The status quo can use social pressure to gain the conforming erasure of minority groups. Refusing to relieve this tension—not conforming to normalising pressure—defies their expectations. A refusal constitutes practices primarising strength in affirmation of self, or a group’s representation, despite normalising pressure. Refusing to comply with normalising pressure thus complicates power dynamics and bully/victim binaries in useful ways. This article offers Queer analysis of refusals to relieve tension in 2018. It is organised by Tweets linked to notable refusals in each month of the year.
@HayleyKiyoko, #20GAYTEEN, #expectations2018. Hayley Kiyoko (Japanese European American Singer Director Actor Dancer) is a former Disney star nicknamed the ‘Lesbian Jesus’ by her LGBTIQ+ youth fan-base. In January 2018 Kiyoko pushed positive representation through initiating the #20gayteen movement via her Twitter and other social media, in which LGBTIQ+ youth created memes celebrating small positive experiences of being queer in their everyday lives. The year-specific movement counters the victimisation associated with queer teenagers in research and the media (Copland & Rasmussen, 2017; Jones, 2013). Kiyoko’s mainstream music videos feature bold multi-cultural and sensual queer content enhancing this affirmative representation. In these clips she repeatedly plays a girl with ‘swagger’ who often ‘gets the girl’ in a subversion of heterosexual music videos, and her fans’ response echoes the queer celebration of Madonna’s subversion of gendered music video roles (Railton & Watson, 2011, p. 4). Kiyoko’s works transfer Queer music video strategies into mainstream pop music videos including irony, camp, parody, pastiche and mimesis (Hawkins, 2016; Leibetseder, 2016). Her works refuse fairy-tale marriage-like resolutions to the relationships explored—the sexual engagements depicted are intense, unclear and unfinished in a manner which speaks to youth experiences. However, the queer protagonist always refuses victimisation for affirming alternatives.
@Adaripp. Adam Rippon, figure-skater and Olympian represented the USA at the February 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Seoul South Korea. Asked by the media whether he would meet with Vice President Mike Pence at the Winter Games, Rippon had apparently responded with a refusal:
I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of their way to not only show that they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think that they’re sick (Leah, 2018).
This refusal, carried through onto his social media including a series of Tweets, created significant media debate and backlash around the world. It disrupted the expectation that a gay Olympian should act honoured to meet with a political leader regardless of their homophobic policy record. It disrupted the idea that the publicity opportunities surrounding Olympic events should be prioritised over everyday concerns. Rippon used the interview to instead draw attention to Pence’s funding of gay conversion therapy and efforts to support exemptions for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He repeatedly refused to meet with, or engage in subsequent offers of photo opportunities with, Pence towards diffusing the tension (Leah, 2018). Other Olympians including freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy also spoke out against Pence and released tweets throughout the games like ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it’ (Belam, 2018).
@Emma4Change. Emma Gonzalez, a Cuban-American school student and March For Our Lives Campaign Co-founder, was a survivor of the 2018 USA Parkland School shooting earlier in the year. She was part of a cohort of students who inspired people of younger ages to raise their voice and advocate for gun control, in a youth-based gun control movement responding to shootings young people experienced in American schools, public and private settings (Reilly, 2018). The movement has been characterised by large-scale youth marches and rallies, meetings with politicians and leaders of gun interest groups and mass everyday youth and shooting victim networks’ involvement—including through Twitter and other social media. The movement is particularly notable for the way it has featured young people directly drawing strong attention in their speeches and meetings to the inactivity of politicians. They argue this inactivity is influenced by the increased investments of the National Rifle Association (NRA) into American politicians. March for Our Lives has incited extreme backlash from some politicians and interest groups, who attacked Emma on the basis of her shaved head and open bisexuality, or tried to suggest she and other youth in the movement were ‘crisis actors’—adults pretending to be child victims of crises. Emma Gonzalez queers the expectations of her age and her activism. In one ‘speech’, she subverted the generic expectations that she would speak in detail about her story for the audience—standing in silence for six minutes (Reilly, 2018). This act created a long unrelieved tension to highlight the amount of time it took for 17 students’ lives to be taken by gun violence at her school earlier in the year, 15 more injured and many others permanently changed.
