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Behind the mulga curtain

11 July 2014

Tennant Creek has developed innovative ways of dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of social media, writes Eleanor Hogan. But the initiatives are languishing, partly for lack of funding

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Not losing culture, sharing culture: Barkly Arts’ Codey. Barkly Regional Arts

Not losing culture, sharing culture: Barkly Arts’ Codey. Barkly Regional Arts



Aboriginal elders and parents in Tennant Creek became disturbed during 2012 by reports that kids had been involved in cyberbullying, something they knew little about. Local authorities told them their children had been texting each other during school hours, with physical fights erupting from arguments online. Sometimes, older relatives weighed into kids’ spats on Facebook; on other occasions, the conflict spread beyond families to communities outside Tennant Creek, to people “they might have met once or twice” and even to total strangers.

In the most extreme cases, people set up false profiles on social media using names and images of the deceased to taunt others – a highly provocative gesture, given the restrictions in local Aboriginal culture on naming or viewing images of the dead.

“You’ve got communities suddenly at war, and the elders are going, ‘But how? We’ve had no contact,’” Kathy Burns, Artistic Director of Barkly Arts, told me. “But now the families have been brought into it and they’re saying, ‘We’re fighting, but we don’t even know what we’re fighting about. What’s with you guys and what the hell is going on?’”

Most of the activity was associated with mobile phones, and some kids from nearby communities without mobile coverage were going to great lengths to access social media. “Kids were known to be stealing their parents’ cars and driving to get service to be able to text their girlfriends or find out the footy scores,” Burns said. “The risk outweighed what they were trying to do. But it was like, ‘I have to find out what’s going on.’”

I met Burns late last year at the Barkly Regional Arts Centre, a rabbit warren of buildings that was formerly an adult education college but which has been converted into a series of studios and workrooms providing creative and multimedia training and pursuits for young people, support for artists, and other cultural activities. Located in Tennant Creek, the centre services the sprawling, remote Barkly region in the middle of the Northern Territory, an area larger than Victoria with a population of 7500 and sixteen Aboriginal language groups.

Burns was one of a range of professionals from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organisations I spoke to who were working with the Tennant Creek Council of Elders and Respected Persons, or CERP, on local cybersafety issues. Most people did not think the incidence of cyberbullying in the region is worse than anywhere else, and emphasised that cybersafety was a problem worldwide. But what was particularly challenging was the sense of an expanding digital divide between elders, parents and children, reflecting lower levels of digital literacy among older generations and a lack of understanding of Aboriginal cultural protocols among the young.

The bullying in Tennant Creek mainly involved children and young adults texting and messaging on Facebook and a service called Divas Chat. Sometimes known as the Indigenous Facebook, Divas Chat is a social media platform hosted by Telstra BigPond that became popular among remote Aboriginal people because of its relatively cheap rate of 95 cents a day for unlimited data.

One NT school representative said that race was incidental to much of the online bullying, with peer friendship groups being more significant. Others described how interracial cyberbullying grew out of conflict about football, with fights being fuelled by racist comments on Facebook.

‘The football in this town is out of control,” Sokar Phillips, a young Queensland Aboriginal woman engaged to facilitate CERP’s cybersafety response, told me. “Every year, there’s threatened violence; every year Divas Chat gets used to talk about violence around Grand Finals night.”

Another reason for the unease surrounding cybersafety in Tennant Creek were reports of how cyberbullying had fed conflict between two camps in Yuendumu, a major Aboriginal community 380 kilometres away. Young women from one camp had used mobile phones to send inflammatory messages “anonymously” using the names of deceased relatives from the other camp, which led to physical fighting between young men in the community. At the height of the conflict, members of one camp evacuated to Adelaide and government departments threatened to close down Yuendumu if the tension continued.

“I kept saying to [the NT attorney-general’s department], ‘Tennant Creek is prime real estate for turning into a Yuendumu on a much, much, much larger scale if we can’t maintain and control the feuds…’” Phillips said. “‘Then you’re going to be in a position where you’re going to be funding, and you’re going to be paying through the nose, to actually get it back up and get things in place to stop everything turning into a shambles.’”


