Friday, 12 July 2019

Complaints about the media on social media

This kind of tweet is so common it’s almost a meme. It usually comes from people on the left side of the political spectrum who want to object to something the government (which federally is on the right) has done. As they are doing so, they also attack the media which, many believe, has been coopted by the right side of politics. This sort of attack often ropes in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), despite other parts of the community (notably people on the right) who think that the ABC has long been coopted by the left. If that all sounds confusing, wait until you read the actual tweets.

This sample is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, and covers a period of only four days, from 8 July until 11 July (although I was looking for this kind of tweet on only 9, 10 and 11 July; the ones from 8 July were retweets that came into my feed on later days). I could have continued with the exercise indefinitely but I decided, for practical purposes, to set limits. I also decided to anonymise most of the comments but where the tweeter was a public figure or public body I have sometimes given an attribution that identifies them. Most of the comments were published on Twitter.

A lot came with the #auspol hashtag, which is not unsurprising considering their low quality and general lack of factual support. This hashtag is a rich hunting ground for journalists looking for views that come from out of left field but, on the other hand, there are sometimes enough people there with similar views that they can form collective movements in support of single ideas. This is certainly true (you will see if you read on) of people who set out to attack the media.

What follows only catalogues the complaints about the media seen by me, but during the same time period some tweets I saw were in support of the media. Some of these were about how the federal government has been cutting funding to the ABC. One I saw on 10 July in the #auspol hashtag stream was about the ABC’s investigative TV program ‘4 Corners’ and how good it was, this person thought, for the country. There were one or two about a conference on media freedom that a Liberal federal senator for NSW, Marise Payne, was attending in London at the time. And there were some tweets about the various laws that the federal government has brought in over recent years that have functioned to curtail the freedom of journalists.

So, not all comments were critical of the media: some were in fact supportive. This kind of complexity is typical of social media. About most issues there is usually a wide range of different views, not just one, single, monolithic opinion. One thing above all other stood out, however: most people who use social media read a lot of news stories. The relative visibility of journalists and the important role they play in a pluralistic democracy like Australia’s makes them a reference point when conversations get difficult as well as a target for complaints aimed at the powerful generally.

Often it seems that the people who are most reliant on the media are the ones most likely to criticise it. They find themselves in a position of dependence and they react against this situation by attacking the very people who give them the information they crave to sustain their identities. It’s sort of like a junkie blaming the dealer for his addiction except that media products, unlike illicit drugs, are completely legal. The comments included here are in four categories:
  • General complaints
  • Complaints about the ABC
  • Complaints about the Murdoch press
  • Complaints about specific stories or issues
General complaints

On 9 July at 10.48am, an account with 15,406 followers that often attacks the media tweeted, “Can anyone believe how quickly [Australian politics are] unravelling after the election? We’re now openly discussing the clear breakdown of our democracy - we’ve no Opposition - & media is focused on itself as the predictable actions of this Govt closes in on them.” At 11.19am the same day another left-wing account, which had 8282 followers at the time I took the snapshot, retweeted the earlier tweet with the following comment, “Aust's 4th Estate abdicated years ago, choosing to die as a prominent propaganda arm of a rising nationalistic authoritarian regime. The regime now turns its eye to that dead 4th Estate, & all so predictably, the ghost cries ‘help’ when there is no one left to help.” It’s possible that the reference to a ghost pointed to Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (finished circa 1602) but, in this context, what the “ghost” the tweeter wanted to refer to – presumably someone or something in the Australian public sphere – was unclear to me. Was the “ghost” the remains of the mainstream media, given cost-cutting in response to reduced revenues resulting from the emergence of the internet, or something else?

On 10 July at 10.07am a person with 177 followers who joined twitter in 2011 posted a tweet that said, “Highly relevant to the media situation here in Australia and how we're all being sold a pup by our #MSM.” The tweet contained a link to a story on Medium about two Russian news agencies being banned from the media conference already mentioned in the introduction above. The article was titled, “Government That Tortures Journalists Bans RT From Media Conference.” It wasn’t clear from this however what kind of “pup” the people of Australia are being “sold” by the mainstream media (whatever that is). The link wasn’t clear but this is often the case with Twitter. People who post there make connections between disparate things that seem obvious to them but, for other people, need more explaining.

