Sunday, 13 October 2019

Odd shots, 05: Boycotting the right-wing media

This is the fifth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This survey started on 2 September and continued for about a month. It covers a range of different topical issues centring on the desire of some in the community to shut down parts of the media in order to promote narrow ideological aims. I probably should preface this post by saying that I am not a blind supporter of any political party, and vote, when elections are held, on the basis of the policies they put forward. I hope saying this can prevent any misunderstanding. All times shown are Australian Eastern Standard Time.

So, an extreme example first. It arrived in my feed on 9 September at 7.57am when a self-identified Philadelphia social-justice warrior tweeted, “Deplatformed alt-right personalities Milo, Jacob Wohl, and Based Dragon are all having a collective meltdown together about how their Telegram audiences have stalled at extremely low numbers right now and it's glorious. Sweet, sweet nazi [sic] tears.” Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging and voice over IP service, according to Google. At 8.06am a man named Derek Powazek retweeted this tweet with a comment of his own: “This is why deplatforming works. These grifters lose interest when their hate speech stops getting amplified.”

I have no idea how much attention the people named by the guy from Philadelphia get on social media as I am not interested in the kinds of content such people produce. Milo Yiannopoulos is, according to Wikipedia, “a British far-right political commentator, polemicist, public speaker, and writer”. Wikipedia says Wohl “is an American far-right conspiracy theorist, fraudster, and internet troll”. The only indication of the existence of “Based Dragon” is a Google result that cryptically says, “BANNED from YouTube, lost 9K subs, 20 Year Old Zoomer, Against ALL Tyranny”; this person’s Twitter account is no longer active. A “zoomer” is a person born in the mid-1990s to early-2000s (Generation Z) and the label is a play on the word “boomer” (Baby Boomer).

This is an extreme example but the enmity between the left and the right extends also to more uncontroversial media outlets that have a conservative agenda. Closer to home, in my own country, for example, there had been a campaign to get people in the community to cancel their subscriptions to Murdoch newspapers. On 10 September at 1.17am freelance journalist, author and TV personality Benjamin Law tweeted:
Stoked to see people still unsubscribing from the @australian because of its corrosive and often shithouse "reporting". 
Also wonder if the Oz's senior gatekeepers are aware of the extent to which their own staff are disappointed and distressed over how the newspaper's devolving.
The tweet came with a screenshot showing something who had posted something somewhere (little was clear from the evidence visible) about unsubscribing from the Australian (a Murdoch paper) because of their editorial policies on trans people and refugees. This man went on:
I explained the work we do with the trans and refugee communities and he [the News Corp employee] said “I’m just turning off the recording mechanism sir”. He than [sic] explained that he himself was a refugee and how distressing it was for him and many others in the call centre to have to deal with the daily “news” that was printed in the Australian and he wanted to thank me for cancelling my subscription. Not what I expected!
Another media outlet that had come under pressure was Macquarie Media (owned by Channel Nine, a publicly listed company), which owns Sydney radio station 2GB. On 26 September the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH; also owned by Channel Nine) ran a story about 2GB titled “Alan Jones lashes corporate cowardice over activist 'blackmail'” that was based on an interview with the 2GB radio shock jock. In the story Jones complained about companies being pressured to act on the basis of the opinions of the majority of climate scientists. The story also said:
[A] boycott against Mr Jones and Sydney radio station 2GB is being driven by online activist groups including Sleeping Giants Australia and Mad F--king Witches. It comes after Mr Jones said on air that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should "shove a sock down" New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's throat after she criticised Australia's approach to dealing with climate change.
The Twitter handles for these groups of people are @slpng_giants_oz and @MadFckingWitch. The comments about the New Zealand PM that were mentioned in the article were made on 15 August and Jones had apologised, the SMH story went on, the day after they were made. The SMH story went on:
More than 100 brands have distanced themselves from Jones and in some cases the entire Macquarie Media network in a move that is estimated to have cost the radio business more than $1 million. Macquarie chairman Russell Tate has since put Jones' show under review.
In the interests of transparency, the story also said:
Macquarie Media, the owner of Jones radio station 2GB, is 54.5 per cent owned by Nine Entertainment Co, parent company of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Nine is in the process of buying the rest of the shares in the radio group it does not yet own.
At the time the post you are reading was made, Nine had bought more of the shares of Macquarie Media that it did not already own, including those owned by Jones.

But Jones and 2GB were not the primary targets of people’s anger in September. Because of the strength of the rancour felt by many in the community over the issue of climate change there was one unexpected, and significant, result. On 18 September at 3pm the Australian’s account tweeted, “Academic website, The Conversation, has banned publication of comments that dispute man-made climate change and will lock the accounts of readers who attempt to post dissenting views.”

The next day at 8.01am a Melbourne man named Andrew Mackenzie, with 605 followers, tweeted, “Hurrah for those that stand up for science and the pursuit of knowledge, unlike your comic book of opinionating bigots. Jeez, Murdoch really has debauched what last vestiges of quality you once had.”