Tennant Creek is one of the string of towns up the Stuart Highway, around 500 kilometres north of Alice Springs, which were built near repeater stations along the Overland Telegraph line. Like many of these settlements, it’s associated with both the entrepreneurial optimism and the hard drinking that characterises Territorian life. Local myth has it that the town sprang up where a collection of miners and prospectors camped after beer fell off the back of a truck that had broken its axle.

I first visited Tennant to attend weekend cycling events when I was living in Alice Springs during the noughties. More recently, it provided a handy watering hole while I was researching in neighbouring remote communities. Apart from a couple of historic goldfields pubs, the township itself is unprepossessing – a series of low, dusty buildings, some with wire mesh on their windows, line either side of the main drag – and the surrounding countryside is less striking than Alice Springs’ backdrop of the West MacDonnell ranges.

But life in Tennant Creek, I’ve been told, is something that people take to with a passion. With a population of 3000, the place quickly engenders an easy familiarity. Four-in-ten residents are Indigenous, and local Aboriginal people seem less reserved around non-Indigenous people than they do in other places. Unknown Aboriginal people often greet me on Tennant’s streets. When I ask locals what keeps them there, they say things like, “It gets in your blood” and “It’s the sense of community, of people working together.”

Yet over the past few years, the town appears to have been in decline. Tennant’s two major tourist attractions – a modern cultural centre on the outskirts of town, and Battery Hill, a historic mine – have been cut back for lack of funding. Unless you’re a miner – and exploration has all but halted since the global financial crisis – or a service provider, there’s almost no need to stop in Tennant Creek.

Local service providers often express concern that federal and Territorian politicians and policymakers have overlooked Tennant Creek and the Barkly region, despite significant levels of disadvantage, in favour of Darwin, Alice Springs and high-profile remote Aboriginal communities. “We’re behind the mulga curtain,” a youth worker wryly told me. “Anything south of Berrimah but above Ti-Tree.”

Tennant Creek was not, for example, identified as a priority location under the Council of Australian Governments’ Remote Service Delivery National Partnership Agreement, although it has a similar population base to Wadeye, a Top-End community. After Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corporation, which manages the local town camps, signed an agreement with the federal and Northern Territory governments to upgrade housing and infrastructure in 2007, some renovations took place, but new housing has yet to be built despite widespread homelessness, overcrowding and poor quality stock.

The town also frequently records among the highest levels of substance abuse and related problems in the Territory. A study  found that between July 2005 and June 2007, the Tennant Creek region had an average alcohol consumption of 15.8 litres of pure alcohol per capita, much higher than the national rate of 9.81 litres. Alcohol was involved in 77 per cent of assaults in Tennant Creek in 2011–12, and the rate of alcohol-related assaults was five times the overall Territory rate.

Volatile substance abuse, involving inhalants such as petrol, nail polish, deodorant, oven-cleaner and butane, is also reported among young people. Peter Cain, manager of Barkly Youth Service Provider’s Network, estimated there would be eighty to one hundred hardcore petrol sniffers – “Everything from four-year-olds to thirty-eight-year-olds” – across the Barkly region, supplemented by occasional sniffers. “They’re hungry, so they’ll do anything to get food or a hunger suppressant like petrol,” he said.

“The kids can’t cut a break in this town,” Sokar Phillips, CERP’s facilitator, told me. “I’ve got eight or nine-year-olds who say to me, ‘Why can’t we have our money put at the shop so we can buy food because we’re sick of our families drinking our food money.’”


Faced with extensive disadvantage and a large youth population – 25 per cent of people in the Barkly are under seventeen – it’s understandable that elders, along with schools and the community sector, fear that cyberbullying may exacerbate existing social problems in Tennant Creek. Many of the anxieties expressed about cybersafety issues relate, however, to the cultural and digital disconnects between older and younger generations, and uncertainty about how to navigate the dynamics between these worlds.

