Monday, 30 July 2018

Intolerance and incivility on social media

On Friday Julia Baird, a host of the ABC’s program ‘The Drum’, published a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about what she called “silos” in the public sphere. The article regrets the kinds of statements that are commonplace on Twitter among certain parts of the political left, which see the mainstream media (shortened to a compact acronym, “MSM”, that functions as a deprecatory epithet) as complicit in a campaign to discredit the leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten. For such people, the result in the “Super Saturday” elections on the weekend were sweet vindication.

In har story, Baird brought attention especially to the phenomenon where people criticise the public broadcaster for inviting representatives from the Institute of Public Affairs onto the show to add their views to debates it sponsors. But, she countered, the IPA (which is funded by such oligarchs as Rupert Murdoch and Gina Reinhart) had only been on the show a few times over the period under discussion. In fact, she went on, she had tried to get other conservative voices (Janet Albrechtsen, Rita Panahi, both from News Corp) on panels, but had been rebuffed by them. Such people are often seen on Sky News, which is also Murdoch-controlled.

Hence the talk of silos. Last month I reviewed a book by ABC journalist Michael Brissenden, ‘The List’, a very good thriller in which social media makes an appearance. He used the word “echo chamber” to talk about the internet. And again, in Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy’s ‘On Disruption’, which I reviewed this month, the term “echo chamber” appears.

They say that there are "echo chambers" online where people just see views that conform to their own, because people only follow people with views that are similar to theirs. But especially with Twitter hashtags, you now get to see what people of all walks of life are thinking and saying. And often tweets from people you follow might be in the form of a retweet from an ideological enemy accompanied by additional commentary refuting what the original tweet had said, but you still get to see what had been written. I think there is actually more awareness now than ever before of what people on the other side of the fence think and do.

But what is true is that the conversations that happen across the divide are very low-quality. Flame wars erupt, sarcasm is used, and people just dig in, refusing to budge an inch from cherished positions. It’s not at all like a collegiate forum where robust academic debates take place in an ambience where the right of everyone to express themselves unobstructed is respected, but more like the schoolyard, where hurtful things are said casually to exclude, to wound, and to objectify without considering the consequences.

It's not just commentators on the right of politics who have thin skins (like refusing to come on the ABC which they collectively view as biased in favour of the left). It’s the same with people on the left. I was blocked by journalist Ben Eltham for merely questioning something he had said in a tweet about immigration. And Van Badham, the progressive journalist, also blocked me, although I have no clue as to why. What people basically want online is validation of their ideas, not conversations. What they want is for their team to win, not necessarily for good policy to result from public debate. We support political parties in the same uncritical way that we support sports teams. We barrack for our own side and cheer when a player in the opposition gets sent off for a foul. We are hyper-partisan and aggressive and rude and disrespectful. And we see everything happening now because it’s all out in the open. It’s not the ABC we should be critical of, it’s ourselves.

Richard Flanagan in his piece in the Guardian yesterday about writers’ festivals and their unwillingness to tolerate unpopular views, talks about the rise of intolerance in that sector of the public sphere. But along with intolerance there’s a disturbing rise in incivility that results in people blocking one another if you merely ask a question.

We know from the record that most sexual abuse of minors is perpetrated by normal men who see an opportunity and do illegal things when they think they can get away with it. Opportunistic abuse is the general rule, not men who are exclusively attracted sexually to children. Similarly, online people will say things to other people if they are hidden behind an anonymous account that they would never admit to to their partner or parent or friend. People behave like 13-year-olds when talking to other adults on occasion in ways that a teenager would be embarrassed to admit to their mum. They do it because they can get away with it, with no negative repercussions to their life in the real world.

Combined with intolerance, this incivility has resulted in a public sphere that is often toxic and even hazardous. We know that people feel good when they support others who say they have a mental health problem but in fact they behave in ways that are inimical to good mental health. They use ad hominem attacks, they impugn unworthy motives to others under the guise of rational critique, they denigrate and shun, they mock and use sarcasm when it suits them. And their followers reward them with likes and retweets if it looks like the argument is being won, regardless of the cost to civility.