@intersexaus. Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA) an independent not-for-profit organisation promoting the development of supports for by and for people with intersex variations or traits, changed its name in April 2018 (from Organisation Intersex International/ OII Australia). However, it did not change and has refused to change its core issue, expressed by its social media. The organisation’s work over the past decade has focused on human rights, bodily autonomy and self-determination, and on promoting the development of ‘evidence-based, patient-directed healthcare’ (Intersex Human Rights Australia, 2018). They received no public funds and up until December 2016, the organisation was volunteer-run; since that date they have two part-time co-executive directors. Whilst the organisation has contributed to Australian Parliamentary inquiries into discrimination laws and enforced and coerced sterilisation procedures impacting its focal community (OII Australia, 2012, 2013), and works closely alongside other Australian and international organisations with different foci, it does not let direct intersex representation and activism be lost within contributions to broader LGBTIQ+ and disability movements. Co-executive Director Morgan Carpenter released a paper commenting on this refusal of Australian intersex action to be erased by intersectional work whilst the core issues for people with intersex variations—‘normalization’ of intersex bodies and ‘othering’ of intersex identities—remain:
The existence of intersex has also been instrumentalized for the benefit of other, intersecting, populations. (…) Australian attempts at reforms to recognize the rights of intersex people have either failed to adequately comprehend the population affected or lacked implementation. An emerging human rights consensus demands an end to social prejudice, stigma, and forced medical interventions, focusing on the right to bodily integrity and principles of self-determination (Carpenter, 2018, p. 1).
The work to ensure these goals is multifarious and ongoing.
@ips_journal. Brazilian researcher Sonia Correa is Director of Sexual Policy Watch (SPW), a project based at the Brazilian organisation ABIA (National AIDS Policy Watch). She warned LGBTIQ, gender studies and feminist thinkers in May via media and social media that European and Latin-American Anti-Gender Movements promoting essentialist views of sex were increasing their alliance (Correa, 2018). Recalling the vicious physical attack on Queer theorists and post-structuralist feminists Judith Butler and Wendy Brown at a Rio de Janiero Airport at the end of 2017 on the basis of their work on gender, Correa described how the conservative movement against ‘gender ideology’ had not only since worsened in Brazil, but become increasingly globalised (Correa, 2018). This phenomenon of global conservative networking has in the past particularly impacted transgender student rights and marriage equality pushes and been spurred on by Russian and US alt-right incitement and funding (Jones, 2016). Correa commented:
…anti ‘gender ideology’ crusades are neither a novelty nor exclusively Latin American. Moreover, the semantic frame ‘gender ideology’ reveals itself as an empty and adaptable signifier, encompassing a broad range of demands such as the right to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, to diverse families, education in gender and sexuality, HIV prevention and sex work, a basic basket that can be easily adjusted to the conditions of each context. Its discourses construct unusual analogies between feminism, queer theory and communism, a strategy that has echoes in contexts where this spectrum remains active, such as Brazil. Above all, anti-gender proponents mobilise simplistic logic and imaginaries and constitute volatile enemies—here the feminists, there the gays, over there the artists, ahead the academics, elsewhere the trans bodies—nourishing moral panics that distract societies from structural issues that they should be debating, such as growing inequalities of gender, class, race and ethnicity. Although they use theological arguments, anti-gender campaigns speak the language of the Planet Animal (Correa, 2018).
Correa and SPW refuse to pretend gender and sexuality are other than plastic, unstable constructions and have been highlighting the coalitions aimed at sustaining that pretence (Correa, 2018). They call for long-term work that counters the anti-rights work of transnational gender ideology networks.
