It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a good fortune in Twitter followers must be in want of a comeuppance. At least, that’s the experience of too many women journalists — in Australia, around the world — the moment they’re seen sliding a toe over some line hitherto invisible.
Twitter rewards the short, sharp and brutal with likes and retweets. It’s a feature that’s been weaponised — including by political movements and malign state actors through bots and troll farms — against the journalists, particularly women, who supply so much of the news content that drives the platform.
Media organisations (including the journalists’ union here in Australia) are building track-and-trace tools and encouraging resilience. But as Twitter has grown as the dominant social media platform for news, journalists and media organisations have lost the luxury to ignore it.
Sure, as journalists tell each other, “Twitter is not real life”. But neither is the audience for any distribution platform — including the evening news. Some journalists still prefer the one-directional channels of 20th century media. But to engage heavy news users, media need to embrace the multi-directional Twitter.
Numbers across platforms are a bit apples and oranges, but, as an example, the ABC’s main Twitter feed has about twice as many followers as there are viewers of its 7pm television news bulletin. The most popular journalists on the platform are leading ABC women like Leigh Sales, Annabel Crabb and Laura Tingle.
These twin contexts have crashed together in the overheated pandemic wars.
First, ABC News Breakfast co-presenter Lisa Millar walked away from Twitter, suspending her account. Then, 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales (with about 450,000 Twitter followers) called out the harassment and bullying. It is, she said, “non-stop, personal, often vile, frequently unhinged and regularly based on fabrications”.
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Sales pointed to the way it’s manifesting in Australia, saying “the space is dominated by views that are militantly pro-lockdown, pro-COVID zero and pro-Labor premiers”. The Sales tweet that triggered her pile-on seems to have been an insufficiently alarmist thread of studies on the impact of COVID on children.
The frustration for journalists is the confidence of the Twitterati that political preferences can be read in the day-to-day decisions of stories covered and news-gathering techniques used in reporting the pandemic policy response, where all jurisdictions — state and federal — have operated within a narrow, largely consensual policy band.
A criticism framed as a question should be understood as a retweet — it does not imply endorsement.
Yet, on social media (and in the performance theatre of press conferences), the most minor of differences has triggered a life-and-death struggle for the ages, with more straw people than a scarecrow school reunion.
Sales puts her finger on the real peculiarity: unlike the US and western Europe, the most vocal dissenters — on both social and traditional media — have been those shouting “Not enough!”, even though the country has had the most restrictive public health regime of any democratic country.
Part of the answer comes from recent history. The lines in the pandemic wars were forged in the media trenches through the depths of Melbourne’s 2020 winter as pushback against a belief that the aggression of the mainstream media — News Corp, through the Herald Sun in particular — was undermining the five-month lockdown. It was hard fought across press conferences and online — no nuance, no neutrals.
After five months, the hardliners found themselves vindicated with a summer of doughnut days. Trouble is, while Twitter rewards certainty, it discourages — even punishes — reconsideration as circumstances change.
Politicians haven’t helped, covering up inherent uncertainty by playing up minor state-by-state differences, cashing in state parochialism to justify particular models of lockdowns and lockouts.
Many journalists, meanwhile, seem to have picked up a touch of uncertainty. While all media are reluctant to discard the attention hit of pandemic catastrophism, the audience is moving on: half of all adults — maybe two-thirds of regular news consumers — are now fully vaxxed.
Social media will adjust algorithmically as users turn to feeds that meet their needs for knowing what’s next. Journalists need to adjust too.