I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.
Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.
Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.
The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.
The interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.
The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.
But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.
From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.
Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.
When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).
Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)
The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.
Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.
An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)
The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:
Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?
Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.
In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?
While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.
Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.
Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:
- Abbott refused to put firm timing on business tax cuts and the paid parental leave scheme
- He continued to move away from promising a surplus and spoke instead about a “pathway to returning to surplus”
- He claimed the Coalition had to find much less than $70 billion in savings
- He attempted to portray commitments being made by Gillard, which dont have to be fulfilled until after the election, as ‘booby-traps’.
Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.
Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:
There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well – with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.
It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.
We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.
We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.
Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.
After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.
If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.
Here’s my latest at AusVotes 2013…
Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.
Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.
As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.
This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]
The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verifiedinformation. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.
Click here to keep reading…
Let’s face it: Australian politics is in a bad state. Politicians spew spin-doctored soundbites, journalists hyperbolise truth into click-fodder, and television talking heads blare contrarian rhetoric at each other’s unlistening faces.
Meanwhile, the community’s political conversation is equally impoverished: reduced in most cases to debating the appearance, flaws and proclivities of our national leaders.
It’s difficult to say whether Australians’ superficial interest in politics prompted the tabloidisation of our democratic processes, or whether the opposite occurred. Accusations of blame are regularly flung in both directions.
Regardless, the public’s general lack of political knowledge is also a factor. It can be pretty daunting to launch into a political discussion without some understanding of how our bicameral parliamentary system works, how policies are developed, what political philosophies underpin our party system, and what constitutes smart politics, sound policy or a great yarn.
In the absence of this awareness, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama or distraction of the day – be it the Prime Minster’s new glasses, the Opposition’s latest dummy spit in Question Time, or an incremental move in one of the myriad opinion polls.
But there’s a change brewing. People are asking, learning and talking about politics in a manner that’s somewhat unexpected.
Twitter has been known to offer up a range of salutary experiences to anyone brave enough to venture an opinion on politics, but not many of those experiences would be considered particularly positive or enjoyable. Twitter was created long after trolls, shills and sock-puppets came into existence, but these beasts have thrived there and it’s become their natural hunting ground.
Up until recently, it was rare for respectful and open-minded political discussion to take place on Twitter. Regardless of one’s views, there always seemed to be a political staffer or other vested interest lurking nearby ready to delegitimise any contrary views and demonise those who hold them. It was the antithesis of democracy in action, with political interests actively seeking to close down and destroy any dissenting opinions.
And yet… there’s a growing number of brave souls venturing out into the Twitter plains. They’re asking the most basic of questions, because they’re seeking the most basic of answers. In the absence of a civic education and with the news media focused only on hyperdrama, these voters are turning to social media to learn the fundamentals. They want to know things like: why can’t a Senate election be held before August 3; what is caretaker mode and when does it start; why/how are the voting systems difference for the House of Representatives and the Senate; how can Barnaby Joyce run for a seat in NSW when he’s a Senator in Queensland; will a successful no confidence motion cause an early election; what’s a margin of error and why is it important in opinion polls; and why do politicians only care what the voters in their electorates think? And so on.
Twelve months ago, newbie questions like this would have been ignored or met with derision. As I said, Twitter is not a place for the faint-hearted. But now, many such questions receive meaningful responses and can lead to broad and rich political discussions.
Quite often, the ones providing the answers are political bloggers. The willingness of bloggers to engage with their readers, answer questions, discuss criticisms and consider other perspectives distinguishes them from the vast majority of journalists and commentators in the traditional media.
Thankfully, there are at least some journalists who’ve quickly and adeptly grasped that there’s a growing number of political readers who seek a genuine connection with their writers. And those readers will go where the interactivity takes them.
It’s still early days, but the one good thing the Twitter echo-chamber could do this election year is be a conduit between those who want to know more about Australian politics and those who are willing to explain and discuss it. One way or another, either through traditional or social media, blogs or simple discussion, more Australians are going to learn how their democracy works.
Educated voters are more discerning and they’ll be more demanding. They’ll want better behaviour from their politicians, better policies from the parties, and better reportage from the media.
This could make for very interesting civil discourse over the next few years.
This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.
The people who discuss Australian politics on Twitter seem to pride themselves on their antipodean egalitarianism.
While you’d like to think this means a fair go for all, it’s more likely to be the justification for bringing anyone with an ounce of hubris down a peg or two. The more self-centred the target, the more likely they will be mocked and the greater the tendency for Twitter’s pack behaviour to take hold.
