Sound and fury: can Twitter really change the world?

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.

Twitter: a sugar-hyped toddler in need of a good lie down

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.

Was #destroythejoint the pinnacle of online campaigning?

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

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

One more time (with feeling)

I’ve written before about the Canberra Press Gallery’s changes of heart when it comes to Tony Abbott.

Back in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to question the ongoing viability of the Opposition Leader’s negativity and policy free zone.

While Abbott’s relentless campaign continued, the level of scrutiny and gallery scepticism demonstrated in the October articles did not. By February this year, the only political writer to objectively scrutinise Abbott’s headland speech to the National Press Club was GrogsGamut.

Then in August, it was deja vu all over again, this time prompted by an excoriating Tim Dunlop piece arguing that if Tony Abbott didn’t exist the press gallery would have had to invent him. While Leigh Sales got much of the kudos for belling the Abbott cat a few days later, pretty much every serious political journalist took the Opposition Leader to task following the Dunlop piece.

That was in August. At the time, I wondered whether the press gallery would again lose interest in holding Abbott to account. Many journalists did indeed become distracted with other matters during September including the first 50/50 Newspoll, Lindsay Tanner’s book tour and Kevin Rudd’s various “look at moi” moments. But there was also “the punch” revelations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay and the government’s attempts to leverage them against Abbott. October then brought us the event now known universally as the Prime Minister’s “misogyny speech”.

But it has not been until this week’s sitting of federal parliament, in the face of Abbott’s resolute determination to stick to his “stop the tax, stop the boats” mantra, that gallery journalists have begun to question the Opposition Leader’s political judgement.

Initially, the AFR’s Geoff Kitney gave a clear-eyed explanation of Abbott’s tactics, noting that the Opposition Leader is an instinctive populist:

On the day when a new Newspoll showed the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent each of the two-party preferred vote, boosting the government’s confidence that Gillard is gaining the upper hand over Abbott, the opposition’s tactics seemed to Labor MPs (and no doubt to a lot of Coalition MPs) to be strange.

Labor MPs (and the same doubting Coalition MPs) are beginning to think that Abbott has failed to notice that some of the horses he has been flogging are dead.

That Abbott so blatantly ignored the government’s [Asian Century white paper] agenda suggests that his own private polling is telling him that the issues that dominate the tabloid and talk-back media are still political winners for the Coalition.

But his judgment is now facing its biggest test since the last election.

Since then, though, less and less confidence has been reflected by writers usually considered more supportive of the Coalition. Former Liberal staffer Peter van Onselen and conservative journalist Jennifer Hewett both drew parallels between Abbott and his former boss John Hewson, who lost the unloseable election to Paul Keating. Meantime, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson compared Abbott with another ill-fated, budgie smuggler-wearing opposition leader, Peter Debnam. Even Coalition flag-bearer Dennis Shanahan expressed his doubts.

Abbott’s easiest days as Opposition Leader are behind him as he moves into a period where the polls tighten, the frustration about an “early” election among voters will ease as an election nears and he will be more closely assessed as an alternative prime minister.

… Of course, Abbott won’t and can’t stop his carbon tax campaign because it would be suicidal for his credibility and a shift from a genuine area of public concern. There is clear evidence that Abbott’s aggressive campaign against the carbon tax has cost him personal support. His daily media appearance in a fluoro vest or hard hat is losing its appeal and appropriateness as the Opposition Leader needs to become more authoritative and considered.

Does the gallery really mean it this time? Have they finally set their forensic scopes on the Opposition Leader? Will we see sustained pressure on Abbott over the coming months to relinquish his mantra and deliver policies that are not only costed but funded?

I doubt it. The Christmas holidays are too close and the 2013 election is too far away (in relative terms). Aside from a few more demands for “less door stops and more policy”, I suspect most of the political media will close up shop and take an early vacation as soon as parliament rises at the end of November.

Yet again, Tony Abbott will win a reprieve. Whether this is enough to win him the 2013 election is another matter altogether.