@Hannahgadsby. Hannah Gadsby, an Australian Comedian and Star of the Netflix Show ‘Nanette’, decided to quit comedy this year. As she explained throughout her intended last leg of her intended last US tour of her stand-up show ‘Nanette’ and her social media (Gadsby, 2018), Gadsby was tired of telling jokes about her own experiences of homophobia with punchlines that stopped her story short of its dénouement where she was in reality repeatedly punched—and felt so deserving she didn’t seek medical help. She was tired of enacting a humility about her gender expression on stage to make it less awkward for mainstream comedy audiences that felt more like enacting a humiliation, and re-enacting it and re-enacting it over and over until it compounded with a life-time of off-stage humiliations. She was tired of the comedic genre’s standard cycle of building and relieving tension about being too female, being not female enough, being too lesbian, being not lesbian enough… of the expectation she must relieve tension about ‘being’. A major trope of comedic writing is the regular relieving of tension after ‘a relatively short amount of time’; indeed relieving comedy is seen as a ‘must’ in order to gain the redemptive positive moment of laughter to otherwise negative anecdotes (Heller, 2005, p. 75). Gadsby stopped relieving the tension in her show (Gadsby, 2018). She used the power of her personal stories’ endings to enhance tension to its utmost point. She turned that tension back on audience members, responding to the zeitgeist in which she felt situated including the #MeToo Movement—which has seen people call out sexually abusive predators, sexually abusive workplaces and sexually abusive industries. Gadsby’s show called out comedy. When ‘Nanette’ aired on Netflix; it was received as a watershed moment in not only comedy, but in the #MeToo Movement; in narratives of art history; and in the cultural depiction of LGBTIQ+ people. Instead of quitting comedy, Gadsby ‘queered’ it by refusing its heteronormative structures and regressive expectations of the tension of ‘requisite woman hating’ (Jagose, 1996, p. 53), and inhabiting her stage more fully as a person outside gender and sexual norms without maintaining that non-normativity as ‘funny’.
Stella Nyanzi, Ugandan LGBTIQ+ Rights Ally & Womens Lives Matter Campaigner, refused to be drawn into easy arguments for or against LGBTIQ+ peoples’ religious freedoms in Ugandan media debates across July. That month a Youtube video had surfaced of missing former Ugandan LGBTIQ+ activist Val Kalende, who had experienced extreme difficulties finding work and significant isolation after seeking asylum in Canada. The film depicted Val Kalende now back in Uganda wearing uncharacteristic gender conforming clothes, kneeling before an evangelical Christian pastor and (a sometimes jeering) church community and renouncing LGBTIQ activism and lesbian activity. In the video Val speaks of the isolation suffered after having been orphaned by the past rejections of family and community. Clearly, returning to Uganda after achieving Canadian asylum—which Kalende had called a difficult process due to Canada’s requirement of LGBTIQ+ ‘credibility’ (for example letters of confirmation from ex-girlfriends)—was complicated. Particularly given the murders of Kalende’s past Ugandan LGBTIQ+ activists friends. Nyanzi refused to be baited into making points about Kalende’s sexuality or the genuineness of her individual experience of religion in her effort to seek safety and community in Uganda. She commented instead on the possibility of a refusal of religious shame. Nyanzi’s refusal to join in a media or community beat-up of people who assert varying identity formations over time denaturalises ‘stable identity’ (Butler, 2004) in Queer and compassionate ways; and focusses more on seeking ‘liveability’ than holding people to identity stability.
@pussyriot. Pussy Riot, a Russian punk band, is known for creating political protest music about points of tension in Russian culture including LGBTIQ rights, freedom of speech and feminist themes. The band’s bold public performances and protests have led to the arrest of various members; and their being declared ‘a common enemy’ of ethno-religious traditionalism in Russian sociology (Dugin, 2014, p.169). In 2018 they released a new song ‘Unicorn Freedom’, promoting the song through an August Tweet from the group’s Twitter and Youtube accounts explaining unicorns as a symbol of protest in Russia, which has featured in Russian propaganda against LGBTIQ people in Western countries (US House of Representatives Democrats Permanent Selection Committee on Intelligence, 2018). The electronic track is dedicated to Anya Pavlikova, a girl aged only 17 years old when she was arrested in her bedroom; a space decorated in unicorn posters. She faced the potential of 10 years in a Russian prison for participating in a teen girl ‘Telegram chat group’ that used to meet at McDonalds to discuss ‘boys, exams and politics’ and was at times critical of Putin (Arcand, 2018). The song highlighted the absurdity of a girl being cast as an enemy of the state in a Russian domestic intelligence sting operation through its use of overplay—an over-the-top use of stereotypical gender iconography (Bredbeck, 2002). In ‘Unicorn Freedom’ the overplay specifically focusses on a childish girlishness; the song is an overly sweet-sounding bubble-gum techo tune recorded in a high-pitched, soft and ‘sing-song’ light Russian female voice. The music video features a pastel pink background and mesmerising array of unicorns, seals, kittens, bunnies and rainbows float dreamily—recalling Queer camp (in Leibetseder, 2016, p.59). Throughout the track the unicorn emoji symbol next to the words ‘UNICORN FREEDOM’ continually drifts across the screen, mimicking a screen-saver for an online group chat. Choruses punctuated by a child’s giggle warn the police to better treat girls using the unicorn: ‘Hey cop don’t put us in prison, the unicorn’s here to protect us’. The techno beat increases with a fast overlay of unicorn symbols, suggesting increased protest.