Unsurprisingly, left-wing online activism group GetUp! gets its fair share of Twitter ridicule. GetUp’s propensity to claim sole credit for any achievement on their various campaigns has led people to jokingly tweet “thanks GetUp!” for decidedly unrelated achievements such as the bus being on time or their coffee being hot.
Introspection is not one of Twitter’s strong points, skipping as it does continually between innumerable snippets of online immediacy. So it’s not surprising that Twitter’s growing resemblance to GetUp!, including its tendency to default to outrage and its inflated sense of self-importance, may not have occurred to many of those who gather there.
Like GetUp!, Twitter’s activism is based on raising the level of outrage while lowering the threshold of engagement. This minimal-effort model, requiring only the click of a “like” button or the addition of a twibbon, achieves little more than giving the supporter a warm inner glow.
Yet GetUp! proclaim the number of people who’ve signed their petitions as an indication of their influence. Similarly, some Twitter campaigners have begun to point to the number of their followers or retweets as being representative of theirs. Neither metric is a credible indication of what action, if any, a person would be prepared to take in real life to support a particular cause.
Nevertheless, Twitter is now being credited for being the principal player in a number of recent campaigns. Apparently it has not only been instrumental in locating missing individuals and mainstreaming the debate on sexism, but most recently saving a whistleblower from being publicly discredited.
But what is really achieved by people rallying for causes on Twitter? At best, new communities of interest are created and communication channels established to share information. At worst, Twitter serves as little more than a cheer squad, noisily drawing attention to the scoreboard while having minimal impact on the outcome.
And this is the nub of the issue when it comes to online campaigning. There’s a yawning disconnect between what people say they will do in support of a cause and what they actually do. Twitter has the potential to bridge that divide, but it has rarely done so.
What did Twitter actually do to find Jill Meagher? The same as it did to stop Kony: not much other than generate a lot of clicks. It has subsequently done nothing to make the streets safer at night, and some elements of Twitter have even campaigned against expansion of the CCTV system that ultimately helped to locate the missing journalist.
What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women? Other than provide a rallying point for people to voice their displeasure and threaten consumer boycotts, Twitter did nothing to change Jones’ chauvinism, or discredit it in the eyes of his audience.
Admittedly, Twitter did rally to protect whistleblower Peter Fox from attempts to demolish his reputation. The speed with which relevant information was shared across Twitter helped to counter his detractors’ campaign of disinformation and spin.
But Twitter’s protection of Fox does not herald the creation of a new safe haven for whistleblowers more generally. One’s cause must align with Twitter’s in order to qualify for such protection. Neither James Ashby nor Kathy Jackson, for example, were offered similar levels of protection by the Twitter collective, undoubtedly because their allegations were politically partisan in nature.
Twitter’s burgeoning reputation for making a difference falls well short of reality.
Like GetUp!, its ability to affect real change is four-fifths self-promotion and one-fifth wishful thinking. Like GetUp!, it can attract eyeballs and generate headlines by anointing preferred causes and initiating outrage. But also like GetUp!, Twitter has shown little ability to turn digital chatter into real action.
Effective campaigns deliver votes, change minds or influence behaviour. When Twitter starts producing these types of outcomes it will be making a real difference. And that’s when we’ll be able to tweet “Thanks Twitter!” without it being the ultimate act of self-parody.
This post originally appeared at ABC’s online opinion site, The Drum.
There are many important issues discussed in the part of Twitter that focuses on Australian politics and current affairs.
It is important that a Royal Commission has been called into institutionalised abuse of children. The conduct and outcome of the US Presidential election does have implications for Australia. The mainstream media clearly has a blind spot when it comes to Tony Abbott. And there is undoubtedly a culture of sexism pervading our society.
Unfortunately, there is also a growing culture of bullying and censorship on Twitter if one does not choose to sign up to these causes or Twitter’s latest Outrage Of The Week.
One person’s passion is another person’s passing interest. That is the nature of humanity. Thinking that something else is more important than the latest Twitter groupthink does not make one a protector of pedophiles, a misogynist, or heaven forbid, a Republican.
It could mean that some people have issues that are of more personal importance than the celebrity issues that our part of Twitter selects. Internet security might not rate highly for someone with a fatal condition or chronic pain. The misogyny debate might be esoteric to someone who is regularly subjected to domestic violence. Romney as US President might not matter to an Australian with crippling debt or an addiction.