“People split it up between their cultural responsibilities and then their Facebook/Divas personality,” according to Phillips. “But when it suits them, they’ll be in the other world.”

As was highlighted by the Yuendumu conflicts, digital technology and social media can breach the social and cultural boundaries between different mobs and family groups, and create or inflame feuds. The privacy problems posed by social media are not well understood, and so people in these communities are often unaware that “anybody in the world can see them” online. Leyla Iten, a youth worker in a Barkly community, told me that “nobody has privacy settings and nobody wants them,” even though she’d tried to persuade people of the value of using them on Facebook. “Someone might post on Facebook at three in the morning saying ‘I’m going to have a sniff now’ or a drink, and everyone in the community will read it,” she said.

Young people don’t realise how being on Facebook will impact on them,” a senior Aboriginal woman told me. “They have no understanding of the ‘digital footprint’ they’re leaving – the fact they’ll never lose it and it may even affect their employability. There are enough barriers to Aboriginal employment already.”

Yet despite the recent cybersafety challenges in Tennant Creek, most people I met with were reluctant to restrict or ban access to the internet or social media outright. The value of Facebook, in particular, to remote people was often mentioned, reflecting the opportunities it provides for “keeping up with the rels in Lajamanu.” Some workers spoke of “Facebooking” a community member as the quickest way of contacting them: “It’s much easier to use social networking to find people.” Closer to home, older relatives sometimes used Facebook “to track down their children who are not where they should be.” Rebecca Smith, Papunya Computer Room’s manager, told me that the popularity of social media sometimes provided people with an incentive to improve their literacy skills, so they could keep up with what was happening online.

Sokar Phillips observed that although there’d been “some really nasty racist fights on Facebook where the non-Aboriginal community link to the Aboriginal community,” the platform also gave people an opportunity to “have conversations about racism directly and openly.”

While ownership of tablets, laptops and desktop computers is rising in the Barkly region, mobile phones were still primarily associated with cyberbullying. This local impression is in line with the findings of a 2011 federal government report, Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study, in which cyberbullying featured among the top four (out of ten) safety challenges for young Indigenous people in remote NT areas, although it was only flagged as a significant issue in communities with mobile coverage.

Access to mobile broadband in central Australia varies: at the time of the 2011 Census, only eleven locations in the southern half of the Northern Territory had mobile phone coverage: Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Yulara, three highway stops, and five remote Indigenous communities. But a Central Land Council and Tangentyere Council report in 2007 found that 56 per cent of central Australian Aboriginal people owned mobile phones, which is higher than the rate of home internet access. According to 2011 Census data, 75 per cent of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory outside Darwin had no internet connection at home. By contrast, only around 14 per cent of the Australian adult population, mostly in older age groups, lacked home internet access in 2013.

Some people in Tennant Creek told me that mobile phones were useful as safety devices for children and youth, although one senior Aboriginal woman thought there wasn’t the same need for under-sixteens in a small country town to have mobile phones as in a city. In two articles, researchers Fiona Brady and Laurel Evelyn Dyson and Tina Asela concluded that mobile phones are valuable for remote-living people in maintaining family and social contacts, especially given the significance of kinship networks in Aboriginal culture. They attribute the mobile phone’s popularity among the Aboriginal population to its portability, especially in remote contexts where people frequently travel long distances.

Kathy Burns at Barkly Arts suggested a further reason for the appeal of the mobile phone amongst remote Aboriginal youth, however, which might explain its predominance in cyberbullying: their relative autonomy in comparison to other ICT devices. Cyberbullying “definitely happens the most around the mobile,” she told me, “because you don’t have your other family members logging onto the same desktop, and being able to go into other people’s [accounts]… You can do what you want on your own phone.”

The autonomy associated with the mobile phone, along with the instant access to peer validation through social media it offers, may explain its attraction to young people as well as why it can be threatening to older generations.

