Social media and activism

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Cr Serge Thomann, Deputy Mayor – City of Port Phillip

 

I just had a long conversation with one of the people trying to get more answers regarding the sky trains. It was with a lovely lady who did not know me but had done a bit of research on how to run campaigns and found me, which made me start reflecting.

When unChain St Kilda was formed in 2007, the first thing we did was get a Facebook page. I was not even a member of Facebook and had to join. The first story we got in the Port Phillip Leader was the fact we had a Facebook page and we were very avant-garde by doing so…

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Social media has seen the rebirth of activism. It is now much easier to communicate ideas and ideals. A lot of barriers have been broken. The cost of using social media is also very low with nearly everybody having a computer, iPad or smart phone.

And as it is instant, there is no need to wait for a letter to arrive in the mail or an advertisement to appear in the paper. The founder of Change.org is quite right when he said: “If the internet didn’t exist, Barack Obama would not be President of the United States.”

I was elected three weeks after Obama and I think I would not have been elected either, nor would I have contributed to five re-standing councillors being defeated.

Back when social media was in its infancy, it was very civil. And yes, we used that to our advantage. We became a bit of a curiosity and people joined our group just to see what we were doing. It worked well. People were very reasonable and even if they did not agree with what was said, they kept a polite tone in their response. Obviously, at the time, I was an activist and fighting with the Council against a proposed shopping mall and massive alcohol driven precinct.

Today, I am on Council as one of the decision makers. Not everybody agrees with some Council decisions. I do not always agree either. My Catani Ward covers most of St Kilda. I don’t, however, have more say than any of the other six Councillors.

Even if people don’t necessarily agree with me, or the Council, I believe my role is to explain and to answer questions and help people to understand why decisions are made in a certain way.

The Palais campaign in late 2014 before the State election was a great success and achieved all of its aim. It was “hash tag activism” at its best. From Molly, Gotye, Tex Perkins and Tina Arena, to the Rolling Stones, the #ILoveMyPalais encouraged the State Government to commit funds towards the refurbishment of the theatre. People were extremely passionate and it worked!

The streetscape upgrade of Acland Street and the Route 96 upgrade have unfortunately attracted some very bad examples of social media. The foul language and unfounded conspiracy theories used by a small number have in fact turned away some of their followers.

Looking back to my first days in activism, I believe the number one rule must be truth and accuracy followed by trying to keep emotion out of the debate and sticking to facts. The minute you are wrong, you might lose credibility for everything else you say.

Obviously, as a Councillor, and being quite visible as I think a Councillor should be, I get questioned – which I don’t mind at all – and attacked, at times in a very personal manner. I am supposed to “be in the pocket of developers” or a “puppet.” It is hard to not allow these comments to affect me. In my mind, it is important to stay engaged. I do get a lot of people telling me they would never run for Council as they are not interested in becoming a target. This is a shame as it is a wonderful honour to be a Councillor and try to make our City a better place.

I also urge you to go to the two Confined exhibitions as part of the Torch Project at the St Kilda Town and the Alliance Française. Now in its seventh year, Confined features works by Indigenous artists currently in or recently released from prison in Victoria. I also you enjoyed the St Kilda Festival like all the 440,000 people who came to the Festival. We even celebrated a wedding on stage! Congratulations Mrs and Mr Butcher!

 

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