To voice cynicism about Twitter’s latest “new shiny thing” does not diminish the thing’s actual merits. Maybe Twitter’s confected outrage and biodegradable empathy is simply galling to those with less telegenic challenges in their lives.
This does not appear to occur to tweeps who fling scorn and opprobrium at those who consciously step back from or question the latest Twitter fray. With the identification of each new cause, Twitter seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric (perhaps in the face of desentisation or ennui), and shrilly denouncing non-participants as non-believers.
Some days it resembles nothing more than a gaggle of GetUp! toddlers, high on sugar and running in noisy circles. On such days, Twitter should be made to take a good lie down.
I saw a forlorn tweet the other day, saying “we found Jill Meagher, now let’s find …..” using the name of another missing person.
Occasional retweets of the plea bobbed like flotsam in my timeline for a while, then became lost in a torrent of condemnation over Alan Jones’ appalling comments about the Prime Minister’s father.
Like many others that weekend, I joined the campaign to make Jones feel the material consequences of his derogatory remarks. I was heartened to see so many people rouse themselves above the level of petition-whore slacktivist and actively contact 2GB advertisers by phone, email, Twitter and Facebook. It was a striking example of genuine People Power, a sharp-edged reminder that — when provoked — public sentiment can transform from slumbering shaggy dog to noble protector or slavering jag-toothed beast in the click of a news cycle.
At the same time, I felt ashamed that we weren’t rallying for the person who asked Twitter to help locate just one more of the 35,000 people reported missing in Australia every year: just one of the loved ones reported missing every 15 minutes.
Click here to read more…
Post script: Hard won lessons from ‘the Alan Jones’ incident
I can’t remember the first time I started chatting to this particular person on Twitter. It was early days in my Twitter-lifetime, and I probably started following him because I thought his name was cool. Then I saw from his Twitter profile that he worked for the Greens. That was no issue for me: I have good friends in both the Liberal and Labor parties, despite having worked for the Liberals back in the early 90s.
So I saw no difference in having a Twitter association with David Paris. The trick with cross-party acquaintances is to never let your political disparities overwhelm the relationship. Argue by all means, but always agree to disagree and then move on. Otherwise the friendship will never survive.
I mistakenly assumed that this was how the other Greens staffers that I would soon follow on Twitter, and meet in real life, conducted their own cross-party relationships. I attended a couple of Tweetups, which in Canberra at the time were dominated by the Greens staffers’ social group, and readily divulged my identity and background to those present even though I used a pseudonym online.
In retrospect, I should have known better. Once the Greens staffers knew that I’d once worked for the coal industry (five years before), they took particular umbrage at my criticism of Greens’ policies on Twitter. While Liberal and Labor staffers can be tribal, and vigorously defend their parties’ policies and positions, I discovered that Greens staffers take political criticism very personally, and can quickly resort to emotional and ad hominem attacks in order to defend their belief system.
Nevertheless, I continued my Twitter criticism of the Greens’ policies (along with criticism of Labor and Liberal leaders and parties). Despite the outrage expressed on Twitter at The Australian’s outing of Greg Jericho, some of the Greens’ staffers, their broader social circle and a number of environmental activists began agitating online and IRL for me to be “exposed” due to my supposed conflict of interest.
Paris sent me DMs saying his friend Dan Cass (renewables advocate, long-time Greens member and later campaign manager for the Greens in the Melbourne by-election) was particularly keen for me to be outed and that he (Paris) was doing his best to dissuade him. I said bring it on. But there were no grounds upon which to take action, and so nothing happened.
Over time, as the result of several fruitless arguments on Twitter initiated by Greens staffers who challenged my criticism of their policies, most of them just blocked me and moved on. Paris kept in touch occasionally, but only using DM.
Then one day, I did a stupid thing: I know, most of us NEVER do stupid things on Twitter, but I did. I noticed quite a number of people using #pomodoro and was curious as to what it meant. Google told me it was a productivity technique that can be applied to writing.
I started shooting my mouth off, obnoxiously decrying the value of such an artificial device, and inadvertently denigrating those who used it. I didn’t realise until later that a member of the Greens staffers’ broader social group, writer and journalism lecturer Jason Wilson, had kicked-off a group activity on Twitter encouraging others to use the technique and report back progress using #pomodoro. A number of other members of the same social group were participating and responded to my tweets with considerable, and justified, indignation. David Paris’ close friends Scott Bridges and Dan Nolan led the charge. In my usual stubborn fashion, I refused to give ground or apologise.
