Social media is widely used in the Māori world. This is partly led by famous individuals: Stacey Morrison, for example, has about 20,000 followers on Instagram, and Mihingarangi Forbes has about 38,000 followers on Twitter. The Māori language features heavily in posts from many Māori public figures.

Such platforms offer marginalised communities two immensely desirable features: equality of access and localisation of interest. At least from one perspective, social media is not controlled by an elite group, so its face-value offering is of radical equality. A great deal of social media, especially apps that emphasise personal connections, such as Facebook, work well at connecting people who share a locale. These can both enhance real-life community interactions.

The nature of social media allows these people, and of course, numerous others with lower follower counts, to communicate their thoughts and ideas without traditional gatekeepers mediating whose voices are heard. It’s often the easiest way to get in touch with these public figures and certainly beats trying to get on TV for less well-known people (such as me, with my embarrassingly lowly 171 Twitter followers), and perhaps explains part of why so many of us continue to produce unpaid content for social media giants.

Beyond the individual, Māori social media use also overlaps with broader collective social efforts. Māori language revitalisation offers an example of a different kind of Māori social media engagement. The Facebook group, Maori 4 Grown Ups, has 39,000 members and is full of questions about the details as well as the basics of the Māori language. Another group, Te Mana o Te Reo Māori, has 20,000 members and is a rumaki (immersion) group where only Māori is allowed to be written. Both involve active discussions about the language, with notable advocates of te reo Māori often engaging and giving their opinions.

Numerous local community groups have proliferated, too. Many of them for local marae. These work especially well for Māori, who have a close cultural affinity for the marae they whakapapa to (trace their descent back to) but who often live elsewhere. Social media groups offer a way to maintain the sense of locality and community that can be found in real-life marae communities while creating a sense of inclusion for people situated elsewhere.

Along with many others, my church started live-streaming karakia (services) during the pandemic. I did daily karakia ata (morning prayer) while my bishop, Te Kitohi Pikaahu, led karakia ahiahi (evening prayer). The direct interaction with people, many of whom had been out of church life before the lockdowns, was wonderful and led quite a few people to return to active church involvement.

The reach social media gave to some of these efforts was encouraging. A himene (hymn) that a couple of our team members recorded had 15,000 views on Facebook. A more substantial production (to which we contributed) called “The Blessing Aotearoa/New Zealand” had over a million views on YouTube. One of the Facebook groups that took form during the pandemic, called Karakia at 7am and 7pm, still has about 10,000 people in regular attendance.

The benefits of social media enjoyed outside the Māori world have also sparked massive engagement and use within the Māori world. Much of it is extremely positive and builds into real-life communities.

But just as the benefits of social media are evident in Māori social media use, so too are the negative effects on Māori.

The difficulties of offline life show themselves in social media. One of the Māori-language groups I mentioned before has as its pinned post an instruction not to request translations into Māori—although the post is in Māori, so perhaps it might not have the instructive effect intended on those who lack fluency in te reo. While translation requests can be irritating, Māori often experience the general abusiveness and racism that seems to plague social media even more than in everyday life. The relative anonymity and lack of personal connection that social media fosters gives license to some of our baser social tendencies.

Even the apparent popularity and reach of social media engagement can be misleading. While our online karakia reached many people, our statistics reveal that many of our viewers only watch a part of our videos. I’ll take partial connection with the church over none, but our goal is not for people to become consumers cherry-picking their favourite highlights from worship. By contrast, the weekly karakia we broadcast on a Māori radio station reaches 5,000 listeners each week in the initial broadcast and is later syndicated to thousands of other listeners on Māori radio stations across the country. Feedback suggests that our listeners are more engaged than our social media users.

But deeper problems affect Māori, which social media can exacerbate.

As artificial intelligence (AI) has taken off, Māori and other indigenous communities have been particularly attentive to the ways AI exploit the content published online. Familiarity with the ways in which the state and private interests have exploited information and cultural artefacts of indigenous peoples in the past has given Māori an awareness of the risks of a “new colonialism” (as Couldry and Mejias have called it).