This one’s a bit complex, so bear with me. On 8 July at 9am The Age published a tweet saying, “Federal police demanded Qantas hand over the private travel arrangements of a senior ABC journalist, a request revealing the sweeping nature of their investigation into how the national broadcaster published top-secret government material | EXCLUSIVE.” Then Sally Neighbour, a journalist who works on ‘4 Corners’ tweeted about two hours later, “This is outrageous. We should all be up in arms.” A Brisbane account with 4909 followers tweeted on 8 July at 4pm, “Only IF the whole nation is made its collective media. Politicisation of govt agencies & parlous state of federal governance happened, because it could. It’s the direct result of fourth estate’s failure to call out incremental decay, with has escalated, unchallenged.” Then on 10 July at 3.10am another account tweeted, “#msmfail are shit. Really really really shit.” And another Australian account, with 748 followers, tweeted on the same day at 9.26am, “Because 4th estate now mostly the propaganda arm of the Murdoch/IPA axis of evil.” Then (I told you this would take some time), on the same day at 10.26am another account tweeted, “Yep, & that includes #TheirABC.” All these tweets were connected by retweets and comments added on for effect.

On 11 July at 9.04pm a Melbourne account with 162 followers tweeted this into my feed: “Don't blame @AustralianLabor for the shit we're in. Labor had good policies but the #sheeple listen to the BIASED media and didn't know what they were voting for. We need to #BiasShame media in 2 reportg facts.” The woman who provided me with this piece of wisdom lives on the Central Coast in NSW and has 4331 followers.

Complaints about the ABC

On 9 July at 10.24am an Australian tweeter with 13,897 followers put up the following comment, “Oh come on, media. Please tell me you're not going to let Morrison and Dutton get away with this.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the ABC’s website that had the headline, “Australian Federal Police accessed journalists' metadata, stoking new media freedom concerns.” Considering that the media had actually written a story about the incident, it was hard, for me, to see what the objection was in this case. Perhaps there might have been grounds to complain if the ABC had not written and published a story about the incident. But, then, how would we know it had happened?

On 9 July at 6.52pm a North Queensland account with 818 followers tweeted, “Dear ABC. If your long game was for progressives to gradually tune out, you win. I refused to let you beat me, but after 6 years of LNP and another 3 to come, the country is in a massive mess and the economy in dire straits. But hey, ‘Labor, Labor Labor.’ I'm done. FU.”

On 9 July at 7.15pm an account based in Australia tweeted on the #auspol hashtag, “Stan Grant talking about 'taking taxpayer dollars ...'  what .. like #THEIRABC and then IGNORE the Charter ....   #thedrum  #AUSPOL  Ohhhh no don't mention those $Billions that we are forced to cough up to pay them.” The comment referred to the ‘Drum’ program that was on at the time the tweet was sent.

Complaints about the Murdoch press

On 8 July at 4.11pm, the Sleeping Giants account tweeted, “Just to demonstrate how Murdoch has already launched the "Kill Albo" campaign Sky News & Paul Murray actually ran with this fairy tale blaming Labor for a $2b cost to the budget. All semblance of truth is dead - its all hands print, online & TV to hold Labor underwater.” The tweet came with an embedded video showing a Sky News presenter talking. A Brisbane account with 11,226 followers the next day retweeted the tweet with a comment, “Has Paul put on a bit of weight?  I'm sure he was only a little bit huge last month. Might be wrong.” This comment was aimed at the Sky News presenter and was rather unkind, I thought, but that’s the sort of thing that happens on Twitter all the time.

On 9 July at 2.50pm an account with nine followers and lots of numbers in its handle tweeted, “Think they tried to in Tasmania, the gambling lobby threw millions into getting Labor defeated. The country is run by the mining council, gambling lobby and Murdoch. We are F******.” The tweet was retweeted by a Victorian gambling harm lobbyist with 31,746 followers at about 4.10pm.

At about 5pm on 9 July on Facebook a woman who is related to me and is a left-wing commentator who usually posts about nuclear energy, put up a photo that read, “I can’t believe Australians are comparing Rupert Murdoch to Satan. Yes he’s evil, but certainly not as evil as Rupert.”

On 10 July at 9.30am an account with the words ‘Stay angry!” in its profile and with 100 followers put up a tweet saying, “Saw two very old people intently reading The Courier Mail with Labor hate pieces prominent. Not many read it these days, just the oldies. They’ve been brainwashed but they’ll refuse to admit it. It’s not news anymore, it’s just a propaganda tool.” This kind of comment denigrating old people – especially denigrating Baby Boomers – is all-too-common on social media. There is a broad perception that Boomers are responsible for most of the problems in the world, and comments like the one shown here illustrate that feeling.

