Fig. 1: Bated Breath (mirror detail), 2021. Chrome-plated ceramic fish on steel frame with fishing line and mirror. Reproduced courtesy of M. Cope and UQ Art Museum. Photo: Carl Warner.
The term monster has its etymological roots in Latin, deriving from monere, meaning to warn, and demonstrate, meaning to show or reveal (Musharbash; Cohen “Hybrids”). Monsters are therefore beings that exhibit behaviours that threaten the familiar, warning others of the dangers of transgressing cultural norms. Online media provides a platform on which many transgressions take place, resulting in acts that could be described as monstrosities. As monsters are imbued with cultural meaning, they serve as conceptual frameworks through which to analyse social systems and structures.
In this article we draw on literature from monster studies and monster anthropology, as well as representations of monsters in popular media, as a means through which to discuss online racism. Our article is inspired by the themes explored in Bated Breath (see figs. 1, 2, 3), an artwork by Quandamooka artist Megan Cope (Australia), whose installation embodies the function of a monster. Cope’s art both reveals the prevalence of online racism, which is often directed towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whilst also warning of our susceptibility of contributing or remaining complacent to such harmful behaviour.
We begin by discussing what monsters are, how they are portrayed in popular media, and consider the liminal worlds in which they live. The next section highlights the prevalence of online racism, which we assess through the concepts of “clickbait” and “trolling”, reflecting on how this reinforces power imbalances by spreading misinformation, conjecture, and racial abuse. In the final section we look at monsters as mirrors, unpacking the need to reflexively engage with the ramifications of online behaviour. If Indigenous voices and self-determination are overlooked, and the nation refuses to enter a mature dialogue pertaining to its colonial past and present, monstrosities such as those which regularly occur online are doomed to continue to haunt us all in various forms.
The Metaphysical Presence of Monsters
Social media have an auspicious hold over many people’s lives, becoming not only a medium through which to share and encounter views, opinions, and experiences, but also an agent that shapes and facilitates how people interact with and respond to their surroundings (Petray “Self-writing”). In the digital age known as Web 2.0 (Petray “Protest 2.0”; Corbett et al.), social media both influence and determine behaviour as much as they reflect it. The online world is a cannibalistic monstrous interface where multiple ideas, behaviours and discussions feed off and into one another, creating swirls of activity that can quickly sweep people up and turn them into the objects of collective discourses. It is this cyclonic-like force that is the subject of Bated Breath.
Fig. 2: Bated Breath, 2021. Chrome-plated ceramic fish on steel frame with fishing line and mirror. Reproduced courtesy of M. Cope and UQ Art Museum. Photo: Carl Warner.
In the artwork, Cope features 1300 ceramic fish that hang from the ceiling, spiralling downward towards a mirrored disc that lies on the floor of the gallery in which it stands. Each fish is painted with a coating that reflects light and its surroundings. Although the work does not directly reference monsters, Cope has nonetheless given body and a physical presence to the overwhelming grasp that social media have over many people’s lives. Her use of light and mirrors project refracted light and shadows throughout the gallery, reminding viewers that by simply being in the presence of Bated Breath they too are susceptible to being sucked into its monster-like vortex. In the label accompanying the work, Cope states:
Often baited with racism, social media spaces have become a trap and a divisive tool that sanctions a common form of lateral violence within Aboriginal communities. The mirror symbolically refers to narcissism, involving self-centred, arrogant thinking and behaviour lacking empathy. Caught in such a vortex encourages mob mentality and prohibits autonomy.
Like a monster, Cope’s installation has a metaphysical presence that “shows”, “warns”, and speaks to the dangers of social media, particularly for Aboriginal peoples within settler-colonial settings (Carlson and Frazer). Online spaces can be unsafe for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Carlson and Kennedy). It is an environment where colonial sentiments—which emphasise white supremacy whilst simultaneously questioning and denying Indigeneity—are pervasive and widespread (Carlson and Kennedy). A study conducted by Tristan Kennedy found that 62% of the Aboriginal people they surveyed have daily experiences of racism online. While such racism can be overt, aggressive, and threatening, it often takes the more subtle, but equally demoralising, form of paternalistic white benevolence that as Cope highlights “prohibits autonomy”.
