As social media has become more and more central to public debate, replacing an ever more fragmented mainstream media, its profound flaws are playing a greater role in warping and undermining that debate.
As a former spruiker of the benefits of social media, of its ability to connect people up, enabling them to avoid points of control run by gatekeepers like government and corporations, I’m either well-placed, or the last person with any right — take your pick — to suggest social media is ruining society. But it’s hard to avoid the sense it has acted to polarise debate, to remove a shared frame of reference of common facts and values (values like, say, Nazis are bad), to act as a centrifugal force on positions, not a centripetal force.
But even if none of that were true, if that were all just the get-off-my-lawn ramblings of a middle-aged male, what is clear is that social media is the worst place to actually have any meaningful debate because too many people have entrenched positions and no one changes their mind. And too many people view issues entirely through a partisan prism — either for their political side, or whichever “side” they happen to be on on an issue. Many people who probably shake their heads at how climate denialists and Trump fans simply ignore — or reject as evidence of a conspiracy — evidence that doesn’t fit their world view are guilty of something similar themselves.
Take the reaction of many progressives on Twitter to the reporting of allegations about the workplace behaviour of Western Sydney Labor MP Emma Husar.
There are certainly some questions about the way some lurid and, according to the parties involved, fabricated allegations were reported by BuzzFeed, but other than that the reporting by both that outlet and others was entirely appropriate. And the allegations remain merely allegations at this point — partly because there’s no independent mechanism to test them, so Husar may indeed be, as she claims, the victim of factional warfare. But, whether the allegations about Husar are true or false, the workplace behaviour of the minority of MPs on all sides who treat their staff poorly rarely comes to light.
Sometimes it only emerges because the internal enemies of the MP concerned want to undermine them. And it can be extraordinarily difficult for staff and former staff to come forward and reveal the behaviour they were subjected to, especially if they want any sort of future in the political party involved.
But all of that nuance was rejected by many on Twitter who savaged BuzzFeed’s Alice Workman for her journalism, with accusations it was some anti-Labor campaign. If you went back in the Twitter timelines of many such people, you would almost certainly find them gleefully retweeting and endorsing Workman’s work on the scandal around Michaelia Cash’s office’s role in tipping off the media about union raids. Workman had gone from hero to enemy because she had applied the same journalistic skills to a Labor figure.
Others argued it was all a media stitch-up of Husar because the media had deliberately hidden news of Barnaby Joyce’s affair and baby. The media reported allegations against Husar, the media didn’t report Joyce’s affair, the media is biased. QED.
In fact, there is no comparison between the two cases. Joyce has long since forfeited any right to privacy since the affair was revealed — the man who sells his story and keeps on flogging it far past the point where everyone else would prefer they shut up forgoes any subsequent right to demand his privacy — but there was no evidence of any misuse of public resources by Joyce or his colleagues, and there is still no demonstrated case that his affair should have been reported on the basis of public interest. There is, separately, an allegation of sexual harassment against him — the specific issue on which he resigned — which remains (curiously) unresolved by the National Party, but that wasn’t known when his affair was revealed.
The allegations against Husar relate directly to her taxpayer-funded staff and the use of taxpayer resources. False or not, there is a public interest in their reporting. But for many progressives on social media, it’s all a conspiracy against Labor. Or, as the reactionaries they mock call it, “fake news”.