Evie Macdonald, a thirteen year old Australian school girl, refused to accept what she framed as a transphobic Tweet by her newly minted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In September 2018, she pre-filmed and submitted her comment for a segment on the Australian television program ‘The Project’ on which the Prime Minister was set to appear. She responded to his tweeted comment on a Daily Telegraph article which made incorrect claims about how gender issues are dealt with in schools—suggesting teachers were trained to identify potential transgender children. Morrison tweeted the misleading article with the comment that: ‘We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids’. In her film clip response Evie Macdonald addressed the politician directly, stating:
My name is Evie Macdonald, I’m thirteen years old and I’m a transgender kid, and this is what I want to say to the Prime Minister. There are thousands of kids in Australia that are gender diverse and we don’t deserve to be disrespected like that through tweets from our Prime Minister. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of attitudes like this. I went to a Christian school where I had to pretend to be a boy and spend weeks in conversion therapy. We get one childhood and mine was stolen from me by attitudes like this (Tenplay, 2018).
Morrison, when asked what he had to say to Macdonald, appeared to back-pedal on his earlier comments with: ‘Well, I love all Australians and whatever background they come from’ (Tenplay, 2018). Evie Macdonald’s appearance had disrupted Morrison’s argument, showing that where schools do enforce gender policies on unwilling, these can actually be conservative Christian gender-tropes. Macdonald had previously spoken out in the media when it was attacking the Safe Schools Coalition program which had helped her talk to her principal about her needs (Alcorn, 2016). She had also given speeches about how helpful resources like the book ‘The Gender Fairy’ would have been to her when she was younger, when it received negative media attention (Hirst, 2018). Macdonald’s speeches and interviews refused to let powerful figureheads speak about transgender youth, without transgender youth.
@billshortenmp. Bill Shorten, Leader of the Australian Labor Party, has repeatedly refused to let any of the nation’s recent Australian-Prime-Minister-des-Jours (alternately Tony Abbott, Malcom Turnbull and Scott Morrison) rest on LGBTI rights. In his role as Leader of the Opposition, key strategies included to capitalise on the (various) Prime Ministers’ promises for debates, to push for genuine progress by publicly and repeatedly holding them to their promises. Regardless of the political gains this certainly brings Labor it has been of undeniable value to growing the direct textual recognition of LGBTI peoples’ rights in Australian legislation. This strategy has been used by Shorten and other members of his party particularly including Tanya Plibersek on issues including discrimination law (Koziol, 2018; Shorten, 2018); marriage rights (Griffiths, 2015); and Safe Schools (Medhora, 2016). In October, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to abolish religious schools’ right to expel LGBT students as a matter of urgency, after the issue came to public attention as part of the leaked recommendations of Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review. Shorten wrote a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison offering to support his promise. Shorten refused to let Morrison forget the promise, or the nation. Shorten tweeted about the promise sharing his letter to the PM, starting in October and then repeatedly. On December 2nd 2018 Bill Shorten introduced legislation on it into the Lower House of Parliament (Shorten, 2018), and pushed alongside Tanya Plibersek for its fair debate (Koziol, 2018).
Twitter Rules and Policies (Twitter, 2018), a document managed and regularly updated online, changed in November to become more inclusive of LGBTI people. November is a month associated with transgender days of remembrance, rights protests and social contribution celebration in many parts of the world and particularly the US where Twitter, Inc. is based. In November 2018 Twitter responded to the increased activism by transgender people who had been misgendered using the social media format both preceding and during the month, the surge in complaints from transgender users, and various research reports by updating its terms of service to offer greater protection. Any user who deliberately targets a trans person (or people) with abuse including misgendering and deadnaming may now be reported and banned from the platform according to the Hateful Conduct Policy (Twitter, 2018):
You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. (…)Research has shown that some groups of people are disproportionately targeted with abuse online. This includes; women, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual individuals, marginalized and historically underrepresented communities. For those who identity with multiple underrepresented groups, abuse may be more common, more severe in nature and have a higher impact on those targeted.