Without even trying, I’d manage to broaden and deepen antipathy towards me within that group, and this negativity extended out into the group’s broader social network. People I’d never heard of, such as Dan Nolan’s friends @alanzeino and @wordsonaplatfrm, started sending ridicule my way. While these tweets occurred later in the timeline, they are illustrative:
Tweets bounced around attesting to my narcissism and other attention-seeking tendencies. References were made yet again to the undesirability of me using a pseudonym. Pretty much anything I tweeted from that point on was subjected to ridicule, and sometimes I was the subject of a joke for no particular reason at all (eg. Nolan tweeted during a #qanda discussion of asylum seekers: If Drag0nista was a boat would we mount her?).
At this point, I did what is usually recommended: I blocked them all to avoid seeing what was being written. This was interpreted by some members of the group as a sign of cowardice on my part and justification on theirs.
I also blocked other members of the extended social group to avoid seeing any retweets of derogatory comments. At least one person in the group, who had barely ever engaged with me, was not happy about being blocked for “no good reason” and so the negativity continued to grow.
In addition to blocking, I deleted many of the screen shots taken of the denigrating tweets to prevent myself from dwelling upon them.
Even still, some of the group’s tweets continued to make their way to me. Sometimes people misspell my Twitter handle using the letter “o” instead of a zero (I use a zero because somebody else had already taken my preferred handle). So I have a search column set up on Tweetdeck to collect tweets that mention dragonista in case they are intended for me. Unfortunately this search function can also pick up people talking about me, and when they do my temper flares and I just can’t help but respond. According to my detractors, this confirmed my vanity and victim-complex. No doubt this post will be portrayed by them in a similar light.
The extended social group and I share some acquaintances and friends on Twitter. A few of those friends tried to dismiss some of the individuals’ behaviour as immature and unknowing of the emotional penalty being extracted. Parallels were drawn with “harmless piling on” that apparently used to occur in some schoolyards. I don’t recall that happening at my school, but I do remember being beaten by a group of girls nearly every afternoon for a month after moving to a new school. I also remember growing up with domestic violence and at other times having to deal with psychological abuse in relationships.
I can’t imagine why anyone would think that “piling on” is harmless or fun. While clearly there is a continuum of physical and psychological abuse, and degrees of wounding caused by it, it is all still abuse and should not be defended.
The treatment recently metered out to Charlotte Dawson is at one end of the continuum. Dawson was bombarded with hundreds of abusive and offensive tweets from a particularly dark corner of trolldom. Compared to the psychological wounds inflicted upon her, mine are mere paper cuts.
But Dawson’s experience, and the ensuing media brouhaha, should not lead anyone to conclude that if you’re not a troll then you’re not a bully. Sustained denigration by an individual or a group, even at a much more subtle level, can be psychologically damaging.
Anyone who suffers from a depressive condition knows that sometimes one’s mental state is fragile. Sustained ridicule might not be bullying according to the textbooks, but it can still be enough to bring on a depressive episode. I’m just thankful that my daughter drove through the night from Sydney to stop me from spiraling into despair during the aftermath of the #pomodoro wars.
While no physical threat was ever made against me, there continued to be pressure via tweets (particularly from the environmental activists) for me to be outed. In order to neutralise this threat, I decided it was time to discard what was left of my pseudonymous veil.
By that time, I’d already divulged my identity to about ten members of the Canberra press gallery (those that I had known for a very long time), and various other people around Canberra. In talking to Greg Jericho about pseudonymity for his book, and having written a post about how I use Twitter, I realised the ad hominem attacks I’d hoped to avoid by being Drag0nista were being leveled at me anyway. And by disclosing my identity, I could close down any further threats of being exposed.
So I wrote a piece which was published on ABC’s The Drum online opinion site, talking about the “nastification” of Twitter and how this was one of the factors that had contributed to my decision to declare my identity. I deliberately did not name anyone, electing instead to use the term Cool Kids to describe the extended social group that had regularly ridiculed and denigrated me.
A quick scroll through some of the comments appended to the article gives testimony to the antagonism I’d generated in some quarters by that time. [Click on the screen shot to get a readable version].
