“Was the Russian Revolution a Carrier-Pigeon Revolution?”: Digital media and communication in the Victorian Socialists

By Ian Anderson, RMIT Doctoral candidate in Media Studies.

This article was researched and written before the COVID-19 outbreak and implementation of physical distancing measures, which have affected the relationship between ‘IRL’ and online organising. Like many organisations, the VicSocialists have shifted towards online videoconferencing, for both public events and internal discussions.

This article is being published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The Victorian Socialists (VicSocialists) launched in 2018, as a coalition of three socialist groups. That year, the campaign ran a number of candidates for the Victorian parliamentary election – two of the candidates already held seats in local council. Former leading candidate Stephen Jolly explicitly cited recent international polarisation as a reason to attempt his parliamentary bid:

[My campaign is] the first time in Australia that the left is tapping into the anti establishment mood on a large scale… In America and Europe you’ve seen the rise of far right but also a new left with figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In Australia, it’s been unusual as it’s just been the far right with Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi, who have tapped into that discontent.1

The VicSocialists did not meet their goal of electing leading candidate Stephen Jolly to state parliament, but received the fourth largest vote after the Greens. In 2019, the campaign ran three candidates for the Federal Election – notably their prior leading candidate Jolly was not selected as the organisation was conducting an investigation for charges of abuse, and after the election he would be suspended over a separate abuse investigation2 – yet they received over 4% in three electorates despite not running Jolly. This article is based on interviews with 13 members and supporters, as well as my own experiences.

E-skepticism of activists

I do think sometimes there’s an overstatement about social media, like the Arab Revolutions, there were some people who want to refer to them as the Facebook revolutions, but I mean really was the Russian revolution the carrier pigeon revolution? People will find ways to communicate, and actually in that instance people had to find ways to communicate outside of the online forms because the government shut down the internet, and they still organised.3

This was the very last comment from interviewee Kath Larkin, a rail worker who at the time had just been pre-selected as the VicSocialists candidate for Cooper. Around 200 people attended the conference, held at the Maritime Union of Australia headquarters in South Melbourne.

Kath very much emphasised the value of face-to-face communication over the course of the interview, and considered the day-conference a success in bringing people together for democratic deliberation in person. Earlier in the interview Kath commented:

Obviously there’s a lot that we do on social media, and I think sometimes when you’re in the left you can kind of feel like what you see in your Facebook wall is what everyone sees, but actually we know that’s not true, we know that the way that Facebook is manipulated and run means that actually it’s quite hard for leftists to get their views out there. I do think social media will still be important particularly for young leftists in the area, but there’s also gonna be a need to get out to community events.

This is a common sentiment among Victorian Socialist activists. VicSocialists volunteer and librarian John Gao had this to say when explaining why he uses Twitter less than he used to:

I guess because I’m interested in politics, not just theoretical but to do stuff in practice, which requires face-to-face interaction, talking to the public in my own city, so therefore organising on a local level is very important, and the absence of that critical mass on Twitter, atleast in that area was not as useful in some ways.

Another interviewee who preferred not to be named commented more bluntly that “Twitter is an actual toilet”, and while less anti-Facebook stated that “I don’t think we should overstate Facebook because a lot of it was the boots on the ground that did the work.”

Activists’ skepticism of the digital included three key aspects:

  1. The digital divide, or uneven participation – Activists emphasised the importance of face-to-face communication in fostering constituencies that did not participate heavily in the digital sphere, particularly older working class voters.
  2. Criticism of utopian techno-determinism – Connected to pride in organising capacities not determined by the affordances of media technologies. Arguably some techno-dystopianism centred on the commodification of the net.
  3. Skepticism of ‘call-out culture’ and online criticism.

Despite these criticisms, there was little interest expressed in a programmatic decommodifying transformation of digital media. VicSocialist activists were simply more interested in other issues, such as migrant worker rights. The 2018 Election Manifesto did not mention digital rights, a strong focus in digital parties, coming closest to this in a reference to surveillance associated with the War on Terror.

…And yet
Yet digital media is strongly used for promotion. The VicSocialists Facebook page has over 5,000 likes at the time of writing. The page averaged 3 original posts a day during the week before the election in 2018, with posts routinely attracting hundreds of reactions, and regular video posts usually attracting thousands of views. This rate of posts and interactions is similar to the Australian Greens Facebook page over the same period, Australia’s third largest party with a relatively significant youth base. VicSocialists also had a number of location-specific Facebook pages, a meme page, an Instagram and a Twitter. The point here is not so much the success of engagement as the effort: despite the activists’ stated lack of passion for digital media, there was clearly concerted work to ensure visibility across digital media. Crucially, this was a fairly centralised effort with consistent messaging across major corporate platforms., freeing most activists to engage in other kinds of work and keep their digital engagement to ‘likes’ and shares. There was no pretension here of digital media as a horizontal structure: it was merely a tool for promotion.

