We are told by politicians that the progressive elites of social media comprise a “bubble”, and do not sway elections; that their outsized, shouty influence on public debate does not translate to political victory.
Some say the left-leaning echo chamber of social media is the reason why progressive candidates are having trouble winning government around the world, or at least, the reason why they keep getting blindsided by their right-wing/populist opponents winning government.
This is at the heart of Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” formulation – these people may not tweet, but they do vote. The non-tweeters are more earthy, more real, more ordinary.
This analysis fails to take into account the fact that elites – social, media, financial – have always had a disproportionate influence on politics, whether they meet on chesterfields in a private club or over a hashtag on Twitter.
Certainly, Twitter is a negligible source of readers for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. In January, for example, people clicking through links posted on Twitter accounted for only 1 per cent of traffic on our websites.
This can lead to strange results in the reception of our journalism. Last week my colleague (and friend) Julia Baird wrote a column in The Sydney Morning Herald about a stereotype of an irritating middle-aged woman dubbed “Karen” that has gained currency, and which she argued was sexist. Newspaper readers loved the piece; on Twitter she was lambasted for misinterpreting “Karen” and accused of erasing the origins of “Karen” as a racist archetype.
It was a tale of two columns, with one interpretation of it so far removed from the other that it’s a struggle to describe succinctly what the fight was about. (I have probably got it wrong.) The unwarranted viciousness of the whole thing only served to underline the original point about sexism.
This is the new operating environment for media professionals, experienced with varying degrees of attack – from mild critique at one end to doxxing (where a person’s private information is shared online) and abuse and death threats at the other.
Newsrooms, which benefit from the social media followings of their staff, are feeling their way when it comes to handling the fallout that can result.
In my observation, there is a kind of algorithm at work among some left-leaning Twitter silos, where taking down a predictable target, a renowned misogynist, for example, is a lesser prize than taking down someone who might otherwise be considered an ally. Intention and context become irrelevant, erased by the velocity of the switch to outrage.
Some consider it necessary to challenge the privilege of the smug progressive. Too often, though, cutting people off in this way only leads to a situation in which the righteous few stand on an island too small to accommodate any broad coalition.
And building coalitions is important, whether or not you think Twitter is. It is vital in an age when left-leaning parties are struggling to bring together working-class voters and enviro-progressives, and convince a majority of voters we can transition to a low-emissions economy that is fair for low-income earners.
If we are honest about the nature of the social media pile-on, the targets become irrelevant. They are less about the individual being derided, and more about positioning ourselves on the correct side of a debate we gain social currency for buying into.
Too seldom does it occur to us we needn’t speak up on everything. There is no longer any power in silence.
There also seems to be little room to feel one’s way clumsily to a point in public – which is to say, have a public debate in which various positions are tested and tried on, and mistakes are made and moved on from.
Dr Julie Posetti, the global research director for the International Centre for Journalists, is leading a global study about the online harassment of female journalists, commissioned by the United Nations.
“Based on the research, I am in no doubt that the targeting of journalists, particularly female journalists, online, is about chilling their freedom of expression and trying to drown out their voices,” she told me this week.
Posetti says some research indicates the fear of online harassment is turning female journalism students off pursuing careers in journalism.
“The end result will likely be a new inequality in public discourse,” she says.
Posetti has “no doubt” that online debates have an impact on politics and public discourse beyond online communities. “These boundaries are porous and the nature of networks is such that it’s no longer possible to disaggregate the online world from the offline world.”
I don’t know if that means the bubble has popped, or if it has simply grown so large it now envelops us all.
But we seem to have reached a strange spot in our public discourse where we have swapped meaningful debate for the amplification of voices and views we claim to despise.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards