The Reckoning: What price will mainstream and social media pay for what happened at the Capitol?

In this edited version of Best of the Week, Mumbrella founder and editor-at-large Tim Burrowes argues that recent events will lead to a reckoning for the past behaviours, and future regulation of social media, while traditional media will also have to answer tough questions.

There are certain television moments that will always stay with me.

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Bucks Fizz winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981. Coming home from school and watching the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. Seeing Gareth Southgate miss the vital penalty against the Germans in Euro 96. Coming back from lunch into the Hospital Doctor magazine newsroom to find everyone crowded around an old TV, just as the plane hit the second tower in 2001. Watching Kevin Rudd’s apology for the Stolen Generations in the B&T newsroom in 2008. Staying indoors all day on a holiday in Noosa in 2016 while streaming the BBC’s Brexit coverage on an iPhone.

And now, watching the CNN anchors try to stay in control as they narrated the most dangerous moment for Western democracy that will occur in any of our lifetimes. Hopefully.

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The storming of the United States Capitol will be the fulcrum on which the future of the world’s social media platforms pivots. In the coming months, there will be a reckoning for the past behaviours, and future regulation of social media. And traditional media will have hard questions to answer too.

Let’s start with Twitter. They knew. They absolutely knew. They knew that if they continued to provide a platform to Donald Trump that there was a real risk of the spread of dangerous disinformation. So Twitter gets no credit whatsoever for suspending Trump’s account 1,449 days into his 1,461 day presidency.

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Take Ashli Babbitt, the rioter who was shot as she tried to climb through the barricaded window into the Speaker’s Lobby. Once she was identified, screenshots of her own Twitter profile began to circulate. In large part it was retweets from Donald Trump and his stormtroopers. As one person sarcastically put it, ironically on Twitter, that day: ‘How can we possibly know who radicalised her?’ The poor woman genuinely didn’t realise she was a terrorist rather than the patriot she believed herself to be.

Even before Trump took power, Twitter made a choice. As a social media platform, it had been losing relevance. Back in 2016, it was fading, eclipsed by Facebook, and then Instagram. Instead, it had become somewhere to talk about television and politics.

When he made it his channel of choice, Trump stitched Twitter right back into the middle of the social web. No matter how offensive, how dishonest and how often Trump broke Twitter’s rules, he became an essential part of the platform’s engine. The powers that be, Jack Dorsey downwards, made the call that the benefits to the business model made the risks of allowing Trump to continue worth taking. It must be hard to feel proud to work at Twitter at the moment.

And of course, it wasn’t just Twitter. It was the mainstream media too.

Before I come on to the partisan media in a moment, it’s worth considering what truly brought Trump to power was his ability to harness (to use the jargon) earned media. Back when he was a candidate, he earned more free media coverage than any other Republican candidate simply through his outrageous, obnoxious behaviour.

The mainstream press knew that his wild claims about Barack Obama not having been born in America, or Hillary Clinton being involved in criminal activity with her email protocols, was nonsense. But it also felt an obligation to cover it. Trump turned the mainstream media into a tool that still worked to his benefit, even when the media called him out.

And for the most part, the media never did figure out the most responsible way to treat Trump. Amplification was what he wanted, and that was what he got. Even late in his term, when the main news networks began to specifically label his lies as such on screen, he was still being amplified. Every time he threw a new bomb on Twitter, he was able to move on the news agenda.

Then of course, there was the partisan media, most notably Fox News (part of News Corp’s sister company Fox Corp), but also a whole new ecosystem of radical-right news sites. One of the many unwelcome side effects of the digital disruption of traditional media is that advertising-supported media is struggling. Instead, the emerging model is subscription media. Benignly, that could be seen as the Netflix effect – people are willing to pay for what they want. But it disrupts the traditions of impartial media when it comes to news. The business model of Fox News, or come to that, Sky News in Australia or even News Corp’s metro papers, is about servicing the audience. There is a small but loyal audience of Sky News viewers who want to see Alan Jones and Rowan Dean. You won’t see many ads on their shows because of boycotts organised by the likes of Sleeping Giants, but that’s not the primary business model any more – it’s about paying audiences.

There’s risk attached to that. As James Murdoch, who resigned from News Corp last August, told the Financial Times (17 January – subscription required):

“The damage is profound. The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very, very much so. Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years. I hope that those people who didn’t think it was that dangerous now understand, and that they stop.”

And there’s a feedback loop.

Over the last couple of months, Twitter has become a truly obnoxious place, including in Australia. It’s impossible to know whether this is because the algorithm has changed to promote polarity, or whether the behaviour of Twitter’s Australian power users has changed.

Try following something political like Insiders or Q&A on Twitter. The vitriol aimed at those on screen has become constant. Many of those on the left seem to hate Insiders’ David Speers because he once worked for Sky News (before it became radicalised). And those on the right seem to hate him because they think the ABC leans too far left.

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Back in August I screenshotted two tweets, posted almost simultaneously using the #Insiders hashtag. ‘Speers is just awful at interviews. This is shockingly bad TV,’ posted Matt Reddin. Simultaneously, Jack Quail was posting: ‘David Speers doing a brilliant job this morning.’

It’s important to remember that Twitter is not a proxy for society. If it was, I’d believe that journalism has no hope left. Recent months, at least within my Twitter algorithm, have seen a Twitterati that seemingly despises all mainstream journalists and journalism.

