(Image: Private Media)

Twitter is a swamp. It’s nasty. It destroys reputations. It enables attacks — frequently misogynist — that are so harsh it has driven people in the public gaze to hide away. In that respect, it’s like some News Corp publications and Sky News after dark.

But has Twitter also fulfilled its promise as the ultimate disruptor of politics? After all, the traditional news media, shackled to the two-party system, either missed the seismic rise of the community independents or, in the case of News Corp, actively worked against it.  

An authoritative study on how Australians consume news is “Digital News Report: Australia 2021“, carried out by the University of Canberra with the backing of the Reuters Institute, among others.

Its most recent study found:

  • There was a clear downward trend in the use of traditional news media: print had halved since 2016; most Australians (80%) said they had not read a newspaper or magazine in the past week; 4% said they primarily get news from print publications; access to a regional or local newspaper declined from 19% to 11% in the same period 
  • 40% nominated TV as their main source of news
  • Women, younger generations and those with low incomes were less likely to see themselves or their views as being fairly or sufficiently reflected in the news
  • When it came to political news, left-wing and right-wing audiences believed their political views were unfairly represented 
  • Only 13% of Australians paid for online news, and most (83%) said it was unlikely they would pay in the future 
  • The decline in TV and print news was emblematic of the gradual shift from traditional news platforms towards online and social media news sources. In 2021, about one-quarter (23%) of news consumers primarily used social media, which was a 5% increase from 2019. The rise is particularly noticeable among older people.

Into this growing void of news and trust has stepped Twitter.

For the past three years, one of its most influential citizen journalist-commentators has been a woman with the online identity “Ronni Salt”, who has remained anonymous despite breaking new ground on some of the biggest stories of in recent years. These include the dealings of former energy minister Angus Taylor, the story of the QAnon friend of the Morrison family, and Scott Morrison’s blundered attack on former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate.

We know little of who Ronni Salt is. Her Twitter profile says she is “slightly to the left”. She lives in rural Australia. She writes on government corruption and climate as well as gender equality and sexual violence. “I am a feminist to my core,” she tells Crikey. The issues she pursues overlap precisely with the top three “values” of the teal independents.

Ronni Salt is not alone in using an online pseudonym (or maybe more accurately a nom de guerre).  Another is “PRGuy”, who runs a staunch defence of the ALP. PR Guy has 76,000 followers compared with Ronni Salt’s 83,000. (Also it appears that — not for the first time — Ronni Salt’s Twitter account is deactivated.)

A false name invites questions about whether or not a social media account is a front for political interests. Ronni Salt has previously declared she is not in the pay of anyone. She told Crikey she has concealed her true identity in part for self-preservation.

“Look at the absolutely scandalous degradation of good people like Dr Monique Ryan, Simon Holmes à Court, Dr Sophie Scamps, Zoe Daniel, et cetera,” she said.

“When I have seen what has happened to them in public life, purely for exercising their democratic right, mind you — none of them, as far as I’m aware, are serial killers — but they have been followed and harassed and harangued both inside Parliament and predominantly outside Parliament.

“They have been absolutely torn to shreds for the crime of daring to stand for election and daring to question the conduct of our democracy and the government’s integrity. So I think there’s a very, very real price to pay for being outspoken and for questioning the status quo … That’s not to say that I haven’t escaped unscathed. I’ve certainly paid a price.”

Ronni Salt sees Twitter functioning in part as a “fifth estate” holding the mainstream media to account and creating a separate take on the news. Staking a position outside and at times against the established media has set up a culture clash on the question of how “journalism” is practised.  

“It’s been interesting to watch the fourth estate, who is allegedly holding power to account, be held to account themselves,” she said. “I can often bang away on Twitter about something and surprisingly discover that it’s something that’s picked up a couple of days later, even though it’s not necessarily an issue until a blue tick person [a Twitter-accredited person] says it. 

“And I understand the reasons behind that, too. I do actually appreciate that there is this whole different set of standards that comes with publication in one of the mainstreams and that there’s a whole different risk level for the journalists involved.”

Ronni Salt believes scrutiny by Twitter of how the media does its business is legitimate.

“There are really quite rational and intelligent people making comment on the calibre of questions that are asked in press conferences and questioning the way that drops [of exclusive information] and leaks happen with the media, questioning why a particular journalist is running with a particular story at a particular time and the marketing tie-ins that happen with them.”

She is at loggerheads with a handful of “blue tick” journalists, but says she respects most mainstream journalists and maintains good relations with them. At its heart, though, what’s at stake is a battle for trust. The journalism establishment has been steadily losing ground on that measure. The last election was perhaps its lowest point.

The Twitter model of communities of people working together on the basis of shared values has perhaps created a model of trust that is underwritten by how easy it is to interact with each other, pretty much instantly. Names — real or made up — don’t really matter.

Ronni Salt calculates that her tweet threads normally yield about 500,000 “impressions”. Her most-read tweet, on Scott Morrison’s incapacity to lead the country during COVID lockdown, had 1.3 million impressions — more readers than many mainstream journalists achieve, but as she points out not in the same league as the saturation coverage achieved by cross-media networks.

“But I think one of the interesting points is that if you do put out information that is intelligent and succinct and has a salient point, you will get other journalists reading it, picking up on it, other politicians, political staffers,” she said.

“I know there are a lot of political staffers who follow my account. And so you will have an impact there. So you may not directly influence the debate, but you can influence the people who influence the debate.”

And how much of a role did Ronni Salt play in the rise of the community independents?

“There is a massive network that has been responsible for the rise of the independents. And it’s a huge wave, a massive wave. I’ve certainly been incredibly supportive and outspoken in relation to the rise of the independents’ movement, but I would consider myself to be one drop of water in the wave.”