Explaining that bans may occur over repeated and/ or non-consensual slurs, the policy now explains this ground ‘includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals’. The Twitter policy text refused use of incorrect names (a former name no longer used can be considered a ‘dead name’) or pronouns to degrade transgender people.
@SenatorWong. Senator Penny Wong, Australian Labor Party Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, refused to accept delays to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s promised removal of exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act allowing religious schools to discriminate against staff and students on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee had recommended that the Australian Government act to remove the exemptions (Recommendation 3, 2.131), based on a range of submissions from a November inquiry into how the exemptions impacted students, teachers and school communities (Australian Parliament Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, 2018). When the Morrison Administration moved to push back the debate over the legislation to January 2019, Senator Penny Wong joined a range of politicians from diverse parties in pressuring the Prime Minister to make good on his promise to stop allowing LGBT kids to be expelled from Australian schools by removing the exemptions. Senator Wong stands out in Australian politics for her cross-party collaborations; understanding that her own refusals of discrimination are even stronger voiced alongside those of politicians across the bench. She understands that uplifting ‘unexpected’ refusals of the delay—such as she did when re-tweeting a refusal from a NSW Nationals MP like Trevor Khan—can be more subversive than authoring her own refusal in an oppositional leadership role and as Australia’s first openly out lesbian senator. Wong is celebrated for her collaborative approach of uplifting others’ voices and changing others’ minds:
Senate Opposition Leader Penny Wong is what we should seek in a lawmaker—experienced, principled, collaborative. She is steely but not uncompromising. A lesbian who accepted but did not agree with her party’s previous opposition to marriage equality, she fought internally to change the policy and emerged as one of the most respected, respectful and convincing advocates for ending that injustice. She fought beautifully for her family (…) Penny Wong is one of the best leaders in contemporary Australian history (Short, 2017).
Refusal of dominant gender and sexuality expectations or responding with Queer strategies to other imposed expectations is a relatively risky Queer approach in LGBTIQ+ and allies’ artistic, political and activist engagement. Performing refusal carries both the potential of revolutionising art-forms, policies and social practices; and the potential of losing the engagement of other people which successful artistry, politics, business and activism rely on. Further, Queer strategies of refusal in artistry and activism can carry the risks of other retributions such as verbal or physical violence for individuals—and public heckling, media backlash and targeting. However they also carry the potential to be highly impactful. The individuals, groups and organisations explored here came to their refusal from different angles and motivations—nevertheless all had a valuable impact via social media during 2018.
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Koziol, M. (2018). ‘Heartbroken’: Scott Morrison promises conscience vote on LGBTI students. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/heartbroken-law-to-end-discrimination-against-lgbti-students-delayed-until-next-year-20181205-p50kal.html
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Medhora, S. (2016). Safe Schools: Turnbull urges caution as Bill Shorten accuses him of giving in to ‘the bullies’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/mar/17/safe-schools-turnbull-urges-caution-as-bill-shorten-accuses-him-of-giving-in-to-the-bullies
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OII Australia. (2013). Third Submission on the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of People with Disabilities in Australia. Retrieved from http://oii.org.au/22613/third-submission-senate-inquiry-sterilisation/
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Reilly, K. (2018). Emma González Kept America in Stunned Silence to Show How Quickly 17 People Died at Parkland. Time World. Retrieved from http://time.com/5214322/emma-gonzalez-march-for-our-lives-speech/
Short, M. (2017). Penny Wong should be our next Prime Minister. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/penny-wong-should-be-our-next-prime-minister-20171201-gzwu9o.html
Shorten, B. (2018). Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 [No. 2]. Canberra: Australian Parliament.
Tenplay. (2018). We Talk To New PM Scott Morrison About The Au Pairs, Political Bullying And ‘Gender Whispering’. The Project Season 10. Retrieved from https://tenplay.com.au/channel-ten/the-project/extra/season-10/we-talk-to-new-pm-scott-morrison-about-the-au-pairs-political-bullying-and-gender-whispering
Twitter. (2018). Hateful Conduct Policy. Twitter Rules and Policies. Retrieved from https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/hateful-conduct-policy
US House of Representatives Democrats Permanent Selection Committee on Intelligence. (2018). Social Media Advertisements. Washington: US House of Representatives Democrats Permanent Selection Committee on Intelligence Retrieved from https://democrats-intelligence.house.gov/facebook-ads/social-media-advertisements.htm.