The good, bad and ugly of social media

Social media is providing opportunities to create stronger connections for fishers and scientists, but is not without its dangers

By Catherine Norwood

There are more active mobile phones in Australia than there are people – 1.33 per man, woman and child, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. And almost 90 per cent of those are smartphones, with photo-taking, internet-posting capabilities.

It is just part of Australia’s love affair with digital technologies, including social media; there are almost 14 million Facebook users in Australia.

But it is a double-edged sword. While digital communication allows the instant sharing of information, it also provides almost constant surveillance of both real and imagined wrongs and unlimited, unmonitored forums for the exchange of comment – however positive or destructive that comment may be.  

The good

New connections

Social media can reach thousands, if not millions, of followers very quickly. One tweet from US singer Katy Perry reaches her 69 million Twitter followers. Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has 107 million ‘likes’ on his Facebook page.

On a somewhat smaller, but more relevant, scale, the use of social media by the Queensland Police Service (QPS) during the 2010-11 floods in Queensland highlights how effective social media is in sharing information.

During the flooding of Toowoomba, Ipswich and Brisbane in January 2011 the QPS Facebook and Twitter accounts became the leading source of flood information and reporting. The number of ‘likes’ on the Facebook page jumped from about 17,000 to 100,000 in 24 hours, and there were about 39 million flood-related posts to the Facebook page, equating to 450 post views per second over the peak 24-hour period.

The case for social media and fisheries science and engagement may not be quite as urgent as that during the Queensland floods, nor would it have the same reach as Katy Perry or Cristiano Ronaldo. However, social media remains a powerful tool the sector can make use of.

When the FRDC posted information about the Asian paddle crab biosecurity threat in Western Australia in 2014 it generated 350,000 views within a few days.

For Australian fishing journalist Al McGlashan the potential of social media first really clicked after an epic battle with a Southern Bluefin Tuna off the coast of Warrnambool, Victoria, a few years ago.

His team tweeted the progress of their seven-hour saga, and by the time they finally landed their catch and returned to port there were – unexpectedly – hundreds of people gathered to witness the weigh-in of the catch (155 kilograms, just for the record). It was at that point social media became a much more serious and integral part of his business.

Today, Al McGlashan has 60,000 followers on Facebook and his YouTube videos have received more than 8.1 million views. This is in addition to his mainstream-media television programs, such as Big Fish Small Boats, and numerous articles in Australian and international newspapers and magazines.

He says social media has brought recreational fishers together in ways that would not have been possible even 10 years ago. Recreational fishers are now working with other fishers and other groups, such as researchers, to make things happen as a community.  

He points to the recent FRDC-funded research tagging program for Southern Bluefin Tuna as an example of recreational and commercial fishers working cooperatively with scientists to gather information about the species and improve fishing practices.

Sean Tracey at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) in Tasmania has been leading a FRDC-funded project into the survival rate of Southern Bluefin Tuna released by recreational fishers.

This has involved working with fishers to tag the fish before they are released, and social media has helped to track where the fish are biting and to connect with fishers willing to help.

Sean Tracey says the good news from the research is that more than 80 per cent of fish caught and released survive.  

Because of the strong fisher involvement and continuous feedback from researchers during the project (also provided through social media), people are following the research and its findings with interest, which should increase the adoption of recommendations to improve fish handling and survival.

He says the fisher involvement has also led recreational fishers to suggest a second, similar project to assess the catch-and-release survival of Swordfish, which is an emerging recreational fishery off Tasmania’s east coast. This project has now been funded.

Online engagement

The FRDC’s recfishing research officer, Matt Barwick, says the use of social media by the recreational fishing community has exploded in the past few years.

“It has become a very busy space. More fishers use it to post images of their catches and to share information on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Commercial businesses are getting more sophisticated with their use of social media, incorporating brand messages with images or footage of amazing fish from idyllic locations – content that fishers really engage with.”