Monsters have been described as the “fragmentation and recombination” (Cohen “Monster Theory” 11) of parts that formulate a grotesque assembly, much like Frankenstein’s Creature. The fragmentations of social media addressed by Cope are racist online journalism, fake news, and clickbait. These fragments are discussed in the latter half of this article. Before we unpack these further, however, it is first necessary to discuss social media as an environment parallel to the settings in which monsters are often situated, a space we are calling ‘monstrous worlds’.
Fig. 3: Bated Breath (fish detail), 2021. Chrome-plated ceramic fish on steel frame with fishing line and mirror. Reproduced courtesy of M. Cope and UQ Art Museum. Photo: Carl Warner.
The Internet as a Monstrous World
Within the monstrous worlds depicted in popular media, narratives overwhelmingly focus on human struggles, conflictions, and emotions such as fear, greed, desire, revenge, pride, or love (Asma). They explore human conditions, power-dynamics, and conceptions of morality. Jeffrey Cohen observes, however, that despite the repulsive appearance and actions of monsters, it is ultimately humans who come off worse. Tod Browning’s film Freaks (1932) and David Lynch’s portrayal of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) are both stories that subvert monstrosity by asking who the real ‘freaks’, ‘animals’, or ‘monsters’ are: the subjects of an objectified gaze, or those who humiliatingly gaze upon a so-called ‘other’? Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are often seen and treated as monsters, as Cohen (“Monster Theory” 12) observes:
given that the recorders of the history of the West have been mainly European and male, women (She) and nonwhites (Them!) have found themselves repeatedly transformed into monsters, whether to validate specific alignments of masculinity and whiteness, or simply to be pushed from its realm of thought.
Although Cohen’s use of the term “nonwhites” is problematic in that it homogenises diverse groups of Black, Indigenous and Persons of Colour, whiteness is best conceived as a structural orientation of power. It normalises white authority and superiority, classifying others (regardless of their ethnic or cultural diversity) in relation to that group’s ability or willingness to conform to white colonial power structures (Moreton-Robinson; Bargallie). Monstrous worlds, however, are spaces where social structures, apparatuses of control, discipline, and governance are challenged, subverted, reinvented, or sought to be reinstated.
The monstrous world of a zombie apocalypse necessitates the transgression of everyday norms as a means of survival and re-creation. Such breaks are contextualised in relation to how things were before (or how they were imagined to be), or conversely, how we wish them to be in the future. During a zombie apocalypse in the television series The Walking Dead (2010-2021), for example, the African American protagonists provide a revisionist history of America’s colonial past by drafting a charter to which to govern future behaviour in the “New (Zombie) World”. This was a process that African Americans were left out of during the drafting of the America’s constitution. Whilst revisionist in this regard, the show nonetheless maintains a white colonial narrative, situating the threat “outside”, and beyond the safety of the walled colony (Turner and Perks).
The outbreak of a virus serves as the origin story to many monster narratives, and similarly mirrors historic outbreaks in society. Zombie stories in the 1980s, for example, mirror anxieties relating to the transmission of HIV (Musharbash “Introduction”). While it is too soon to imagine the portrayal of monsters relating to COVID-19 (but history signifies that it will likely be a topic of future works, see Marsh et al.), the recent coronavirus pandemic has nonetheless provoked a reconsideration of what “normality” or a “new norm” is. More importantly, it has pointed to the new possibilities that lie on the otherside of a monstrous situation (Fredericks and Bradfield “We Don’t Want”). The world of monsters offers social freedoms that necessitate—even celebrate—acts that would otherwise be unimaginable or in some cases abhorrent. With this comes the possibility for change.
A parallel between the world of monsters and online/social media can be drawn. Musharbash writes on how monsters embody a hybrid liminal existence situated betwixt categories such as animal/human or life/death. It is the morphing between such categories alongside its distortion—which simultaneously renders something familiar and alien—that creates a heightened sense of anxiety, risk, or danger. The world in which monsters exist is liminal for it is an environment that reflects familiar social structures and norms, while at the same time becoming “other”. Social media can be likened to liminal monstrous worlds as they create environments that remain within existing social structures, yet provide freedoms that would otherwise not be acceptable, accessible, or doable in the physical world. In the words of Cohen (“Monster Theory” 17), this provides a space in which we “distrust and loathe the monster” while also envying “its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.