I replied, “Yes, but this is not the way to go ..” and Mackenzie answered me: “I disagree. On one side there's a cashed up organised lobby group, funding institutions, lobbyist and campaigns to discredit science. On the other, a world on fire. Their position is to respect the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change and not opinions and lies.” I replied, “Sure, that's all fine. But censoring people's comments in this way is not a good thing and sets a disturbing precedent. What other issue will be policed in this way? I think it reflects badly on the news outlet.” He replied, “If I said I had compelling evidence that smoking can be good for you, and more young people should start smoking, would it be censorship to refuse to publish it. In my understanding of where 97% consensus is at, this is the same.”

I didn’t let the matter rest as I felt strongly about the right to free speech which, I thought, the publication was compromising. So I replied to Mackenzie, “In the 1990s the High Court said that the Constitution protects political speech. It is not an unqualified privilege, but that court case demonstrated the importance of allowing people to voice their ideas in public. You can't make stupidity illegal.” He replied to me, “You're confusing freedom of speech (yes, we are free to make idiots of ourselves) with a publishing policy (not to publish idiots). Are you saying that anything other than agreeing to publish the opinions of idiots is censorship?” And me: “Yes.” He relied, “Ookee dokey. I'll just leave there.”

Later that day the progressive media outlet the Guardian published a story about a Liberal politician, Eric Abetz, who had compared the Conversation’s position on comments to the Nazis. At 11.42am I saw a tweet, with a link to the story in it, from the paper’s Gabrielle Jackson. At 12.59pm an astronomer named Michael Brown tweeted in relation to Abetz’s comments:
Abetz confusing #science with a comments shouting match and then invoking Hitler is totally wild. 
“This ugly, unscientific, totalitarian, arrogant approach taken by the @ConversationEDU is the exact opposite to the principles of scientific endeavour.”
The debate continued the next day. On Thursday 19 September at 10.39am Linda Vergnani, a Sydney-based freelance journalist, tweeted, “Brilliant decision by The Conversation where editorial team in Australia is implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating #climatechange deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.”

On Monday 23 September at 9.39pm Andrew Laird, a Victorian barrister with 23,586 followers, tweeted, “A significant element within Australia’s privately owned media actively promotes climate science denial. Against that backdrop it’s entirely reasonable for a serious website like @ConversationEDU to say there’s no place for such nonsense on its website.” The tweet had had 196 likes and 83 retweets when I saw it.

Murdoch’s Queensland tabloid newspaper then came in for some flak on account of its coverage of and event, a protest against government inaction on climate change. On 21 September at 7.18pm an account named ”politic@l spinner” with 12,313 followers tweeted, “Guess which newspaper printed this story and shared it. Yep that right wing @couriermail ffs.. #auspol please boycott it. Climate strikes: hoax photo accusing Australian protesters of leaving rubbish behind goes viral.” The Courier-Mail is a Murdoch tabloid based in Brisbane, the capital city of the state of Queensland.

The comment contained a reference to a photo that had circulated during this day that was supposed to have shown litter left by protesters from a climate strike held in Hyde Park the previous day, the Friday. The photos had been ridiculed by many people. For a start the Sydney protest hadn’t even been held in Hyde Park (it took place in the Domain, which is nearby). A Guardian story headlined “Climate strikes: hoax photo accusing Australian protesters of leaving rubbish behind goes viral” went online at 12.18pm. It said:
Though it lacks any verification, and was debunked in April, the image and false caption have been shared 19,000 times in 12 hours, and thousands of times from copycats.
And it went on:
However, the photo is not from a climate strike, not from Friday and was not taken in Australia. It is from a marijuana-based festival called 420 held in London in April 2019.
All of these things led to some people making strong statements, notably, on Tuesday 24 September, Kerry O’Brien, the former host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) ‘7.30’ nightly magazine program. On this day he taklked about his appearance on the ABC’s ‘Q and A’ program the night before. ‘Q and A’ airs every Monday night and has become something of a cultural institution. It allows members of the audience to ask questions of people sitting on the panel. O’Brien had been on the panel that Monday night.

When I heard him speak he was talking about climate change and how the science is, in his view, so overwhelmingly in favour of the view that humans are causing it and that we need urgent action to counter its effects that, he said, opposing views should be ignored by journalists. “I’m not saying we need to become activists,” he confusingly said, then went on to say that journalists should just ignore views that gave an alternative view on climate change. So, he was precisely saying that journalists should become activists. The debate was all becoming very strange, with otherwise sensible people, motivated by passion, saying things that made no sense.