Additionally, the finding that the VicSocialists are skeptical of digital media, yet strongly use it to promote socialist ideas, is paralleled by a study on parallel electoral group the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA,4 a group which has grown to around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. This study found that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter served contradictory purposes of cohesion and fragmentation. Interview subjects found the culture on Twitter particularly alienating or even “repellant”. This is a platform that “skew[s] young, male, well-educated” and tends to use in-jokey humour to promote cohesion, and members expressed concern that this was alienating to those outside the in-group. As a “normative strategy”, members argued for the use of collective social media pages for promoting socialist ideas, countering the tendency towards individualistic fragmentation. This is paralleled by the VicSocialists’ strong use of centrally administrated pages on Twitter and Facebook, with arguably less of an emphasis on in-jokey Twitter personalities than the DSA.

Doorknocking
VicSocialists activists strongly emphasised the importance of face-to-face work, particularly doorknocking. When asked what was required to scale up from a local government to a state level campaign, leading organiser Liz Walsh answered doorknocking first and foremost. More than 95,000 doors were knocked, with around 120 people attending doorknocking events each weekend for eight weeks. Activists express pride in hundreds of activists turning up to doorknocking, and recounted how Green and Labor activists were surprised at how many they mobilised.

A report from Marxist Left Review matches accounts from my interviews of successful connections:

It was common for volunteers to return from doorknocking with accounts of meeting old trade union militants keen to regale them about this or that struggle, migrants who had not forgotten their more radical traditions from their country of origin, or even young workers who responded with immediate enthusiasm when we told them our candidate was a construction worker who would only take a skilled worker’s wage. These were by no means the majority of experiences, but they indicated there was a constituency to connect with.5

VicSocialists’ success in mobilising hundreds for doorknocking campaigns is a success in face-to-face or ‘meatspace’ mobilisation, but it is also a success facilitated by digital technology. Doorknockers used an app to record which doors had been knocked, and the events were primarily promoted through Facebook. This illustrates a distinct conception from both utopian and dystopian accounts of digital media – the use of digital media as simply a tool, with pros and cons. As Kath Larkin said, “people will find ways to communicate”, and digital media is one of those ways. VicSocialists activist and casual academic Daniel Lopez noted that a resident he spoke to on the doorstep in Brunswick had read an article Lopez wrote for US socialist magazine Jacobin, which he found on social media – indicating the way digital connections and face-to-face connections can be complementary.

Legacy media

VicSocialist activists interacted with two distinct strands of ‘legacy media’ in two distinct ways: with ‘mainstream media’ such as right-wing newspapers, and with socialist media. Unsurprisingly their engagement with ‘mainstream media’ was largely critical, although not necessarily dismissive. An example of oppositional reading of mainstream media is offered by Kath Larkin’s account of daily engagement with newspapers as a rail worker:

One other thing at my workplace is that I clear trains that go to the yard, and people leave newspapers and so we all kind of collect newspapers and then we’ll read them in the lunch room, which means we read a lot of Herald Sun, which is obviously a really right-wing news source, but it is useful I think to know what’s being said in this newspaper, because it is so widely read.

Activists in general made an effort to engage with ‘mainstream media’ despite their criticisms. A number of activists spoke of a ‘blackout’ on coverage of the VicSocialists in mainstream media. This impression of unfavourable terrain is perhaps comparable with the perception of Facebook and Twitter as hostile corporate terrain, although those channels afforded more promotion. Of the few articles on the VicSocialists, one article participants often mentioned negatively was a Guardian article which appeared more sympathetic to Fiona Patten, a rival candidate who won the seat Stephen Jolly aimed for.

