JONATHAN GREEN. Media complicit in the rise of political trolls

There’s an arresting moment early in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury in which Steve Bannon explains the mechanics of alt-right politics.

Aides are nonplussed by the timing of the Trump administration’s immigrant ban, imposed on a Friday night, a moment of maximum inconvenience and exposure; timing that all but guarantees emotionally charged chaos and a hostile press.

‘But Steve Bannon was satisfied,’ writes Wolff. ‘He could not have hoped to draw a more vivid line between the two Americas — Trump’s and liberals’ — and between his White House and the White House inhabited by those not yet ready to burn the pace down.

‘Why did we do this on a Friday when it wold hit the airports hardest and bring out the most protestors? almost the entire White House staff demanded to know. “Err … that’s why,” said Bannon. “So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” That was the way to crush the liberals, make them crazy and drag them to the left.’

Here we have a quick demonstration of a new political method. It’s not designed to advance any particular policy position, the routine of conventional politics. The point of this new politics, this politics of the social media age, is trolling: the simple art of using rhetoric and political acts to provoke a reaction.

Suddenly a lot makes sense. Tony Abbott makes sense. Donald Trump makes sense. So much of social media makes sense.

The politics of the new right is a deliberate, calculated provocation. This is strategic of course, playing to an angry base while upping the ante of political rhetoric, marginalising opposing voices by pushing them to greater extremes.

This is a political position only made possible by the acquiescence of a media class caught between worlds, a media that trades on its historic reputation for fairness and a pursuit of objectivity while acting often to push a political line, either because of its own political convictions or purely for populism and profit.

Is that good enough? In this new moment of wilful political cynicism, is media acting as we might expect the fourth estate to act: to advance the cause of truth as a social good? How should media respond to political rhetoric tailored specifically to inflame? It can hardly ignore what is the prevailing political reality, and yet, like the tree that falls in the forest unseen and unheard, if a hyperbolic claim is made and goes unreported …

The challenge stands: if a political utterance is demonstrably false, or overtly and emptily provocative, what is the media responsibility to interrogate it and place it in appropriate context?

We’re not stuck for examples. A minister of the crown, a voice that carries the time-worn authority of government, insists that the people of Melbourne are so terrorised by African crime gangs that they dare not walk the streets at night … how should this be reported, this demonstrable, cynical falsehood?

It’s a question fundamental to our moment. If media is being played by politics, how ought media respond? If goodly chunks of the political discourse are intended simply as provocative hyperbole, how should that hyperbole be relayed … if at all? With the simple straight face of conventional he said, she said reporting? Or should it be filtered or contextualised? And who makes those judgments round what is empty hyperbole and what is reportable assertion?

The problem is that routine reporting places charged hyperbole and downright falsehood on a level playing field with measured statements of fact. There are examples beyond measure of political media reporting cynical misinformation with the same sense of gravity it applies to rock solid fact: ‘there is a debt and deficit emergency, he said’, ‘the government, if re-elected will privatise Medicare, she said’.

If politics — professionalised, knowing, cynically manipulative — plays on the press’s compulsion to report and thus validate the outrageous for purely political purpose, what responsibility does the press have for the consequences of that validation?

The interdependence of politics and media goes beyond the new right’s outrage baiting. Press and politics form an increasingly interrelated realm: it’s not for nothing that we have framed a contemporary notion of the political class that embraces both politicians and media.

This ought to work well enough, but events have conspired to make it at best a dysfunctional relationship, at worst something that actively poisons the public sphere.

The recent African gangs story is a grotesque example of how media and politics work almost in collusion. At best the story is a rolling description of a political position; bad enough because that position should at least be interrogated. Worse, it’s media acting as a like-minded accessory to a position that is a thinly veiled dog whistle to both prejudice and fear. Worst, it’s media, like the Herald Sun, acting as the active instigator of a misrepresentation of reality calculated to have a social and political impact.

The press has always acted from time to time as a campaigner or advocate, championing issues of policy, politics and morals. The emptiness of modern politics puts the campaigning news organisation in a new light though. Just as politics now stoops to empty — but cynical — emotional manipulation, the media who campaign in parallel are doing something equally cold and calculatedly opportunistic.