But other people with influence were taking the same line. At 2.36pm on the same day the account of an academic from Charles Sturt University named Richard McLellan tweeted: ”’Readers are warned that this article may contain lies’. This should be a warning posted on all such articles.” The tweet contained a link to a story from Network Ten’s website 10daily that had the title ‘Statement from Sussan Ley - Environment Minister’. It contained 140 words. Network Ten is owned by US TV network CBS. The story outlined the government’s position on carbon emissions. The statement said, in part:
If the purpose of the protest is to draw my, or the government’s attention, to climate change than I can assure everyone that our attention, is already there. 
We are taking real and coordinated global action on climate change, while ensuring our economy remains strong. 
We are on track to overachieve on our 2020 target by 367 million tonnes and our $3.5 billion Climate Solutions Package maps out to the last tonne how we will meet our 2030 target.
And at 2.41pm Ketan Joshi, a journalist with 21,758 followers, tweeted, “Media outlets have largely stopped granting a platform to anti-vaxxers - even elected ones. What's it going to take for climate deniers to be treated the same way?”

It wasn’t just climate change that was making people in the community call for media bans, either. For example, on 4 October at 6.51am the very popular @noplaceforsheep tweeted, “It’s time to stop giving platforms to Newstart bashers, in the same way that it’s time to stop giving platforms to climate change deniers. There is no *balance* issue in either matter.” The “Newstart” reference was to comments made the previous day, by Anne Ruston, the Liberal government’s social services minister. As characterised in a Guardian story published on that day Rushton had said, “an increase to the unemployment benefit Newstart would end up in the hands of drug dealers and pub owners.”

Now, in the US, CNN, the cable TV channel, had done something similar to the Converrsation, so it wasn’t just in Australia that the media were boycotting dissenting views. On 4 October the SMH ran a story titled, “CNN refuses to run Trump campaign ad.” The story started like this:
CNN said on Thursday that it would not run a new ad from President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, saying that the 30-second spot about former Vice President Joe Biden contains inaccuracies and unfairly attacks the network's employees.
Not all journalists, however, are sanguine about taking this kind of approach to views that lie outside the mainstream. This became clear on 28 August when, at 9.31pm, the Washington Post’s White House correspondent Josh Dawsey tweeted, “Beto O'Rourke Ejects Breitbart News Reporter from Event.” The tweet came with a link to a post on the website of the right-wing media outfit Breitbart titled, ‘Beto O’Rourke Ejects Breitbart News Reporter from Event at Historically Black College.’ Breitbart is a far-right-wing news outlet.

Attached to this tweet, on 29 August at 12.17am New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg added a comment, “No matter what you think of Breitbart, this is wrong. No campaign should be deciding who gets to cover its events. An event is either open to the press, or it is not. Freedom of the press is not a conditional right — it applies to every American regardless of their views.” Then at 5.18am on the same day Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard University professor, tweeted:
Matt, taking different approach to this as you and I have talked on and off the air about Facebook.  I don't see how your argument isn't exactly what Zuckerberg tried to sell us for the last few years: that for him to assert any agency over the platform denied free expression. 
You've covered Facebook brilliantly and you know that Zuck's argument was, in fact, a form of agency, that by deciding NOT to decide he was in fact making a normative judgment.   
So what if a campaign -- a platform -- were to do what Zuck never did: to make a calculated judgment on what constitutes news.  Yes, slippery slope I get it. But the slope works the other way too, that to deny any agency means you are not protecting the value of free speech? 
Anyway, after that tweet, I couldn't quite get why I disagreed. Sure, a campaign may kick out the NYTimes. They will likely suffer more than you; the market does work. But for conspiracy/lies/not news/foreign ops, why not let a "platform" exert agency?
In early October I found out about something called “cancel culture”. I hadn’t heard this term before, but it is a thing. Looking on Wikipedia I found that it refers to the ways that people use social media to launch criticism at prominent individuals.

The definition on this web page reminded me of the boycotts that consumers launch at companies that offend shared norms, which is why I included it here. On 3 October at 3.09pm an account named “Workers, Jesus, and Mariah Carey Stan Account” with 1774 followers tweeted, “Bespoke: cancel culture is the only kind of culture that has ever existed, all communities have norms, and cancel culture is only visible now because we have multiple competing sets of norms.” The tweet that this person was responding to with their tweet had been blacked out so I didn’t see the context in which it was issued, but it rang a bell so I put it in here.

But what is the cost of this kind of conflict that is playing out? And what do we risk losing if we boycott media outlets? Maybe all people in the community deserve to have their views heard, however much others might object to hearing them. On 2 September a story appeared in BuzzFeed’s US bureau about a right-wing “Straight Pride” march that had been held in Boston. It seemed unremarkable and, indeed, inevitable to see this kind of story in my social media feed considering the increased polarisation of the media and considering the tendency for organisations such as universities to deplatform people with right-wing opinions.

The way that people exclude those with opposing views, had led, in my mind, to events such as this march. There is no tolerance for opposing views and people block and unfollow and ignore, and verbally abuse, those who express views that differ from their own. Calls for media boycotts are a symptom of the same problem, which is merely intolerance.

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