Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is an author and Guardian Australia journalist who lives on Ngarabal country in the NSW Northern Tablelands. He was was born at Inverell into a farming family with New England roots deeper than most. His debut novel Tank Water is out now from MidnightSun Publishing.
Michael Burge
Michael's articles about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process are available at his website.


Thanks to No Fibs readers and citizen journalists monitoring the mainstream and social media for the past 48 hours, we’ve been able to put together the limited facts about the people behind the tweets sent to refugee supporter Vanessa Powell last Friday by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP).

Two of the most common questions I have observed on the social media are: who sent the texts, a rogue staffer working on the weekend, or someone else? And was it a targeted attempt at censorship, or random?

Well, there’s nothing like a timeline to see what’s true and what’s not. Here’s what we know, and where we know it from:

Thursday, April 3

Powell posted an image on her Facebook taken at Villawood Detention Centre, Sydney, of a refugee bus which was to be used to transport detainees to Curtin in Western Australia. Apparently the post was set to public at the time. Another Facebooker, George Georgiadis, a friend of Powell’s and a fellow asylum seeker advocate and activist, left a comment on Powell’s post at some time afterwards.

Friday, April 4

At 4.29pm, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection tweeted Powell and asked her to remove an “offensive post” from her Facebook.


At 5.47pm, Powell replied:

The DIBP guided her to the post in question and stated that if she did not comply, immediately, they would “consider our options”.

Saturday, April 5

The news seemed to break first in a Storify compiled by John Weeks, in Cambodia. Titled “Department of Immigration and Border Protection vs. Vanessa Powell”, the DIBP tweets were reproduced, with a mobile screenshot locking them in one easy-to-read source: 12:19hrs on Saturday, April 5, 2014.


This appeared in a tweet by Josh Taylor, a journalist at ZDNet (more about Josh later).

Sunday, April 6

Blogger Robyn Oyeniyi was amongst the first writers to attempt to contact Powell directly to find out more about the DIBP tweets:

Oyeniyi moved fast to publish an early analysis in her piece, titled “Who IS the boss around here?”, linking the ‘dob in a mate’ articles in last week’s mainstream media; concerns amongst public servants about their privately-held political beliefs on social media; the tweets sent by the DIBP to Powell, and the $4.3 million allocated by the Abbott Government to gauge responses to their policies in the social media.

Monday, April 7

At 8.47am, Powell tweeted:

Fairfax weighed-in with this piece by Jenna Price: “Free Speech but only for Abbott elite”. Price made no mention of the DIBP tweets, but said:

I reckon there will be a huge influx of fake social media accounts and false accusations – a perfect way to foster huge community discontent and mistrust.

SBS joined-in around lunchtime with the punchiest headline so far: “Remove ‘offensive remark or else’: Immigration Dept” atop an in-depth piece by Lin Taylor, which revealed Powell had removed the post the DIBP found offensive.

Taylor got the first quote from Powell herself: “I think some of the posts went out publicly. I don’t know how they [the Department] got onto my Facebook page,” she said. “I was pretty shocked to get them [the tweets]. They’ve been monitoring my Facebook account, so that was shocking.”

Taylor also included a statement from a “spokesperson” for the DIBP explaining their actions, but not the methods they employed to find Powell’s Facebook post. This statement revealed that the “offensive” language was not on Powell’s Facebook post, but rather a comment made about one of her posts, despite the DIBP requesting the removal of the entire post, not simply the comment.

Powell remained unsure about the privacy setting of her Facebook at the time of her post’s discovery by DIBP, but the DIBP maintained that it was set to public, allowing them to see it.

SBS also published Powell’s photo of the detainee bus. In it, a protest sign, which read: “Not in my name”.

The aforementioned Josh Taylor of ZDNet, whose profile concludes that his journalistic brief covers “all the goings on in government IT” also hit the publish button, with his piece: “Border protection forces facebook content removal through Twitter”. Josh had observed that on Saturday night:

The department’s Twitter account trended in Australia that evening.

He also included a Reddit link which shows some of the social media’s reaction in one place.

Tweeters were concerned, obviously. No Fibs responded to widespread unsettled feelings within the social media with my opinion piece “You cannot burn a mummy blog” about the need to stay firm in the face of fear.

By the end of the day, Powell’s Twitter follower numbers ballooned to almost 800, and continued to grow.

An interesting related tweet:

Tuesday, April 8

The Hoopla got angry enough to publish a piece by Paula Matthewson: “A warped sense of free speech”. Matthewson noted the sudden confusion around freedom of speech for public servants in the social media, despite existing codes of conduct.

Social media policies have since been developed by individual departments to ‘complement’ the Code and essentially strip APS employees of any right to political expression.

Which paints the precarious picture many social media users are worried about right now: who is watching, where, how, and how much does it matter?

Late in the day, The International Business Times Australia published an article by Anne Lu in which the only extra information suggests both Powell and Georgiadis are public servants:

Some commenters on Reddit claim that Mr Georgiadis and Ms Powell are teachers employed by TAFE NSW, and therefore should be careful with their public posts.

At COB another related development picked-up on Twitter:

Did the DIBP staff member/s who researched Powell’s Facebook do so using the funds and access afforded them by the method Oyeniyi suggested, and are they aware of refugee advocates from their social media postings (Georgiadis’ Facebook page is replete with images of asylum seeker protests which can be viewed publicly)?

Or are these two small players in a larger plan to censor users of social media, the first unlucky targets who met the criteria of some new algorithm?

No Fibs is very happy to hear from anyone with further information – please post links in the comments section.