Racial abuse continues in online public forums, particularly on sites such as memorial pages (Carlson “Well Connected”), or those relating to criminal justice (Cunneen and Russell). In settings that provide a degree of anonymity, the power to directly comment and intervene in the lives of others and spread dis/misinformation, hate, and conjecture—whether motivated by good intentions, spite, entertainment, or simply being ill-informed—is enhanced. Some of these behaviours and opinions outside social media would be self-, socially, or legally censored (Montgomery). When Indigenous peoples go online, they are often the subjects of racist posts, memes, or online articles. When they share Indigenous content, or read the comment sections of stories relating to them, they wait with “bated breath” in anticipation of what monstrosities they might confront. It is these monstrosities that we discuss in greater detail below.
As Megan Cope suggests in Bated Breath, racism is often used as a trap that seeks to oppress Indigenous peoples through suppressing autonomy. The term “clickbait” refers to this process: it is characterised by an ability to pose questions that provoke intrigue and interest in audiences, encouraging them to seek out the information that is strategically left out of headlines, but supposedly contained within the body of work (Scacco and Muddiman). Many scholars have highlighted clickbait’s function of creating “curiosity gaps” (Scacco and Muddiman 2082) which provokes a sense of uncertainty and interest through omitting key details (Blom and Hansen). Clickbait, however, also interpolates audiences in ways where the answers posed by a headline are implied through its context and readership.
As an example, writer Karen Wyld highlights a 2018 headline from The Daily Mail (Hanrahan) that asks “Is Australia on a slippery slope towards its own form of apartheid?” While the headline suggests a story relating to State oppression of Indigenous communities, it continues with, “How the roll out of Aboriginal-only services is driving a dangerous wedge between the indigenous and rest of the country”. The headline is “forward referencing” (Scacco and Muddiman), a common characteristic of clickbait, as it creates intrigue through provoking both objection and resolve from audiences, the order of which depends on the reader’s point-of-view and ideological positioning (Blom and Hansen).
For a conservative readership (as those traditionally targeted by The Daily Mail), the question of an Indigenous “apartheid” may be met with reactionary discomfort, while the latter statement pertaining to “Aboriginal-only services” eases anxiety by diverting personal responsibility and/or accountability. The rupture of a so-called unified Australia is presented as being caused by privileging “the indigenous” at the peril of “the rest of the (white) country”. For a liberal readership, suggestions of apartheid-like racial division may be met with concern and acceptance that gaps in health, education, employment, incarceration, and other outcomes for Indigenous peoples need meaningful and effective responses. Where the first half of the headline “baits” the reader, the second half, however, reels them in by suggesting that tailored services towards Indigenous communities are contributing to national disunity.
In both cases, the headline is constructed to provoke reaction, and, in both cases, Indigenous affairs is objectified for editorial and political gain. The stories covered by major media conglomerates help construct how Indigenous peoples are “known” by the wider non-Indigenous public. Selective use of language and narrative tropes align with political interests, policies and agendas. Like most articles “about” Indigenous people, the story in The Daily Mail negates Indigenous voices, perspectives, and rights to autonomy. The impact of profiteering from deficit discourses about Aboriginal subjects has been pointed out by many Indigenous scholars (Moreton-Robinson; Smith; McQuire). Muruwari / Gomeroi Journalist Allan Clarke has commented on how the media
pander to the mentality that I am lesser; that my people are somehow lesser. White journalists who step off the ledge to dip their toes into the raging pool of racial turmoil can produce award-winning work and win kudos from “woke” colleagues. But in the end, they go home. My mob pay the price. Our pain and suffering is often their career gain.
Arrernte woman Celeste Liddle similarly observes how for many Aboriginal peoples, Indigeneity itself is used as clickbait in which the media seeks Indigenous reactions to stories covering topics about racism, without addressing the structures that create and maintain them. Liddle states:
the continual call by the media for Aboriginal people to counteract the most basic forms of racism suggests not only that Australia is failing to address the structural and systemic racism, which allows the space for blatant racism to fester while human rights abuses are ignored, but also that the media has a vested interest in propagating this racism.