And these, which may or may not be from James Lorenz, the communications director at Greenpeace:
[Please note in the comments below that James Lorenz denies being ZombieJames].
Meanwhile on Twitter, some members of the group expressed outrage that I’d been given such a prominent (taxpayer-funded) platform upon which to express my #butthurt over a Twitter-spat. I was unfamiliar with the term and logically inferred that it meant anal rape, which as you can imagine only served to increase the ridicule sent in my direction.
Picking up on the Twitter criticism of my piece appearing on The Drum, high profile Greens-supporter Jeremy Sear wrote this in the now-defunct Pure Poison blog. Subsequent to his post, Sear expressed surprise that I would take personal offence because it was not about me but the ABC. If that was so, and given Sear thought the two Twitter-spats he’d highlighted were so inconsequential, why did he bother to give them further oxygen by complaining about their coverage on The Drum?
Here’s some other responses to my piece on The Drum:
One of the commenters on my Drum piece was Sunili, who at least used her real name in questioning whether I had any conflicts of interest while writing under my pseudonym. I knew this was a question being raised regularly by the group, and that Sunili is/was a close friend of Paris’, so I acknowledged her question as coming from the Greens in my response.
In a completely separate exchange with Sunili several months later, after challenging a tweet she made that was supportive of Bob Brown, I received greater insight into her motivations:
In response to the questions raised by Sunili and Zombie James, I detailed which roles I held when I wrote various posts to demonstrate that at no time did I have a conflict of interest. (And no, there was no conflict of interest writing about climate change when working for the Home Insulation Safety Program, because HISP focused purely on the identification and rectification of faulty insulation).
With no apparent sense of irony, the group embraced their Cool Kids label.
Do they bully me today? No. The circus has moved on. Or maybe they still do it, but out of sight and I just don’t notice.
Every now and then, though, there is a dig sent in my direction:
The Charlotte Dawson case has brought me to realise that I have mixed views about the merits of retweeting abusive or derogatory tweets.
I tend to do it to raise awareness of that person’s behaviour, especially when they are an otherwise popular person on Twitter. More often than not, though, I’m the one to lose followers for retweeting this material. And if I’m brutally honest with myself, I also retweet in the hope that someone will come to my defense. Sometimes people do, but mostly they send DMs with messages of support and urge me to block the perpetrator and move on. While I am comforted by the private messages of support, the lack of public opprobrium for the offender means they’re rewarded for their behaviour with everyone else’s silence.
Let’s not shy from this ugly fact. One of the aims of online bullying (as opposed to trolling, which is about generating and feeding off extreme emotions) is the same as in real life: to make an individual feel worthless, isolated and discredited.
While it might seem entertaining to the people who grew up with 4chan to tell their mates they’re stupid, crazy and worthless, it’s not acceptable to do so as an act of intimidation: these are exactly the same tactics used by a psychological abuser.
So why have I written this post? Surely I’m a hypocrite because I’ve said hurtful things to people on Twitter and ridiculed public figures in blog posts and articles. Yes I have, but I am mending my ways because I better understand the ramifications of doing so. I still occasionally lash out at those who hurt others or who’ve hurt me. I’ve recently used extreme language against a tweep who thought it would be fun to criticise an opposition policy by questioning whether someone had forgotten to give depression-sufferer Andrew Robb his “crazy pills”. I also sent a tweet mentioning karma to Dan Cass after the Greens by-election loss in Melbourne.
I’ve addressed the point of my hypocrisy and personal responsibility elsewhere, and suggested that it might not be enough for us all to metaphorically join hands and agree to be nicer on Twitter. What is also needed is for everyone to exert peer-pressure when they see friends being bullies online.
I’ve written this piece because of the very black and white depiction of bullying being reinforced by most of the people commenting on the treatment of Charlotte Dawson.
Bullying is not black and white. It varies in degree from threatened violence to ridicule and other denigration. If you still don’t believe the latter qualifies, ask any person who’s been subjected to subtle psychological abuse over a sustained period. That person will tell you that bullying has many faces.
It’s not just famous people who are bullied online: in fact they are the minority. In some cases, those who are bullied are targeted by an individual or group because they refuse to conform to that person or group’s world-view. Bullying does not have a political preference, but it is often deployed by political interests as a silencing-tactic. One only has to scan #auspol to realise that. From a political perspective, the purpose of bullying is to intimidate, dominate and marginalise.
