Wednesday, 11 April 2018

If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it online

The tone of debate in the public sphere in Australia took a dive when Leigh Sales, the ABC 7.30 program presenter, tweeted a comment that she had seen on Twitter aimed at her, following an interview she conducted on her program with the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten. Ed Hunter (@EdwardJWHunter) had tweeted in reply to someone else online:
Absolutely, Any interviewer is supposed to be impartial, but Sales virtually goes down on her knees to give any [Liberal Party politician] an on-camera blow-job, she gives them such an easy time.
Hunter’s Twitter bio reads like this:
Leftie; ALP member, I support unions, Guardian (Aus, UK, US), independent media, #renewables, Federal & Victorian Labor governments and enjoying a happy life !
Hunter is a fairly prolific tweeter and covers a range of issues in his feed, from energy policy to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s US Senate committee appearance.

Sales tweeted a screenshot of Hunter’s tweet, which was timestamped 6.28am, 11 April (the tweet has now been removed), with the following comment of her own:
Another morning, another bit of casual misogyny & abuse - basically a daily occurrence for high-profile women on social media.
Fairfax journalist Kate McClymont retweeted Sales’s tweet, with the attached screenshot, and included her own comment:
This is NOT okay. If you would not say something to someone's face, don't think the anonymity of social media makes it [in] any way acceptable to put such vile things in writing. Think before you tweet.
This whole episode is symptomatic of a wider negative animus aimed at journalists, who many in the community believe are (depending on the journalist) biased either in favour of the right or the left of politics. The whole community thinks in terms of “us and them”, in the same way they support a sports team during the Saturday afternoon football game. This kind of animus has its eloquent exponents, such as Andrew Elder, a forceful and stubborn critic of the media in Australia (Andrew and I used to work together a decade ago), but it also animates people whose command of the language leaves some things to be desired, or who, like Hunter, don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to phrasing or expression.

I wrote about the polarisation of the public sphere because of social media earlier this month, and the events of the past day or so demonstrate that things are if anything getting worse. We need to always be respectful and appropriate in our expression on social media, lest the debate become harassing or even form cause for legal redress. How to do this when people have such different abilities is the question. Perhaps we should follow McClymont’s suggestion and hesitate to say anything to people on social media that we wouldn’t say directly to their face.

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