Through limiting Indigenous input to topics relating to racism, disadvantage, and the failure to “close the gap”, Aboriginal peoples continue to be presented through a deficit lens (Fforde and Lovett). Media feeds this monster as observed by McCallum, Ryan and Caffery (12) who note that at a time when strengths-based approaches are increasing in academia, “the media has essentially gone backwards in their understandings, often adopting a ‘clickbait’ mentality in terms of what headline will get the most attraction”.
Scholarly works, however, are far from exempt from producing clickbait material that capitalises on deficit presentations of an Indigenous “other” (Moreton-Robinson “Talkin Up”). In some cases, it is a process where Indigenous peoples themselves are complicit (Hokowhitu). In his assessment of critical Indigenous Studies, Hokowhitu describes Western knowledge production as “monstrous” through its objectification and universalisation of an Indigenous other. He argues that the coloniser’s inability to comprehend Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies has resulted in a “disease” which manifests the dehumanisation of Indigenous bodies and ways of being. Hokowhitu (101) writes that a post-Indigenous studies situated within Indigenous ways of knowing and being, “mocks the tumorous decoupling of the individual’s body from place through dominant discourses that, at almost every turn, employ otherness to decipher the able from the disabled”. Controlling conversations through clickbait is one-way Western knowledge attempts to produce Indigenous bodies and render Indigenous knowledges as deficit, disabled, and other.
Feeding the Trolls
The inspiration and structure of Cope’s Bated Breath replicates traditional fishing traps that are used to bait and lure fish in Quandamooka waters. The movement of one fish creates a force that can have a domino effect, causing the cyclonic vortex through the school’s perpetual movement. As the fish serve as metaphors for online actors, the spread of mis/disinformation also has the potential of similarly dragging others into its destructive pull, provoking increased exposure, affirmation, and contestation of online content. While such collective movement can be positive, it can also provide the fodder that feeds the trolls: those who question, and those who maintain racist colonial attitudes and agendas.
One example of where “fake news” has spread because of propagating misinformation can be seen through the characterisation of the recently proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament. High profile politicians such as Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, and Barnaby Joyce have likened the voice to a “third chamber” (Appleby and Synot; Davis and Williams; Fredericks and Bradfield “Seeking”; Karp; Twomey; Wahlquist); a false declaration that has since dominated public conversation. This mistruth has created conjecture, and impeded positive relationships between Indigenous and predominantly white non-Indigenous peoples (Taylor and Habibis).
Despite the proposed Voice having no veto powers and operating as a representative body to parliament, rather than in parliament, such figures continue to feed the trolls by presenting constitutional reform as a threat to social cohesion. Appleby (105) notes that many white non-Indigenous people have mistakenly taken such proposals as demands for “white guilt” and acts of “black vengeance”. Characterising the reforms in such simplistic terms can be seen as a form of clickbait through its ability to redirect conversations from where it is most needed (i.e., greater Indigenous input towards the policies imposed upon their lives), while fuelling social media bigotry. Deficit discourses and the negative portrayal of Indigenous peoples further fuel abusive and harmful discourses online, whether this is at the hands of those with bigoted views, or those who simply “troll” —a term referring to monster-like behaviour where people become the opportunistic prey of abuse for another’s entertainment and/or validation (Ortiz; Wyld).
In her book Troll Hunting: Insider the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout, Ginger Gorman outlines the psyche of trolling behaviour, describing it as a calculated practice that stems from a growing sense of disenfranchisement and anger. Gorman demonstrates how trolling can potentially lead to extremist outcomes. Trolling itself can also function as clickbait in that perpetrators conduct extreme acts with the intention of increasing their exposure through media coverage. Speaking of the 2019 Christchurch shootings in New Zealand, Gorman (in Kenny) describes how the perpetrator
employed a technique called 'media f......', which is a tactic where [terrorists] essentially co-opt the media into proliferating their messages. He certainly succeeded in that. I know The Daily Mail published his manifesto in full. The document is full of media bait. Through it, [the gunman] is signalling to his white supremacy community. (127)
Gorman’s contention demonstrates how the media not only “feeds the trolls”, but can also be its prey, strategically used to spread hateful and extremist ideologies. Like the swirling fish that create the vortex in Cope’s Bated Breath, online mob mentality can quickly sweep up a particular group along with racists, bigots, and trolls in its all-encompassing gravitas (Wyld). This might result from something posted, written, an image, behaviour, or an event and can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing (Priest et al.; Carlson, Farrelly, Borthwick; Kelaher et al.). One public example of such mob-mentality is when footballer Adam Goodes was subjected to unrelenting abuse, taunting and “platformed racism” online (Matamoros-Fernández), which was coupled with incessant booing on field (Jakubowicz et al.). This had severe impact on Goodes’s mental health and eventually led to his early retirement (The Australian Dream; Tiernan). Stan Grant describes the event in monstrous terms depicting the booing as the “howl of humiliation” shared amongst Indigenous peoples across the nation.
