Saturday, 7 April 2018

We have internalised the partisan habits of the elites

On the ABC’s 7.30 program this week former PM John Howard was interviewed and he made a comment about the troubles that political parties are having these days keeping leaders in place for any length of time. Naturally, he is concerned about rumours that Tony Abbott will try to destabilise Malcolm Turnbull, and he regretted the Liberal Party’s poor showing in the polls. He added that the next federal election, which is due in 2019, is winnable by the governing party but said that it was important for everyone in it to pull in behind the leader and show loyalty. Howard famously became the second-longest-serving head of an Australian government before he was unceremoniously ditched by the electorate in 2007 in favour of the Australian Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd.

But then Howard made a comment that seems to have become accepted wisdom these days, although it was not so even a few years ago: social media has changed the nature of debate in the public sphere. This was the main reason he gave for the turnstile that party leadership has become now in Australian politics, and I think the comment represents an important change in the way we are now talking in the mainstream about public debate and commentary. No doubt Donald Trump’s attachment to his Twitter account has had something to do with accelerating this change, but there are other things in play as well.

I wrote about social media last month, in a post that quoted Ev Williams, the founder of Blogger and Twitter, talking about how the platform had changed in the years since it was founded. It has become more like the world, he said, whereas previously it had been characterised by the participation of an elite cohort of early-adopters most of whom had progressive political views. Now, he said, it is less clubby and more closely resembles the broader community. There are people who cannot spell, people who don’t know how to use apostrophes (or even commas), and people who do not know how to structure their thoughts in a logical form. It is messy, cantankerous, potentially dangerous, and also often violently partisan, a place where people nail their colours to the mast of party policy platforms as they engage in a battle for supremacy. A battle of ideas with clear outcomes: to be with the party of government or to be with the party of opposition. We staunchly back our teams.

Especially with Twitter, where you don’t have to have people follow you back in order to see their posts, you are also exposed to a wide variety of views, both those of your own side and those of the opposition side. It’s certainly a truism that social media creates homogeneous communities (echo chambers) where people are only exposed to views that agree with their own personal views. I think the opposite is true, especially when you think of how hashtags are used to aggregate related information. Hashtags, which can be used to create tweetstreams in second-level apps like TweetDeck, were an innovation introduced not by Twitter the company, but by people in the community that used it. Using hashtags, you can easily see comments by people whose views are ideologically different from your own. But even without them, people you follow are continually posting comments by people whose views they disagree with, in order to make a rhetorical point, or to stimulate discussion. That is how social media works, as has been shown in studies.

One thing that is remarkable however is that people are less temperate, more partisan, and more brittle in their dealings on social media, than they were even five years ago. Political parties are the architects that establish platforms of belief that people cleave to as they negotiate the high seas of commentary, as issues are debated furiously as soon as they are announced in the media. Whereas politicians used to have days or weeks of free air to refine a policy once it was announced publicly, now there is practically zero time free before the idea that has been released has been dissected, discussed, and given over to damnation or to celebration by the thousands and millions of active participants online.

The role of the media has also changed. As news organisations participate in the relentless news cycle, they are awarded points, even to the level of individual journalists, who accrue thousands of followers in their journeys online, for objectivity and thoroughness or they are given discounts for perceived bias. It doesn’t seem to matter which outlet you work for – right wing for the Murdoch press, left wing for outlets like the Guardian – there will be people out there who will excoriate you for your perceived failings and others who reward you with public praise for getting the story right. People such as the managing director of the ABC get a lot of play in this environment. Rupert Murdoch’s name has been used to launch dozens of distinct anonymous Twitter handles critical of the opinions of his editors and reporters. And journalists retain their Twitter handles as they move from organisation to organisation, so they accrue benefit from their work and reap the rewards well into the future.

Journalists are as likely to block people who are intemperate as are other participants in the public sphere. Some commentators might gain a reputation for blocking anyone whose views differ from their own, or else they might be more benign and relaxed about the slings and arrows of casual interaction. Some of the language can become quite heated on Twitter as people debate the intricacies of one policy point or another, and people tend to treat enemies as deserving criticism if they see someone, whoever they are, disagreeing with them. It is remarkable how easily we have internalised the habits of politicians as we debate policy in public and as we each try to sway broader public opinion.

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