The newspaper, for example, that exaggerates crime statistics to promote a crude political position does nothing more than lie in order to provoke fear. It’s the worst possible betrayal of public faith.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer showed a continuing global decline in trust in institutions, a discomforting hallmark of our moment. In the thick of all that, the public faith in journalism showed an uptick, set against the continuing decline in faith for media outlets. The sense here is of a public yearning for something more, something truthful that it can trust. That’s journalism’s continuing challenge.

Jonathan Green is a writer and broadcaster. He is editor of Meanjin.

This article first appeared in Eureka Street.

This entry was posted in Media, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to JONATHAN GREEN. Media complicit in the rise of political trolls

  1. Janine Foley says:

    When people look at the media it’s fair to say we’ve have gone past cynicism and are now lost in the white hot rage of despair. Take the idiotic ‘model’ of RN Breakfast. Infotainer listens to actual politician – fails to interrogate or question any claims – profusely thanks politicians for appearing and then chats with other infortainers about what the politician actually said or was trying to say or was trying to avoid saying and what this might actually mean or not. Then this garbage content contaminates endlessly across other platforms for the whole day. The commentary then drives evening analysis with decision makers softly managing meta commentary on what the infotainers speculate about where the real meaning may lie or not. This is as exhausting as in is frustrating. When Katherine Murphy sat ‘fotaining on the set of the non-ironically named ‘Insiders’ speculating on why her travelologue on searching for ‘what the ‘real’ people think’, was so tremendously popular with politicos and Barrie congratulating her for achieving popularity in bubbleland – none of this actually seemed to strike any of them as ridiculous, inept, unethical or idiotic. In finding the ‘real people’ Murphy had only one option – to fictionalise them so as to not disturb or interfere with a narrative that can’t cope, recognise or respect reality. Welcome the media…

  2. Vin Matthews says:

    When I got my first job as a newspaper reporter the editor warned me: The most important thing in journalism is accuracy.
    Another editor advised: Get the facts, get them first but first get them right.
    Now on newspapers like the Sydney Daily Telegraph the rule is: Never let the facts spoil a good story.
    The media is struggling to survive against the “social” media and the lack of interest among young people in particular in real NEWS. Now on TV, radio and in the tabloids it’s all infotainment.
    So when a weird character like Peter Dutton says Melburnians are scared to go out at night because of African gangs it’s a good “read.” When newspapers were taken seriously the news editor would have told a reporter to get a comment from Victoria’s police chief and Premier to run with the hate-filled Dutton’s comments.
    Ignorance can be bliss, but tragic too.

  3. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    The same may be said of what is being published in book/text-form.
    There are some real whoppers out there this year and last… where to begin? eg ‘It was easy to love Robert/Robert was easy to love?… Gareth Evans on Holmes a’Court – extolling Hacca’s powers as a University debater (with Gareth) and wholly-ignoring his excruciating record as a Junk-bonded entrepreneur – former Bell shareholders still weeping into their trashed minority share-scrip/connections to WA/Burke et al Governments, and: to steal a march on the Daily Telegraph – his diabetic’s cigar- smoking irresponsibility! Just for starters!

  4. Michael D. Breen says:

    Thanks Nick and Nicholas. Looks as if the media or much thereof has lost its maybe once honourable position of trust, along with so many other public agencies. What seems to be a factor is that people who watch commercial TV and read populist press material are now inured against anything which looks like depth. They are not critical readers and media target the superficial demand. And editors love a slab of text sent from a political or advertising office. Makes me wonder about the money spent on education when most of the public cannot nor want to read critically. And of course low quality communication like Tweeting to some looks like reporting or commenting sensibly on the state of the world. Then again users of such are only plugged into sources which mollify their values and views. Bit like feeding chooks really.

  5. This has been coming for a long, long time.

    There have been all kinds of things that those media who wished to might have done. For instance they might impose a Mandy Rice Davies rule which is to say that they’d never report some straightforward slur of an opponent or other bit of memefying which simply represents spin doctors in Parliament or anywhere else just trying to get their memes out.

    They’d require something more than that. But no-one’s done that, including the ABC. This whole story has been so toxic for so long for those of us paying attention. But though there’s been the odd bit of hand wringing, none of the media outlets – the ABC, the ‘broadsheets’ (now physically tabloids in the case of Faifax) have shown virtually no interest in the matter.

  6. Peter Franklin says:

    I find it very annoying when media just quotes people without bothering to investigate the veracity of what is stated and provide factual content to allow people to make a judgement. The ABC is also very complicit in in this failing.

Comments are closed.