The media plays an important role in the public debate regarding Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD). AOD Media Watch is run by a group of researchers and clinicians who work in the field. We aim to improve the reporting of AOD issues through putting the spotlight on stories that contain misinformation, perpetuate unnecessary moral panic and stigma.

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9 October 2020: Please like me: politicians, Facebook and AOD stigma


In a spate of recent Facebook posts, the Cranbourne Leader has taken to gaining attention by villainising people who use alcohol and other drugs. The Leader’s page appears dedicated to inciting stigma in the local area—posting photos of individuals alongside descriptors like ‘junkie’ and ‘alcoholic’.

The derogatory language in the Leader’s posts has the power to cause serious harm. It prevents people from seeking the help they need. It’s important that anyone experiencing addiction and their families are treated and spoken about with compassion. Shame doesn’t help people recover from substance use issues—it isolates them from their community.

What is stigma?

Stigma occurs when an individual or group of people are viewed negatively because of their behaviour or character. In posts made by the Cranbourne Leader, there are phrases like ‘angry alcoholic’, ‘junkie jackpot’ and ‘drug-addicted thief’. This language reinforces stigma and negative stereotypes about people who use alcohol and other drugs. What’s more distressing is that these terms have been attached to photos of the people being described—throwing them to the mercy of the Facebook public. A quick look at the comments section on each post shows the hostile responses stigmatising language incites. This hostility prevents more helpful conversations about why people might be struggling, or how they can go about seeking help.

How does stigma cause harm?

Stigma makes alcohol and other drugs more unsafe. Often people with alcohol or drug issues have suffered trauma, and this trauma can be compounded by stigma. This leads to a lack of empowerment as people become socially isolated and afraid to ask for help, creating a nasty cycle as people avoid seeking help and their health deteriorates further. Their employment and relationships are negatively impacted. They feel alienated by society and unworthy of care. They become too afraid or embarrassed to seek treatment and their risk of consuming substances in dangerous ways increases.

If we use language like the Cranbourne Leader have in their posts, we’re also alienating people who have been through or are attempting to recover from similar issues. To people in recovery viewing these posts, words like ‘junkie’ and ‘alcoholic’ sends the message that we don’t care about their journey or wellbeing. This could place them at significant risk of relapse.

Stigma can make the families of people experiencing addiction feel judged alongside their loved ones, too. The family unit ends up clouded in shame, making it impossible for them to connect with their community, ask for help in caring for their family member, or to talk about their own experiences. In some cases, this leads to the family rejecting their own.

The people being targeted in these posts aren’t politicians or public figures—they’re everyday folk. They have not consented to having their lives being made public and open to criticism from the Facebook mob. Unlike politicians or celebrities, the individuals being shamed by the Leader have no platform which would offer them a right of reply. These posts expose already vulnerable people to bullying and harassment. They may not have coping strategies or supports in place to deal with this backlash—placing them at further risk of harm.

The problem with the Leader’s posts is not only the language—they’ve also neglected to include any support numbers or information about where people can access help. If these posts were truly intended to help the community and reduce alcohol and other drug use in the area, then links to counselling services or support numbers such as Directline should have been included. Fear and stigma are being used to gain Facebook engagement for the purpose of self-promotion, at the expense of compassion and health.

What needs to be done differently?

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to be protected from degrading treatment. These rights extend to people who use, or have used, alcohol and other drugs. I urge the Cranbourne Leader to reconsider this culture of naming and shaming.

Empowering people with lived experience and recognising positive dimensions of alcohol and other drug use are important for challenging present stigma and preventing health problems. “The Power of Words” is a useful tool for learning how to speak in ways that aren’t stigmatising. This document makes the dangers of messaging like the Cranbourne Leader’s pretty clear.

It is crucial that messaging around alcohol and other drugs is linked to appropriate health and support services, especially when substance use issues are central. Addiction should be treated as a health issue rather than as an opportunity for political point scoring.

The Cranbourne Leader was contacted for comment but did not respond prior to publication.

Author

Sarah Stivens is a writer who works in the AOD sector. She is also an editor and empty notebook lover. She has written for publications such as Catalyst, Kin Fertility, Baby Teeth Journal, WhyNot and Bowen Street Press. She lives in Melbourne with a jumble of pets, throw cushions and houseplants.

Reviewers

Katie Horneshaw, op ed columnist and features writer

Dr Liam Engel, Adjunct Research Fellow at Edith Cowan University

Featured image by Owen W Brown (CC BY 2.0)

Disclaimer: The author takes full responsibility for the content of this article.

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Journalists that would like to seek expert commentary on drug issues can contact AOD Media Watch who can provide referrals to a range of experts on the issue being reported. Guidelines for journalists can be accessed from our website and resources for the media are available from Mindframe.