Although the VicSocialists do not have their own digital platform in the fashion of digital parties like the Pirate Parties (such as LiquidFeedback or Loomio), the various component socialist groups do have their own media channels. These include newspapers, journals, and websites (discounting social media channels which the groups do not own). Yet these print-centric channels are arguably ‘legacy media’, perhaps reflecting the fact that the socialist groups are ‘legacy organisations’, groups that have weathered decades in the cold. Central activists often engaged with socialist media as creators or distributors. Yet this was not universal, with a number of activists not regularly reading the press of organisations like Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance – more often, activists reported reading broad left publications like Overland and Jacobin, and some listened to left-leaning podcasts like Chapo Trap House. Although a number of activists did engage with socialist media, it didn’t appear to be particularly complementary with the VicSocialists campaign, with the exception of electoral propaganda on digital media channels – counterintuitively, given activists’ stated skepticism about these channels. This is likely due to the relative efficiency of social media channels compared with newspapers. More recently, that is after the VicSocialists’ State and Federal election campaigns, Socialist Alternative launched a podcast called Red Flag Radio, taking advantage of the wider wave of socialist podcasts such as Chapo Trap House.

If we also include snail mail, posters, yard signs and the like as ‘legacy media’ due to pre-existing digital media, then these forms of legacy media were perceived as decisive. Campaign organiser Liz Walsh makes this case:

The numbers of doors knocked on, letters distributed, corflute/yard signs erected, posters plastered on street poles and so on is absolutely decisive in being able to connect up with the left wing sentiment and discontent with the major parties that does exist among layers of people in Victoria.

To demonstrate this case, Walsh points to the example of the Western Metro region, which had similar demographics to Northern Metro but where the VicSocialists didn’t wage a ground campaign. Here the VicSocialists received 0.57%. Therefore the ground campaign was decisive in the VicSocialists’ more impressive result in Northern Metro. This arguably vindicates the VicSocialists activists’ strong emphasis on doorknocking and other ‘old-school’ methods, without eschewing digital communication. Walsh’s article, which is fairly extensive, does not mention social media either positively or negatively.

Conclusion
VicSocialist activists tend to express a strong ambivalence about social media. Activists emphasise the importance of face-to-face organisation, although in practice digital media and other forms of organisation are strongly complementary. Digital media is embedded but not fetishised, and used more for promotion than democratic participation (which largely occurs through bi-annual member conferences). The results of this study are paralleled by a study on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organisation that has around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. DSA members used social media to promote socialist ideas, yet were often ambivalent about the medium. DSA members argued for collective social media pages to counter the social media tendency towards individualist fragmentation, a strategy used by the VicSocialists.

1Armstrong, Liam. “Could Steve Jolly Be Australia’s First Socialist Politician in 70 Years?” Vice, February 8 2018 (https://tinyurl.com/yxvjpsak ). Web. Accessed 18/06/2018

2 Jolly’s behaviour was not denied by his political supporters, who were open about the process that has occurred so far. That said, conflicting claims circulate about the adequacy of this internal process, with many external to the organisation saying it was inadequate or even a cover-up. The first problem arose prior to the foundation of the VicSocialists, when Jolly was a member of another socialist organisation, simply called The Socialists. Jolly had sent some text messages that constituted sexual harassment. This was investigated by the organisation, with the resolution that Jolly was required to apologise and undergo counselling. Jolly resigned from that organisation, and would later approach another group proposing the Victorian Socialists electoral project. In the early stages of the VicSocialist project, during negotiations between a number of socialist organisations, a group of Socialist Alliance members opposed Jolly’s nomination. When he was endorsed, those members resigned. Over the course of the Victorian Socialists state electoral campaign, claims emerged on social media that the prior process was not adequate, and that Stephen Jolly had engaged in other inappropriate behaviour. After the state election, the VicSocialists launched a second investigation into Jolly’s behaviour, and he was not selected as a Federal Election candidate because that investigation was ongoing. At that point some former members rejoined because he had not been selected. Shortly after the Federal election, Stephen Jolly’s membership was suspended as it turned out police were investigating another abuse claim. At this point, the situation finally entered into mainstream media coverage, after months of circulation on social media.

3 It may be worth noting here that her skepticism aligns with debates in academia about the techno-utopianism associated with ‘Twitter revolutions’ (Dumitru, 2012; Berenger, 2013; Musa & Willis 2014; Bebawi & Bossio, 2014; Kraidy, 2016).

4Barnes, Christopher C. “Democratic Socialists on Social Media: Cohesion, Fragmentation, and Normative Strategies.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 18 (1): 1-285, January 1 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/set6plj ). Accessed 29/02/2020

5Walsh, Liz. “Launching Victorian Socialists: an anti-capitalist electoral alliance.” Marxist Left Review, published by Socialist Alternative, No 18, pp. 19-38

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