One practical research application of this willingness of fishers to share pictures of their catch is Redmap (Range Extension Database and Mapping project). Initiated by Gretta Pecl, also at IMAS, it allows community members to register unusual marine catches or sightings, which is helping to document changes in the range of different species and the arrival of new species.

Launched with a web-based portal in 2009 in Tasmania, Redmap went national in 2012, with support from the GRDC, and now has Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as Android and iTunes apps, which allow community members to instantly log any unusual sightings.

Matt Barwick says social media is also being used by fishing management authorities, which have traditionally communicated with the recreational fishing community through formal organisations.
“Peak bodies and clubs play an important role, but members make up about five per cent of the recreational fishing community.

Social media provides an opportunity to engage with a much larger proportion, including the mums and dads who may only fish once in a while.”

The bad

Destructive influences

When it comes to community feedback, Al McGlashan says his personal experience is that it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. “You always get the extremes – the lovers and the haters – and the odd troll who has no idea what they’re talking about but thought they’d throw an opinion in there anyway.”

His social media support staff have, on occasion, tracked down some of his ‘haters’, to find that they range from a nine-year-old kid, who doesn’t quite realise that everything posted on sites such as Facebook is public, to environmental activists running campaigns from ‘empty’ (or fake) Facebook accounts.

Matt Barwick says social media does lend itself to community policing of rules and regulations, based on the photos and information that fishers post online to share with their friends. “But what you see online is not always the whole story,” he says.

The Northern Daily Leader in Tamworth, New South Wales, recently reported on a fisher targeted by a ‘name and shame’ campaign after posting a photo of himself on his own Facebook page with a Murray Cod, which was legal size at the time he caught it.

Subsequent to his fishing expedition, maximum size restrictions for Murray Cod were changed, which would have made his catch illegal – and this was the basis for targeting the fisher. The catch was reviewed by NSW Department of Primary Industries officers, who said no law had been breached. The fisher was, however, subjected to an ongoing hate campaign in his home town.

Matt Bawick says pictures of washed-up catch or nets can go viral on social media, because they generate an emotional response. But accusations of wrongdoing are often unverified, he says, and can intensify mistrust, particularly between commercial and recreational fishing communities.

“It highlights the power of social media in surveillance and in generating an emotional impact. But the content can be constructed to do that, and too much of the content is assumed to be factual, when it may not be,” he says.  

The FRDC has only had a few negative and factually incorrect posts on its Facebook page in response to posted news articles.

FRDC manager of communications, trade and marketing Peter Horvat says this is because the FRDC has a very strong social media policy, which outlines acceptable online behaviour.

“Despite being great for engagement, at the end of the day if people want to be malicious there is little you can do. It can be a very destructive medium when it is hijacked by a small number of people with a cause to push who don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about.

“Comments made on social media can be potentially defamatory and affect a person’s standing in the community and their livelihood. Although commenters may feel that they are immune to legal action, they’re not and it will not be long before there are more people taken to task and prosecuted for their actions.

“People have a responsibility, even in this space, to act responsibly. Organisations that have not yet stepped into social media should consider it carefully and do some planning beforehand to ensure they have clear policies for engagement and commenting,” Peter Horvat says. 


The ugly

A matter of perspective

Photo of the actual size of the fish Photo of recfisher holding catch Photo of a man using "Fish fingers" Photo of Fish Fingers

It is common knowledge that recreational fishers are prone to exaggerating the size of their catch.

With a few camera tricks, fishers can even make the photographic ‘evidence’ of the catch match their stories. When a fisher holds their catch as close to the camera as possible – and as far from their own body – it makes the fish look as big as possible.

The Flathead caught (right) was a few centimetres over legal size, but thanks to the camera’s perspective, it looks like a more impressive catch than it actually was.

Now there is even a Danish proposal for a crowd-funded Kickstarter project, ‘Fish Fingers’, to help fishers “exploit the power of perspective”.


FRDC Research Codes: 2013-025, 2011-088