On the morning of Friday, August 28th, the Australian Border Force, the Australian "government agency tasked with border protection and national security duties," issued a press release announcing something called 'Operation Fortitude,' the consequences of which would lead to social media mockery, questions of illegality, and spontaneous protest intense enough to have the whole operation canceled.
'Operation Fortitude' was to be a joint effort with the Victoria Police to monitor and prevent crime in the Central Business District of the city of Melbourne. It seemed like the usual sort of practice operation that a local police force would undertake, this time concentrating on public transportation, until the office of the Australian Border Force issued a press release. The release quoted ABF Regional Commander Don Smith as saying "ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with. You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it's only a matter of time before you're caught out."
The statement was only caught by a few people initially, but that was enough because those who were disturbed by it, including Buzzfeed Australia's politics editor Mark Di Stefano, began to share it through social media.
The Orwellian nature of Australian Border Force is becoming way too real. This is not good. https://t.co/JYcliQW6yt- Mark Di Stefano (@MarkDiStef) August 28, 2015
As Big Brother-esque as the ABF's plans were, the bigger problem was that the ABF's plans may have been straight up illegal. After the press release was shared via social media, several lawyers, including Leanne O'Donnell, began tweeting the relevant laws that could be violated by the ABF's actions.
Will ABF be using their powers under s 188 of the Migration Act for 'Operation Fortitude'? http://t.co/7h17GfuQJY- Leanne O'Donnell (@MsLods) August 28, 2015
The ABF attempted to clarify in another press release that it would not be doing exactly what its initial press release said it would be doing. It also tweeted ...
The ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets & does not target on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity 3/4- ABF (@AusBorderForce) August 28, 2015
... but the damage was already done. Mockery on social media quickly followed.
"Just on the lookout for anti-social behaviour, sir" pic.twitter.com/K617NLpJ0H- Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) August 28, 2015
More important than that was the use of social media to organize actual protest. While the ABF was still reeling, people were getting out on the streets to show their opposition to the operation.
By the afternoon, the ABF had canceled a press conference, and soon after had canceled the whole operation, partly because they couldn't get out of their little press box. (A full timeline of events can be found here.)
Border Force people are in the little box. Said they'll leave when it is safe to do so. pic.twitter.com/MmdixI43Dr- Josh Taylor (@joshgnosis) August 28, 2015
I don't know enough about Australian politics to make any deep comments about the matter, but I can say that the events on August 28th represent a rather acute example of why public officials must be careful about how they communicate with the public. Word gets around quickly these days, and social media allows those in agreement to organize at a speed faster than we've ever seen before. Those in power should be aware of it, or risk looking like fools.