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When social media turned from a trickle of users into a flood

By Anthony Andrews

When social media turned from a trickle of users into a flood, the trade union movement – among others – were quick to grasp its potential.

Here was a way to get the message out to the masses, build solidarity and inform the members of various issues.

But it created problems.

The masses spoke back.

It was soon discovered that many of the union members, interacting amongst themselves on the various platforms, were quite opinionated.

So many in fact, were interacting and being opinionated, that it became impossible not to hear them.

Many of the voices (not what a lot of those in the upper levels of the movement expected) expressed ideas and opinions that they definitely didn’t identify with.

In fact, some of the views the upper levels of the movement were exposed to were actually quite offensive and this created a dilemma.

How, as a movement, do you deal with unwelcome or outrageous opinions from the members and still promote the idea of ‘every worker needing to be heard!’?

As the years went by, the amount of voices ‘needing to be heard’ became impossible to count … or to hold accountable.

As most of the voices wrote like they spoke, using language that was blunt, coarse, and with far too many swear words, it was decided that something needed to be done to protect the brand and the reputation of each member that consciously participated in these online discussions.

Soon after, many union social media sites stopped allowing members to post on their pages, burdening themselves with total control over all information disseminated to the masses.

The leadership deserved no blame for that decision, because they knew intimately that the public see what their political enemies want them to see.

And of course, as we all know, “loose lips, sink ships.”

The masses though, continued to talk.

They argued politics, religion, society in general and even discussed the weather.

They fought and threatened each other, fell in love, and some … probably … even died.

All while actively engaged on one of the high numbers of non-affiliated trade union pages that popped up. The ones that a quick scroll through the Facebook news feed, would also have located for them.

Or one of the many ‘member only’ groups, that, through their interest and willingness to add, in some way, to the cause, appear to have bypassed the movement’s leadership and its control of the message.

That will change.

The precarious political and legal position of individual trade unions and the movement itself, means it’s not just ‘on the cards’ for unions to take control of these sites or shut them down, it is inevitable … well, it needs a pretty watertight and workable solution at least.

The recent high court loss of a government employee’s right to express views on their country’s political direction or create a verbal picture of the society that they are a part of, as well as other court actions, will force the issue to a head, but who will actually benefit from the changes that, for legal reasons, will need to be addressed sooner, rather than later.

It’s my opinion, that it will be the trade union movement’s political enemies and the multinationals that sponsor them, that will see the most benefit from too draconian a crackdown.

With the best of intentions, directions from the executive level of the movement, raised at individual trade union national conferences and general meetings, will see ‘motions from the floor’, addressing the perils to our movement of these social media pages that can’t be controlled or directed.

Members will express outrage at the levels of sexist, racist, and bigoted remarks.

At the threats of violence and the abuse.

With righteous indignation, the motions will pass … and that will be that.

And I agree, they do need to be looked at carefully, but does a motion raised, seconded, and voted on by the membership … to close down a non-affiliated Facebook page for example, remove the right for the union to claim they have no association with it or legal liability?

Legal liability.

These words pose a constant threat for administrators of these ‘non-affiliated’ Facebook groups. It is used by officials and employees of the relevant union to insist the pages are sanitised and disciplinary action is initiated against individual members that transgress the bounds of decency and respect.

Again, you can’t blame them. They know how the legal system works and are conscious of the fact that the law may hold the administrator, themselves and other members that are also participants within these forums. Or the union itself…accountable.

But the other side of that coin is the challenge of still being in a position to hear the individual voices of the collective.

The problem seems to be that it’s a lot to digest. To interpret. To govern.

But it’s not always going to be like that.

The way I see it, at present, when people post or comment online, any reply is viewed defensively.

Whichever way it goes – a positive comment or negative – when someone replies, it’s like they’ve put their seat back on a flight and you’re behind them.

It’s a ‘road rage’ inspiring mechanism for when people invade your space.

It produces an overflow of emotion … but we’re getting used to it, soon exposing too much of what we really think will be countered intuitively. Our children are already doing it.

But we’re the first.

The first generation of online communicators. Soon, it will ‘govern’ itself, but until then, it’s got to be allowed to develop without too much interference from those who communicate in a different way or just prefer to.

All aspects of the legal ramifications for individuals and organisations need to be explored, not just funds allocated to the ‘why it should be shut down’ side of the debate.

That’s not to say that the union movement isn’t fighting hard for online freedom because it is, maybe though, we need to see beyond the legal now, to what will be in the future. To spend more time looking at who should really be responsible for their own behaviour in an online world.

It’s too easy for the legal system to make collective rulings based on limited precedence, yet, isn’t responsibility for one’s own actions a cornerstone of our society?

Is a union responsible when a member consciously breaks the law or attacks another member in the workplace?

Are the individual delegates in that workplace?

Is this online world so vastly different from the one we already occupy, that it should have different rules regarding who is responsible for each individual’s own behaviour?

How the union movement remain ‘inclusive’ when it comes to online interactions will depend on how the issues are approached now.

Reporting, blocking and banning those that see themselves as ‘progressives’, but hold views that are racist, sexist or whichever other ‘ist’ the movement doesn’t support, as well as those that threaten and abuse others, are tools to be used, they are not a solution.

If anything, they distort our view of the world, creating a false sense of understanding the people we can’t see, effectively blinding us when it comes to “every worker needing to be heard!”

You can’t fix society by pretending only some parts of it exist or ‘call out’ the transgressors of forum rules by ‘locking them under the house’.

Until they see the error of their ways, through confrontation, legal obligation and observation of the way others behave, they will learn nothing …

But still blame the union.

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  1. Alan Nosworthy

    There is a great advantage in having controversial or unpalatable views raised in an online forum where they can be identified and counterfactual arguments or remediation tried rather than have the all too rare physical union meeting hijacked by someones pet peeve.
    Whilst the reflex viciousness of keyboard rage is to be deplored it would be to the detriment of frank and honest debate to self censor or have censorship imposed from on high for fear of misapplied liability and leave grievances unsaid to fester.
    Considering that Union is held to speak for a consensus of members and not individual members to speak for union is there a way to lob this spitball back to the “freespeach” brigade?

  2. wam

    If Michaelia publically criticised her own department during working hours. Wouldn’t that be a sacking offence?
    I was a union vice-president in the heady days of the early 70s. Then the “discussions’ were face to face with reps, committees, conferences and social gatherings, pubs and clubs. There was access to emails but I retired before the net media. This human to human contex is still available and under used by labor to disseminate the answers to the conservative bullshit slogans and to debunk the incorrect beliefs about economic incompetence. We humans react to ridicule and ‘fck up’ for the week could be displayed in the windows of offices and on the lips of pollies when they have opportunities.
    Albo needs to forget his background and take up hawthorne’s Kennedy ‘don’t think DO’.

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