It is difficult to disagree with Leigh Sales’ opinion piece. The hostility on social media is out of control:
[T]he bullying and harassment now comes, not in an occasional phone call from a real person, but at a furious pace on social media from politicians’ acolytes, lackeys, fans and proxies, mostly — but not always — operating anonymously. It is non-stop, personal, often vile, frequently unhinged and regularly based on fabrications. It has the effect of an angry phone call from a politician magnified thousands of times over.
Sales complains correctly that ‘it is overwhelmingly left-leaning Twitter users who are targeting ABC journalists for abuse’, and queries ‘if whether the treatment of journalists, in particular female journalists, on its platform is acceptable’ to Twitter. The sort of abuse that female journalists suffer on social media is deplorable. It is disgusting. We need to think about how we can improve the quality of public discussion.
Sales’ opinion piece about the atrocious quality of discussion on social media was posted at 4.57am. Twelve hours and one minute later, imagine everybody’s surprise when the Institute of Public Affairs Tweeted:
Bill Leak was a cartoonist whose scribbles were regularly racist and frequently morally repugnant. He is remembered most for this cartoon:
This provides some meat to the debate about the quality of public discussion. Sales is right to complain about the treatment of female journalists on social media, but her complaint is framed entirely in terms of people she knows and likes. When it came to attacks from her friends on faceless people she doesn’t know, it’s all fair in the free speech Wild West.
Let’s dig deeper into Sales’ complaint. The attacks she receives really are vile and beyond justification. But Sales wants to include any negative experience on social media as reprehensible.
Channel Ten journalist and former Q+A host Hamish MacDonald has publicly said that one of the reasons he left the ABC was the intolerable barrage of social media abuse directed at him
Hamish MacDonald became the template for a meme on social media after he wrote:
I’m from a small regional town called Jindabyne. Dad, 80, is there. The local Doc is pleading with people from cities NOT TO COME to escape #COVID19au. 3 coaches of tourists came, raided Woolies last wk. They CAN NOT cope with more people. “The town is ready to lynch them”.
This was a complete fabrication. And it was a fabrication at a time when journalists were fuelling a significant amount of misinformation and skewed intuitions about pandemic issues. Another media personality–a Pakistani Australian–called the manager of the Jindabyne Woolworths, confirmed the story was false, and then received a torrent of racist attacks in response.
This becomes the puzzle. What response to Hamish MacDonald was acceptable to Sales? There are no consequences for publishing misinformation in Australia. MacDonald published scaremongering nonsense and… nothing. The worst he faced was people saying shitty things to him online.
And we see this pattern repeat over and over again. There are no formal consequences for publishing lies and misinformation, so the consequences are informal. In fact, we have a long tradition of this ‘rough music’: breaching community norms results in derision and humiliation. We are left to ponder the extent to which the rough music is proportionate and reasonable. Online, it’s a real problem that you’ll get a pile on of hundreds of negative comments when, like, six is proportionate.
Again, Sales is correct in her complaints about the attacks from people on social media. They are unhinged. But it’s a problem that extends far beyond social media. Australia has mainstream media outlets saying that a young Muslim woman should be hit with a car ‘as a joke’. Australian mainstream media outlets have aired the view that we ‘need’ another Stolen Generation. Australian news media have aired anti-science views about vaccines. It is easier to complain that social media is toxic when mainstream media isn’t that much better.
The examples in the previous paragraph aren’t from the Murdoch news empire and, yet, that seems to be where centrist media critiques turn nearly all of their attention. There seems to be a willingness to accept that mainstream media is a problem, but only if we are talking about Sky After Dark or the News Corp tabloids. But the toxicity is endemic across the media. Let us not forget that a senior ABC journalist posted a picture of herself with Steve Bannon and tweeted: ‘What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing.’
Speaking of which, Leigh Sales was in favour of that interview:
It becomes increasingly difficult to believe that Sales’ critique wasn’t affected by a massive blindspot here. Perhaps if she had engaged in more analysis of the media environment more generally, she would have been less inclined to call out Twitter and ask what it was going to do about the trolls and would have been more inclined to call out mainstream media outlets and ask them what they are going to do to improve the quality of public debate.