express their opinions and ideas and allows everyone to gain a plethora of perspectives on important issues.

Although this social network phenomenon is revolutionary, it is also evident that political online behaviour has its ramifications. Underdog politicians such as Pauline Hanson are able to communicate their extremist views to millions of people through social media from something as simple as a Facebook post. The algorithmic nature of these platforms further enhances the message dissemination through filter bubbles.

Hybrid movements that combine social media such as Twitter and face to face interaction with political leader Hanson, enable slacktivism and the development of real movements in offline reality. Inflamed by intertextual content, the alt-right further promotes its ideologies in the form of memes and trolls. They provide a platform for Hanson’s supporters that is thriving on the Internet. Lastly, the hegemonic battle between mass media and Pauline Hanson distorts the context of the issues discussed. It also provides dangerous levels of publicity to an extremist view, which backfires and increases the risk that niche extremist views reach millions of individuals and becomes a dominant perspective. 


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