Boredom is frequently cited as a significant reason for youth social problems, such as substance abuse and petty crime, in remote communities, but Burns doubts this is the main driver for cyberbullying. “Particularly when you’re a teenager,” she said, “it’s all about validation… because you’re trying to break away from your parents’ way of thinking, and form your own sense of identity and being validated particularly at that age makes sense for them... Facebook is the instantaneous way.”

This intergenerational challenge is heightened for remote Aboriginal populations, however, who experience “double remoteness” in that they lack access to physical and digital resources. In the Barkly region, for example, Aboriginal people over the age of thirty-five are unlikely to have received computer training at school. They also have fewer educational qualifications and high rates of unemployment and are unlikely to be employed in jobs that would give them exposure to these technologies comparable to that of their non-Indigenous counterparts. The sense of disconnect that can emerge between generations in relation to cybersafety issues flags more fundamental, underlying issues of digital literacy.

While more dramatic incidences of online harassment involving sexting and cyberbullying often capture public attention, cybersafety in fact encompasses a range of issues concerning privacy, online awareness and digital literacy. The Australian Communications and Media Authority defines cybersafety in terms of “exposure to illegal or inappropriate material, stranger danger, identity theft, invasion of privacy, harassment and cyberbullying.” But Griffith University’s 2011 evaluation of the authority’s Cybersmart Outreach Program advocated that the current focus on cybersafety be broadened from a focus on “fear and safety” to one that embraces digital citizenship and promotes positive values like “belonging, citizenship, connectedness, collaboration, community” among online communities.

These intergenerational challenges may explain the caution with which some senior Aboriginal people, and some older non-Aboriginal workers, have approached the extension of mobile coverage. In some instances, elders have either refused or considered refusing Telstra’s rollout of mobile broadband to their communities, or have suggested banning the use of social media, for fear of not being able to control potential outbreaks of cyberbullying. This echoes strategies previously employed by remote communities to address social issues, including zero tolerance on petrol sniffing and voluntary dry declarations to restrict alcohol consumption.

But unlike addictive substances, mobile access has many potential benefits for remote community members, including banking, shopping and social services applications, and health and education programs. Anthropologists Inge Kral and Kim Christen have also documented how digital technology is used for cultural exchange and maintenance in remote Aboriginal communities, with younger and older generations working together on projects to share and preserve creative knowledge such as art, stories and dreamings.

In the case of Tennant Creek, the Council of Elders decided they needed to become “digi-smart” to engage with the emerging local cyberculture.

According to Kathy Burns, “The elders and the adults were sort of saying, ‘We need to understand more about the digital world, or otherwise, get rid of it. And obviously, we can’t get rid of it because it’s here and it’s important. It will just mean people are becoming further and further away from what the rest of the world is sort of doing.’”

Barkly Arts devised Codey, an online avatar, to help local people become “smart about the digital world.” They started off with one character but divided him into two personalities: “a digital Codey that knew about the cyber world and then a Culture Codey.” Computer users can interact with both Techno and Culture Codey online to ask questions and find information about cybersafety and cultural issues.

“People were afraid of kids losing culture in the social and the digital world,” Burns explained. “So then you had to have Culture Codey, who could talk in terms of cultural knowledge, be able to express that to the digital world… So it’s not losing culture; it’s sharing culture and trying to say that’s a positive way to use the culture through the use of digital devices, so it’s not about getting rid of your mobile phones.”


Codey was just one of several strategies the Council of Elders used to deal with cyberbullying in Tennant Creek. CERP engaged Eileen Deemal-Hall, a Queensland Aboriginal woman who had previously worked with the NT justice department’s Stronger Choices program on cybersafety issues in Yuendumu. Together with the Australian Federal Police and the Territory’s education department, she identified underage users and individuals who’d set up accounts under false names to send offensive messages on Divas Chat and requested that Canadian-based company AirG, which hosts the social networking platform, close them.