When you are being bullied, ridiculed or some other way intimidated by a person or group, the most overpowering emotion you experience is feeling alone. Nothing says “you are not one of us” more than group bullying, because the intended outcome is for you to be disempowered and thereby silenced.
The treatment of online bullies is not black and white either.
If the bully is a troll, according to the conventional definition, they will continue to deploy their horrendous stealth-bomber tactics through numerous online identities for as long as their subject feeds them with outrage. In the case of trolls, the best defense IS to block and deprive them of the extreme emotional response they crave.
But blocking is less effective for those online bullies who seek to exert dominance over their subject, be it through intelligence or wit, for the acclamation of others. Whether the victim responds or not, blocks or not, this type of bully will continue as long as their peer group finds it funny or impressive. Only a push back from their peer group, or some other respected peer, will cause these bullies to back off.
So what’s my take-out message? Am I saying that no-one should ever ridicule anyone online?
Of course I’m not: I value my freedom of speech as much as the next person.
What I AM saying is that online bullying has many faces and that we should open our eyes to them all instead of just wringing our hands over trolls. When anyone ridicules someone in a sustained manner, particularly when there’s a likelihood the subject of the ridicule will be aware of what’s being said – THAT is bullying.
Bullying is used to disempower or to discredit those who don’t conform to a particular world view. It’s an intimidatory tactic used to curtail freedom of speech. It’s a behaviour that none of us should ever accept or ignore.
We must speak out more when we encounter bullying. And at the very least, we should all take Dan Nolan’s ironic advice to heart….
First there are the trolls; those the IT purists will tell you emerged long before Twitter and online opinion sites. From what I’ve read (and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I get it wrong), the troll’s main goal is to provoke anger or other extreme reaction from their subject and then feed off the energy that is generated by that emotion.
Then there are the bullies, who are quite different to trolls. Anyone who has been subjected to bullying can attest that it manifests in many ways – ranging from outright threatened violence to subtle but sustained denigration. In contrast to the troll, the bully’s main goal is to feel superior: either in strength, intelligence, wit or popularity.
And then there is the third type of person who intentionally causes other people hurt on the internet: the rest of us. Yes, you and me.
There are times for pretty much all us online (I’d venture), when we just can’t help but say some something hurtful to someone else. We might do it because we’re outraged by their behaviour or something they’ve said. Sometimes we do it because we don’t agree with their point of view or find it simply ridiculous. And sometimes we do it because other people are doing it too and we want to fit in.
I’m not without guilt: I admit that I get a bit Old Testament at times, lashing out at people who sledge others or have caused me hurt in the past. Yes, I have also (quite often) ridiculed the cohort of people known as The Greens and Their Supporters.
But in a similar fashion to that described by GrogsGamut in his book, these days I mostly try to exercise self-censorship in the hope of preventing something that could degenerate into ugliness, and I rigorously moderate the comments on my blog for the same reason.
Unfortunately, relying solely on self-restraint will not do much to reduce the hurtful ways in which we sometimes voice our opinions, emphasise our disagreement, or attempt to appear witty and entertaining to our friends.
As Jonathan Green pointed out this morning, online human behaviour is no different to that which occurs offline. So maybe we need to start pulling the two worlds into better alignment.
In real life, if one of your friends rolled down their car window and yelled some of the sledges that are made on Twitter to a passerby, what would you do? Would you laugh and pat them on the back? Maybe reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution? Maybe you’d pretend it didn’t happen? Or would you say, hey, that’s out of line?
What about the same behaviour in the pub, at the footy or at a party? I’m pretty sure most of us would intervene somehow and try to defuse the situation, rather than turn a blind eye or succumb to the pack mentality and join in.
I understand the reasons posited by experts as to why people think they can get away with extreme behaviour on Twitter and similar places. They feel less empathy because they can’t see the body language of their “victims”; they breach societal boundaries because they are largely anonymous and not accountable for their actions.
Nevertheless, in most cases bullies on Twitter and elsewhere (and people like you and me who can also be hurtful), have friends and followers who have ways of communicating with them. If there were more occasions when sledgers and bullies were told by their peers that they were out of line, degeneration into pile-ons and flamewars could more often be avoided.
So next time someone you know says something hurtful on Twitter, what will you do? Will you laugh and retweet them, reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution, or perhaps pretend it didn’t happen?
Or will you send them a DM or text and say, hey, that’s out of line?
Postscript: A very considered, and relevant, contribution to the discussion.