We know from election results that probably 15 percent of the electorate of Longman is made up of bigots and xenophobes because One Nation polled that high in the weekend’s election. People who would never say anything racist to anyone they meet, a friend of a friend say, in the normal course of daily life. But in the privacy of the voting booth they let rip with everything they’ve got. Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump are the price society pays for a core freedom of pluralistic democracies everywhere they exist. Incivility and intolerance are the price we pay to enjoy the benefits available through social media.

A final word on the subject of criticism of the “MSM” online. It’s very disturbing to see, when the media is more and more vulnerable each year, people putting the boot in. When someone from the opposing team is injured on the field after a particularly nasty clash, you give him your hand to help him get up to his feet again, you don’t start kicking him in the face.

Honestly. If people want better media, they have plenty of opportunities to use their cash to support a media outlet of their own choosing. There are more options now than ever before. Back on 26 March 2013 I wrote a blogpost about the Australian media scene. Now, things have changed. APN News and Media has been renamed Here, There & Everywhere and is now controlled, to all intents and purposes, by Murdoch. And then we have the Fairfax acquisition by Channel Nine. But now you also have the Guardian, the New Daily, and the Saturday Paper all doing good journalism and employing journalists with enough time to give stories the attention they deserve. The message I offered people in 2013 is the same now: use your money wisely. But now I also want to add: put up or shut up.


Matt Moore said...

Matthew - I think we tend to misremember the past. Everyone harks back to a time of genteel, collegiate debate. And that may have actually existed in certain elite spaces (media, politics).

However levels of both violence and crime in Western societies have dropped dramatically over the last 25 years. Levels of political violence in the physical realm have also decreased. Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were regular riots, strikes, political assassinations and political terrorism. Both Ezra Klein and David Runciman, in different ways, have cast a sceptical eye over the claim that our current political situation is uniquely "uncivil". I think it is actually less violent - but you are more likely to encounter rudeness on the internet. And that rudeness can escalate into something that can ruin your life:

I do think think that the long 1990s (between 9 Nov 1989 and 11 Sept 2001) was a period of abnormal political stability in the West. But it's very abnormality means that we should not use it as a measuring rod.

Matthew da Silva said...

Matt - What you say is unquestionably true but what is being discussed in this post and in that CNBC article I tweeted to you earlier today is the mob behaviour of people online. This tribalism has not been visible in the public sphere for a long time, not since the mass movements of the 19th century that brought in more representative government across Europe. Mass protests used to be the way the government was made aware of important grievances among the community. Now, it is visible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year on Twitter. As Katharine Murphy noted in her book, 'On Disruption', (reviewed on this blog on 9 July), Donald Trump is the result of this kind of activism by communities on social media. In his book, 'The List', a political thriller (which I reviewed on this blog on 27 June), Michael Brissenden shows how social media can be used to mobilise large parts of the community to bring about political change. The streets are safer but the agora is often toxic and unhealthy. Which is the point of my post.

Matt Moore said...

Let me go back to your original blog post:

"What they want is for their team to win, not necessarily for good policy to result from public debate. We support political parties in the same uncritical way that we support sports teams. We barrack for our own side and cheer when a player in the opposition gets sent off for a foul. We are hyper-partisan and aggressive and rude and disrespectful."

We you say "we", you are are referring to the minority of Australians engaged political arguments on social media. Most people I know IRL do not fit this description. They are not that partisan. I think it would be a mistake to assume that the Australian agora is #auspol Twitter.

Matthew da Silva said...

I think people do things online that they would never do in real life. They take sides, the say outrageous things, they slam people and they heckle and they gloat at blunders in a truly obscene way. These people are our neighbours, our work colleagues, out family members. Unleashed.

Matt Moore said...

"I think people do things online that they would never do in real life."

That is all true. But we also need to be realistic about how often this happens. Most of the time, most of Australia is not doing this.