twitter trolls social media

As in the 2016 US election, the next Australian poll looks set to be a social media election, and journalists are struggling with how to respond to the demands that brings.

Gallery journalists’ access has given debate on social media a real depth. The online community has brought their own knowledge and participation, often driven by a practical engagement in the political process.

But, now it’s coming apart.

Not for the first time. Back in the Neolithic era (in social media terms, 2010), a gallery reporter hit back at readers with a “Leave it to the professionals”. political editor Malcolm Farr put it more colourfully last week on ABC’s The Drum, dismissing “that great grandstand of digital idiots on Twitter”.

That Twitter grandstand and the political commentariat have clashed twice in the past week. First was between The Guardian political reporter Paul Karp and several Twitter users over Alice Workman’s BuzzFeed reports of the Emma Hussar case. The second blew up after The Australian’s Peter van Onselen tweeted in defence of his Sky colleague Paul Murray, saying  that “Nazism is national socialism which is considered a branch of socialism”.

As is common on Twitter, the debates had their fair share of insight with nuance and informed opinion matched with frank stupidity. Both of them ended with the journalists retreating to the “we’re the experts” corner while the #auspol Twitterati retreated to “journalists have such glass jaws”.

It’s an unfortunate end, because all the journalists involved — Farr, Karp, Workman, van Onselen — are among the most adept at social media engagement. And the streams in question were, on balance, informed and engaged.

Since the 2010 election, #auspol — Australian politics on social media — has transformed the relationship between journalists and readers, listeners and viewers. Yet too often, journalists treat social media as just another distribution mechanism, a place for dropping stories and comments looking for an approving ratio of likes and retweets to responses.

And too often Twitter-world forgets that journalists put themselves out for public judgement just about every day. Too often, when journalists engage on social media, comments shade from criticism to outrage and onto abuse, “whatabouttery”, false equivalence, confirmation bias.

For journalists, this isn’t what they signed up for.

But #auspol is a big pool. Knowledge and ideas predominates. Is there bad faith? Sure. Do journalists overreact? Absolutely. But that means a lot of the forest gets mistaken for the trees, on both sides. Yet journalists are made better by #auspol and #auspol is made better by journalists.

There’s far too much trolling and abuse, and journalists, particularly women, get more than their fair share. When they see colleagues attacked, they’re inclined to stand up for them — which is how both last week’s streams started. Unfair criticism can blind one to self-reflection. Last month, Barrie Cassidy opened the post byelection edition of Insiders by asking the panel to reflect what the media had got wrong. He was met with bemusement.

This clash is not uniquely Australian. New York Times’ political reporter Maggie Haberman has been actively engaged in the Trump-era debates about the role of journalists and their access to information. Yet last month, she tweeted: “With exception of breaking news and my own stories, taking a break from this platform. No reason or prompt other than that it’s not really helping the discourse.”

In a subsequent article, she explained: “Twitter is now an anger video game for many users.” Van Onselen expressed a similar intent after last week’s Nazism contretemps.

It’s understandable. But, realistic? #auspol is the discourse, the forum of choice for the politically engaged. Journalists may prefer to focus on the “media” but they can’t ignore the qualifier: “social”. The venn diagram of the 4.5 million monthly active Twitter users in Auastralia and the audience for political news and information would likely show an almost total overlap — for good and ill.

While the mainstream media were focusing on the united parliamentary response to that speech, the Facebook followers of he-who-must-not-be-named grew by 6,500.

As Trump’s election shows, this is social media at its most dangerous. When journalists withdraw real news, “fake news” will rush to fill the gap.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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