Online Transgression and Seeking Redemption
Throughout and during the aftermath of the Adam Goodes saga—which comprised of numerous examples of racial abuse, including him being called an “ape” during a round celebrating Indigenous contributions to the sport (Parry)—there was much public debate as to whether the taunting was racially motivated or simply part of the “theatre” of sport (Coram and Hallinan). Assessment of the comments and online posts clearly demonstrate its racist overtones. The same mentality is often extended to behaviours online in which trolling, abuse, or transgressions are attributed to the theatrical “stage” of social media (Polak and Trottier). In some cases, public exposure of the incident further publicised the use of ape-like images as symbols or “rallying cries” for other racially motivated taunts.
The mirror in Bated Breath represents the narcissistic tendency to remove oneself from the reality of others, whilst also calling for need for self-reflection and assessment of online behaviour. Sometimes those who are swept up in social media’s destructive vortex might be able to confront their actions, while others might rarely confront their actions until it becomes public. It is only then that perpetrators feel compelled to respond. A man who racially vilified Aboriginal football player Matthew Parker online (Gould)—by once again likening him to an ape—was recently forced to gaze into his own self-reflective mirror (Churches). The monstrous actions cast back at him resulted in the man deleting his post and caused him to reach out to Parker (see fig. 4).
Fig. 4. (mpfourhunnid.)
Conclusion: Mirroring the Monster Within
Within monstrous worlds, monsters are the products of distorted realities where their bodies, actions and origins are attributed to the traversing of socio-cultural norms and expectations. While monsters such as zombies are often the by-products of a spreading virus, attempts to eradicate the continuous onslaught of hordes are futile unless the root cause is addressed. Similarly, racism in Australia is the by-product of colonisation, along with the mechanisms that maintain the illusion of white supremacy. While it is important to continue to expose and take aim at those who publicly and harmfully distort the truth and propagate racist views online, without addressing its underlying cause the hordes of racism will likely continue. To address racism, we must first gaze into Cope’s mirror.
In narratives where the root cause of a monster’s infection cannot be cured, it must therefore be “managed”. In Day of the Dead (1985), for example, the lead scientist attempts to re-educate zombies on how to be, or at least resemble humans. This is a concept familiar to Indigenous peoples who, since European invasion, have been treated as less-than-human and subjected to continuous waves of oppressive and punitive policies that have sought to govern, control, and manage their lives so that they better align—or do not interfere—with Western ontologies.
In Gordon Bennett’s artwork Echo and Narcissus (1988), a mirror in form of a waterhole is depicted, representing a liminal zone through which we can better understand relationships between coloniser and colonised. In the work, a white settler-colonist Narcissist gazes into the mirror to find a black Aboriginal Echo reaching out to caress his face. Commenting on the work, McLean writes that “if the mirror is where we inspect ourselves, the inspection is not a passive survey of the self, but a dynamic means to reconstruct and imagine ourselves differently” (82).
Cope’s mirror operates in a similar way, not only reflecting harmful online behaviours, but also presenting them in ways that encourage awareness of our interconnection with others. Monstrous worlds are spaces where the vulnerabilities and anxieties of seeing the other as oneself are confronted (Shildrick). We are all but a single fish in a school of thousands that collectively move as one, creating the vortex Cope so vividly displays.
Just as within monstrous worlds, survival necessitates understanding, cooperation, and collective action against a common threat that distorts human sensibilities. Within settler-colonial settings such as Australia, the monstrous infliction we all embody—colonialism—continues to be denied. It is a virus that is pervasive, normalised, invisible and continuously transmitted through governing structures and everyday actions that privilege western outlooks. If the monstrous world is a distorted and grotesque fragmentation of the familiar, settings such as Australia will forever remain monstrous until Indigenous sovereignty and autonomy is recognised as echoing its true reflection.
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