To show that “it wasn’t just ‘an Aboriginal issue,’” CERP sought to engage Food Barn, Tennant’s main supermarket, and other local stakeholders. Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corporation, CERP’s auspicing body, made an agreement with the Food Barn management not to put mobile phones on display and or to sell them to minors, although it’s still possible to purchase phones at service stations and other outlets in town.

CERP then brought together elders and young people from all language and family groups currently living on Warumungu country to discuss accountability for cybersafety issues. “With some of the key families who would spend a lot of time on Divas Chat, we had a few sessions where I said, ‘I can get records of everything you’ve ever written [online],’” Phillips, CERP’s facilitator, said. “‘So if I lay it all out, every single one of you who’s been on Divas Chat, who’s going to be responsible?,’ and that shut them up. That meant that everybody had some level of responsibility in continuing the fights on Divas Chat, and they knew that.”

As a senior Aboriginal woman involved in the process told me, “CERP wanted the message to get through to the parents and the young people that there were responsibilities for the safety issues. The family has to take the lead responsibility because they buy the phones: it has to go back to the grassroots.”

“In Aboriginal society, everyone’s accountable for everybody else along the relationship lines,” Phillips explained to me. “So it’s not my responsibility alone to fix a problem but other people have a responsibility to fix [it]… and therefore I’m accountable to them as well as the person I’ve had the problem with. And that’s why mediation in the mainstream doesn’t work… Mediation works in Aboriginal society because that level of accountability is what you’re asking people to hold to.”

Initially, the Council of Elders conducted mediations between families for cyberbullying two or three days a week, one of which was resolved very publicly. “They were involved in pretty big mediation,” Kevin Banbury, Outreach Solicitor at Legal Aid in Tennant Creek, explained, “which saw two families kind of congregated at two ends of town march towards each other and meet at the court house. It was like two armies coming together. CERP selected various people from the families, who went into the courthouse.”

Amazingly enough, adds Banbury, not only did the mediation have “a really big impact,” but the effect was sustained. “There had been small attempts [at mediation] between the families but they had not worked.”

CERP also appointed six young men as “Divas Cops” to monitor online activities and to report back any offensive behavior to them, who would take disciplinary action if they thought it necessary. Telstra supported the strategy by donating six iPhones to the chatroom monitors.

Although an evaluation of the cybercop monitors has yet to take place, there have been reports that the bullying stopped on Divas Chat and moved to Facebook even before the strategy was implemented, because the offenders thought they were being watched.

“The cyber stuff goes on,” Phillips said. “The cyber cops still have phones and they still monitor, but there is no Council of Elders [involvement]. They can’t report back and then there’s no shutting down mechanism, so the only thing those guys can really do is report misuse to Divas Chat or Facebook.”

While the CERP was initially sponsored by the Australian Crimes Commission and Community Harmony to develop a response to cybersafety in Tennant Creek, it didn’t receive funding to continue this work, including the mediation program.

“We were never meeting our funding criteria because we were meant to be working on other projects with [NT] Attorney General’s,” Phillips said, frustration mounting in her voice. “And the thing is, we calculated that at the Council of Elders we saved over half a million – probably between $250,000 and $400,000 a year… just by going through mediation and by sorting those issues out.”

The role the Council of Elders played at a community level was particularly significant because it provided a space for dialogue about cybersafety issues and sought to restore traditional lines of accountability between elders and families. “I think that for people in the transition between the [cyber and cultural] worlds, there is less accountability,” Phillips said, “and that’s why people do prefer the mediation and also why trying to hold people accountable for their actions now is harder than it was before.”

Part of the problem is the loss of elders because of high rates of mortality and serious illness in the local Aboriginal population, as well as the lack of ongoing support for the invigoration of traditional accountability structures represented by the Council of Elders.

“People here my age often run round driving everyone mental and acting like children,” observed Phillips, who is thirty-seven. “So people are like, ‘Why are they behaving like this? They’re this age,’ but there’s no one behind them. Because there isn’t that anchor pulling, there isn’t accountability and that’s where the problem is coming from.” •

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