It got worse during and after the Melbourne lockdown. Rachel Baxendale, Victorian political reporter for News Corp’s The Australian became a figure of hatred for many on Twitter over her performances at the daily press conferences held by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. From a distance, it was hard to discern how much this was because the audience were unfamiliar with the rough-and-tumble of a press conference with deliberately provocative questions designed to provoke a response, particularly when repeatedly pushing for an answer not given. But the perception was that Baxendale was going further than that, as part of a political campaign against Andrews. #DictatorDan or #IStandWithDan. The choice is yours.

But again, support for Andrews metastasized into something truly nasty. Any journalist, regardless of what publication they worked for, came under attack if they challenged in any way Victorian government Covid policy. When a Guardian journalist tried to research the human stories of residents caught out by border changes this week, they were attacked by the Dan stans before they had even published anything.

An ABC article about a woman who had miscarried while caught up in border difficulties generated utterly heartless ‘It’s her own fault’ commentary. So did the story of the couple who got lost in the outback and nearly died trying to comply with the border rules.

And whenever journalists, even those who weren’t directly involved in the stories tried to call out the behaviour, the answer would be thrown back as as some gatekeeping version of ‘Unless you went through the Victorian lockdown you can’t possibly understand’, along with some sort of comment about how journalists have a glass jaw when anybody dares call out their profession.

But there is a hard question for journalists and journalism. If Australia’s most vocal Tweeters are to be believed, trust has gone. Not just in the most partisan outlets like Sky News, The Herald Sun, The Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph, but in journalism generally. There are plenty of people out there who think that Nine’s newspapers have been captured by the right too. Now a single badly argued opinion piece (yes, I’m thinking of the one over Christmas in which kind-of lobbyist Parnell Palme McGuiness was given space to argue that Gladys Berejiklian should be more popular than Jacinda Ardern) no longer gets the benefit of the doubt as a bad day on the commissioning desk while the adults were on holiday, and is instead taken as a sign that chairman Peter Costello is running the joint.

And I do wonder, if that distrust is at least in part deserved. Journalism has never been pure. There’ve always been owners with agendas. But overall, the ethos was to ask honest questions and to try to get as close to the truth as possible. But we’re moving towards an era where a whole, large segment of the media has a business model based on giving a particular audience what they want to hear, not what they ought to hear. Social media does it by algorithm – watch one YouTube flat Earth video and you’ll be shown a whole lot more – and editors do it by instinct. The problem with that, is that it breaks the unspoken agreement – journalists get to ask impertinent questions and enjoy privileged access because they impartially represent the public. But once they stop doing that, don’t they deserve to lose the privilege too? And even worse, lose the trust.

What responsibility does Australia’s media bear for creating an environment where the acting prime minister Michael McCormack can declare ‘facts can sometimes be contentious’ in defence of a colleague’s anti-science Covid nonsense, and not be laughed out of town?

Which brings me back to the attack on the Capitol. The most bizarre thing about the whole situation is that many within the mob genuinely thought they were the good guys. The TV networks they’d watched, and the Tweets they’d read and the websites they visited, had reinforced that view. They thought they were helping stop the theft of an election. You don’t stop for selfies or live stream yourself if you think you’re the baddie.

That raises the mainstream media’s hardest question around Trump. Long before the election, he telegraphed that he was going to claim voter fraud. Anyone who was informed, and that included the media, knew it was nonsense. Any yet they continued to amplify his claims, even when trying to debunk them. Their biggest mistake was to treat those claims as if he believed them himself. In his final days, he might have gone so mad as to convince himself, but in the early days of the election campaign, it was simply a cynical line. And the media fell for helping him to amplify it.

Facebook doesn’t get a pass either. The rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory has Facebook to thank in large part. And in the hours after the Capital insurgency, it was notable how Facebook was used to amplify untrue claims that the whole thing was the work of Antifa provocateurs. There are still plenty of Trump supporters who genuinely believe the whole thing was a set up. And that’s before we even talk about how Facebook was a vehicle for Russian interference that might have helped elect Trump in the first place.

But there are tiny silver linings from the Fourth Estate. Right wing social media site Parler fell because of journalism. Tech commentator Kara Swisher somehow got Parler’s CEO John Matze to come on her podcast even while the siege was under way. Matze was so inane it became clear the site was not being run by somebody with conviction, or indeed half a brain. Once Amazon Web Services listened to it, of course it had to cut ties.

But there’s so much more to come in the first months of the Biden administration. And it will have plenty of consequences for the social media environment in Australia,

The right and the left of politics are united in feeling uncomfortable that the people who get to decide about freedom of speech are the private big tech platforms. That means regulation. And the last few days have been yet another impossible-to-ignore sign that they are too powerful. That means the anticompetitive breakup pressures will only become greater.

And Section 230 – that 1996 piece of US legislation protecting the tech platforms from legal responsibility for their content – will surely face its most serious threat yet. And although that’s a US law, given that these are all US-based sites, it will have a direct knockon for Australia too.

There may also be another consequence for the sites in Australia. Google and Facebook were gearing up for a war with the Australian government over the legislation for the ACCC’s news media bargaining code. That may be a war on an additional front that they decide they cannot handle.

For a long time, the platforms have got away with a lot with the politicians, because it’s a complicated subject (and they have a lot of well paid lobbyists). That changed the day those politicians feared for their lives because the mob outside who were trying to kill them had been radicalised by big tech. That focuses the mind somewhat.

Here’s hoping for a peaceful inauguration.

This is an edited version of Saturday’s Best of the Week email.


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