Monday, 13 August 2018

Social media says: “It’s the MSM!”

Actually, it’s the Australian version of Donald Trump’s “fake news”, except here it’s a purely grassroots movement aimed at emasculating the mainstream media (the epithet “MSM” is parleyed about enthusiastically by these nongs on social media). The most recent target of a pile-on orchestrated by a number of prominent spokespeople was Alice Workman, the BuzzFeed journalist who broke the scandal that has undermined the career of a politician from the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Emma Husar.

Allegations that were aired in the media of poor conduct have been referred to the Department of Finance by the NSW ALP. Sexual misconduct that was alleged to have been undertaken have been set aside by the party’s arbitrator.

Husar came under attack in the public sphere after rumours about bad behaviour that had been aired at an internal party inquiry became public knowledge due to a leak to Workman, who went ahead and printed them.

We know that women in politics are held to higher standards than men. You only have to look at the way that Barnaby Joyce has been gradually rehabilitated since his climbdown from the deputy leadership of the Coalition in February this year after revelations he had gotten a staffer pregnant. Joyce is due to headline the Canberra Writers’ Festival where he will promote a book later this year. Julia Baird, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) host of its weeknight panel show ‘The Drum’, wrote a book which I read about the way women are treated in politics that was published in 2004. It is titled ‘Media Tarts’. So the case of Husar must have brought back memories for her.

But the way that the media have been treated by people online is equally despicable. Workman was doing her job, reporting what had been leaked by a staffer attached to Husar. Her editors will furthermore have been involved in making the decision to publish. Bernard Keane at Crikey wrote a good summary of the debacle, showing how this case was different from that of Joyce (although there were claims of misuse of public resources in Joyce’s case as well).

But this is not the only instance of poor treatment of the media by the mob on social media. The attacks are becoming routine, and the ABC is in the firing line a lot of the time, portrayed as too right-wing by such people at the same time as it is attacked by partisan actors on the right, such as the editors working at News Corp, for being too left-wing. You just can’t win.

At the centre of the recent drama is an outfit enticingly named ‘Independent Australia’ which is anything but independent, in fact is avowedly partisan, taking a determinedly progressive line in its stories, even while it boasts to people watching that it is independent of any larger concern. The editor of this outfit is named Dave Donovan and he has over 23,000 followers. Another major player, Denise Shrivell, has over 10,000 followers. She makes a regular podcast that is broadcast online.

A person I know from back in the day when Twitter was a place for like-minded early-adopters, Jennifer Wilson, who writes for them for time to time, has 11.000 followers. She has been very vocal in condemning Workman. Jennifer changed her Twitter name following the crisis on 10 August that saw the ALP revelations in the media. It had been “Glorious Pecora” (to highlight another case of hubris by people working in politics) but when progressive commentator Van Badham had a go at her over the current controversy, she changed it to “That Sheep Person”, turning an intended slight into a badge of honour. These are the kinds of dynamics that are at play in these disputes online.

Such people are listened to by large segments of the community on social media, so their views are undoubtedly important. But they are fuelling grievances that are precisely the same as those felt by followers of Donald Trump: that the elites (represented here by the hated “MSM”) are out of touch and unaccountable and need to be brought into line. It’s an ugly populism that is being fed by people whose only interest lies in increasing the number of Twitter followers they have.

The entire episode was summed up for me by a tweet on 10 August from @Jayne73136490 that went, “OK twitter [sic] I am calling on @emmahusarmp not to resign. Anyone that agrees, and was disgusted by @workmanalice gutter journalism retweet.” The tweet had about 230 retweets by early the next morning, and over 170 ‘likes’. 

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