Right wing attack: When bigots silence young activists

An insight into the strategies used by right-wing media to muffle the campus left

Artwork by Eloise Myatt Artwork by Eloise Myatt

Takedowns of young activists have been something of a cottage industry in the Australian right-wing press of late. Some might say that simply reposting activists’ private Facebook posts isn’t “newsworthy” and instead a “gross invasion of privacy.” Others might think that calling on young protestors to be subject to University investigations while supporting racist cartoonists under the guise of “free speech” is grossly hypocritical. The editors of the Daily Telegraph, Australian and Daily Mail would likely disagree.

But what is it like to be on the other end of that attack? What impact does that have on the work of activists?

One reason the press seems obsessed with bringing attention to activists is to try to reduce their emotions and work to a trope. This can function as convenient excuse for overlooking the substance of activists’ arguments, depicting them instead as irrational or too extreme for mainstream discourse.

Connor Parissis, who received violent threats from the Australia First Party after being targeted by Miranda Devine, recognises he was an “easy target.” “I’m the Blonde-haired, very queer looking activist” who had been “angered by comments surrounding bestiality and paedophilia made to the queer students I was elected to represent.” Parissis says they weaponised his anger, which was  “perfect for their narrative” that “marriage equality, and the queer movement are larger projects to suppress freedom of speech.” Anna Hush, of End Rape on Campus (and avowed “gender warrior” according to Andrew Bolt) has also been the victim of a similar process. She says that most right-wing media portray the organisation as “hysterical feminists making a big deal out of nothing.”

“Obviously this is not a new stereotype, and is used by members of the political elite to silence dissent and feminist activists,” Hush says. This experience has been shared by SRC Wom*n’s Officer Jessica Syed, who found herself targeted after leading recent campaigns against Bettina Arndt’s “Fake Rape on Campus” tour. “Rather than engaging with the fact that Arndt’s tour quite awfully purports to deny the existence of sexual assault on university campuses, right-wing media finds it easier to invoke misogynistic and false notions of ugly feminists who have never had sex in their life who involve themselves in protest movements because their lives are unsatisfying.” So eager are they in their efforts that sometimes they lose track of their targets: in a recent video Arndt identified an unknown south Asian woman as Syed.

The angry activist isn’t the only trope that conservative media rely on though. When Pranay Jha dared write about a culture of sexual assault at Sydney’s private boys schools, Miranda Devine attacked him as a spiteful “bespectacled GPS debater.”  “Her characterisation of my time at King’s seemed to be picked out of a shitty American high-school film,” Jha says. “I think a lot of it constructed the standard stereotypical image of this quiet brown kid who was good at academics and nothing else.” Clearly, whether the stereotypes invoked are true is of little concern to conservative writers like Devine. “I was in good sport teams, in leadership positions and doing all the other bullshit you get celebrated for in private schools. The image of me as someone who was successful at King’s wouldn’t have fit in with the traditional conception of what brown kids are like in high school or with her explanation for why I wrote the article.”

Other activists willingly choose to engage with right-wing media. Lily Campbell, the SRC’s Education Officer, appeared on Sky News’s “The Outsiders” to speak about socialism. “I think SkyNews was mostly using me for novelty value for their right wing audience, who loved to hate a young socialist woman.” But for her, that was an opportunity: “They weren’t expecting that I’d be able to answer their questions and confidently refute their redbaiting. It was worth doing the interviews I did, to try boost the profile of an anti-racist, anti-sexist and socialist perspective, something often silenced in the mainstream.”

But even when one is careful with what they say it can be difficult to guess how conservative media will run the story. I provided comment on the USU’s Debating Society’s affirmative action policies to the Australian assuming it would be appearing deep in the paper’s Education section. Instead, it was a cover story for which I received a number of rape threats and talk-back radio requests for comment.

Often it’s not the attacks from the media that impact activists, but the reactionary vigilantes they inspire afterwards. Hush reports that “there have been some pretty horrific comments on videos of me, and I’ve received lots of abusive messages in the past”. She knows many other feminist activists who have “received far worse”. The ongoing threat of that backlash continues to impact activists. “I don’t think I will disengage with social movements involving protests as a result of the coverage,” Syed says, “but it’s scary knowing you’ve become a target. You never know what kind of reactionary neo-con will show up to a rally to punch on. I do feel more unsafe.” Parissis says his personal details were posted on the far-right Australia First Party’s website. Parrisis reports that that the attacks in conservative media incited death threats, threats of bashing and sexual assault and “homophobic abuse unlike what I’d heard before”. This experience was “genuinely traumatising”, and the fact that Parrisis has taken a year off from other official activist roles since is ironic given his attackers claimed to be defending free speech against intolerance.

Attacks based on reductive images of activists reveal the right-wing media’s reluctance to genuinely engage with their arguments. Such attacks come with long-running threats to their safety and wellbeing, but it’s not enough to stop their work. “I was able to overcome much of the events that unfolded following the protest with the never-ending support of the queer community,” Parissis told Honi. “People who approached me in tears, telling me I inspired them, or that I was the voice they couldn’t be.” As Hush says of the coverage: “I tend to think: if we’re riling them up, we’re doing something right!”