You know that old philosophical conundrum about trees and forests? Now it’s “if a scandal breaks on social media, but mainstream media don’t repeat it, did it actually happen?”

Most of the various allegations about Barnaby Joyce were on Twitter way back in October courtesy of @truecrimeweekly (with a bit of help from @tonyhwindsor), to say nothing of being all over analogue social media — pub gossip, as we used to call it — in both Canberra and Armidale.

Twitter’s since been asking why the media wasn’t scandalised back then, but the real question is: why was it only politically “scandalous” once the Daily Telegraph splashed it on page one on February 7 (and just about every day since)? Is it because journalists still like to think that nothing is “news” until we say it is? And that the political elite are polite enough to go along with the pretence?

“News” is Twitter’s job now. Too often, the mainstream media is left to sort, confirm, and legitimate.

True, most stories start with journalists, but quickly become detached, to become a product of the medium. People say: “I get my news from Twitter (or from Facebook)”, although these are channels, not producers.

As social media channels find their own niche, Twitter is becoming the channel of choice for political news, comment, opinion, not least because Facebook is vacating the field, desperate to ensure its precious algorithm doesn’t take on the baggage of political judgement.

The news lends itself to Twitter’s 280 characters. And while eager to push video and audio, Twitter is, at heart, textual. That’s made it the medium of choice for many journalists. For news writers and news consumers alike, it’s an opportunity to show how smart you are. A 2016 study showed Twitter users more likely to share an article than read it, giving us “sharebait” — the successor to “clickbait”.

Twitter is absolutely large, but also relatively small. Although enjoying a Trump-bump, it’s plateauing. Its 328 million monthly average users rank it well behind Facebook (1.8 billion), Instagram (700 million) and YouTube (1 billion), according to Pingdom’s 2017 report. It even ranks behind China’s Weibo. Twitter’s active users skew older and are about 50-50 male and female.

A 2017 university study found about 15% of those users are bots, set up to create a simulacrum of virality by automatically retweeting or liking real users. According to a recent New York Times report, many of those bots exist to be sold to artificially boost followers.

Twitter doesn’t break up users by country, but socialmedianews.com.au estimate about 3 million in Australia. To compare, the Nielsen online news ratings reckon that top rated site news.com.au has about 6 million uniques. To directly compare, @abcnews has about 1.4 million Twitter followers. Online? About 5 million. The 7pm news? Just under a million.

For social media — and all media now — value comes from engagement, not a passive audience. And those Twitter numbers means it dominates the market engaged in political news, across the political spectrum, with #auspol consistently the most popular Australian hashtag.

That’s why most of the Canberra press gallery are there, some as just another broadcast channel; some clearly uncomfortable with the personality the medium demands; some to add opinion, analysis and sheer attitude to reporting, like @murpharoo, @dwabriz, @patskarvelas, @vanonselenP, @workmanalice, @barriecassidy, and @samanthamaiden.

The best use Twitter to make journalism more transparent — even if some approach criticisms more in anger than in sorrow. Still, that’s made @mikecarlton a must-follow as the most tweeted about journalist in Australia.

Gallery tweets can range wider than the issue of the day, but Twitter is making commentators out of experts, like @mdavisqlder on the Uluru Statement from the Heart (with a side serve of rugby league).

And how do politicians compare? Most politicians are active on Twitter. Take @TurnbullMalcolm with almost a million followers. Or @barnabyjoyce: his interest in the Nats’ social media presence is now infamous. Yet, no Australian politician has been able to use the medium to carve out the sort of distinctive political voice like @realDonaldTrump or India’s @narendramodi, although with 40-48 million followers, they both sit under half those of @barackobama. Sad!

Peter Fray

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