On 11 July at 8.50pm an account with 143 followers tweeted, “Unfortunately when you combine an outright crooked dominant media owner...with an incompetent, incurious, intimidated and underfunded remainder...with a disengaged, apathetic and proudly ignorant wind up with contemporary Australia.” This was retweeted by an account based in the Blue Mountains in NSW with 2936 followers at 9.44pm the same day with a comment: “This tweet below was in a thread about the NBN but is so very true of Australian politics in general.” The reference was to the suspicion that Rupert Murdoch had pressed the Liberal Party to water down the National Broadband Network as it competed with the cable TV services he owns.

Complaints about specific stories or issues

On 9 July at 10.50am an Australian account with 5701 followers tweeted within the ambit of the #auspol hashtag, “@4corners Your latest effort, posing as investigative journalism, is an insult to the intelligence. A prelude to Morrison announcing a ‘review’ of [the Murray-Darling Basin Plan] to hide evidence of their corruption. #4corners #GoneToTheDogs.” This tweet referred to the ABC’s ‘4 Corners’ show, ‘Cash Splash’, that had aired the night before on the TV. The program was about what were flagged by reporters as rorting of the system by big irrigators. Cotton Australia replied to the ABC the next morning but the fallout from the program, as usual, was considerable. This tweet, which unusually went the other way, criticised the national broadcaster for actually trying to do its job.

On 9 July at 5.15pm a Victorian account with 3749 followers tweeted, “The media's tax cuts coverage ignored substance and focused on trivia.” The tweet included a link to a story on the Crikey website that was titled “Tax cuts coverage ignored substance, focused on trivia” that was with a story by Bernard Keane, who works for the outlet. The story, which referred to the previous week’s debate in Parliament in Canberra, and in the broader community, about tax relief for Australians,  contained a lot of facts and conveyed the idea that the media coverage of the issue had been mainly superficial and skewed to support for the government. This was not surprising as Crikey tends to skew left in its editorial approach on most issues.

On 9 July at 5.03pm a journalism academic with 35,825 followers tweeted, “How the ABC once again failed to understand a complex policy issue because of a lack of dedicated policy specialists in its news room.” His tweet retweeted also a tweet from the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program that read, “How Netflix and the streaming revolution killed the NBN's dream of super fast broadband on fixed wireless.” The academic’s tweet was retweeted later on the same day by the account of a rural Australian with 3321 followers.

On 10 July at 9.08am an account I follow with 3690 followers and that makes a point of criticising the media (I worked with its holder during the time I worked at Sydney University, which was from 2003 to 2009) posted a tweet saying, “’... set to promise...’ great reporting, can't wait.” The tweet came with a retweet of one by sports commentator Peter FitzSimons who had put up a tweet about the government’s announcement about the Voice to Parliament. His tweet read, “Bravo the Government! Let's all get behind it. If the Morrison Government can achieve that in this term, it will be a great achievement, and a tangible Morrison legacy.” This tweet went with a link to a story on the ABC’s website titled, “Indigenous constitutional recognition to be put to referendum in next three years, Minister to promise.” The deprecating comment from the first tweeter was entirely typical of the person who made it.

On 10 July at 10.18am the Nation Farmers’ Federation posted a tweet that read, “EDITORIAL:  In today's @australian read @afsnsw on Monday night's @4corners & how a pattern of reporting by some quarters of @abcnews on the #MDBP points to an agenda to unravel the Plan &/or agitate for a Royal Commission, @ the expense of enviro, communities & farmers.” The tweet contained a GIF that showed a story headling on the web page of the newspaper referred to in the comment. The headline read, “Stead trickle of fibs on ABC’s Four Corners.” The Murdoch media has a longstanding policy of attacking the ABC, mainly because it competes with it and its editors think, like the Liberal Party itself, that the ABC should be privatised and not funded by the people.

On 11 July at 8.26am a Melbourne account with 10,552 followers tweeted, “Disgraceful of @theage to push this uncritical view of Morrison as a wonderful Christian while innocent refugees are tortured and persecuted under his watch.” The tweet came with a link to an opinion piece titled “PM prays with us and refuses to keep his faith in a box. Amen to that.” The piece had been written by Professor Stephen Fogarty, the president of Alphacrucis College, a Parramatta, NSW, independent school. At 9.20pm the same day, an account with 66 followers tweeted, “Fairfax always kept the balance, so sad to see @theage turn into this crap.” The reference was to the sale of the Fairfax mastheads to Channel Nine, a publicly-traded company. Neither of the people who commencted seemed to realise that the article they were complaining about was an opinion piece that had been labelled as such, with the affiliation of the person who wrote it. But this kind of unthinking criticism of the media on account of supposed bias in favour of the right side of politics is commonplace, as we have seen.

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