Twits, Not Tweeps – Journalists Conflating Tweets into Psychological Analyses

It’s not new for old media journalists and editors to hate Twitter. We have had a variety of journalists selectively edit Twitter commentary on issues to suit their purposes. These journalists have wilfully misrepresented the way Twitter works – that comments come from all angles, all of the time.  It’s not something that can be pinned down in the same way we can traditional media forms. One can excuse this kind of reportage in the earlier days of Twitter, where many didn’t use it well or have interns who did.  There is little excuse for that to happen these days – but it continues apace.

Andrew Bolt doesn’t see the need to have a Twitter account – his audience would feed him all he needs for his deliberate misrepresentation of everything that occurs on various platforms. This is his blog post, posted on April 28 at 5.55 am.

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Bolt is less a journalist, more a self created ringmaster of a circus built for lunatics. (Though the other day, I was speaking to a reasonable fellow netball dad who came out with the phrase “I agree with Andrew Bolt…” which startled me).  What is surprising, however, is that the source of his post is a senior journalist in a non News Ltd outlet. It’s from Chris Johnson, National Political Correspondent, writing in the Age.  This article highlights much of what is wrong with media’s relationship with politics and social media. As ever in my deconstructions, the original article is in italics.

The left takes a turn for the ugly as power slips through Labor’s grasp


Rising desperation has inspired the use of gutter tactics.

We know from the bald, high modality assertions that this isn’t going to be a nuanced analysis. That and “the left”


Tony Abbott is pushing his pedals between Adelaide and Geelong this week, feeling pretty chuffed about putting in a decent performance on the ABC’s 7.30 program last Wednesday.

I don’t know of many, other than Andrew Bolt and the Liberal Party, who believe that Tony Abbott put a “decent performance” in the 730 interview. Also, whether Abbott is or isn’t participating in a cycle based event isn’t relevant to the subject matter, even though it’s the only time Abbott makes an appearance in what is essentially an anti-ALP piece. 

He was on message, disciplined and, as usual, pretty light with details.

This seems to be a “decent” performance in Johnson’s eyes, rather than as a calculated tactic. Not exactly an objective analysis of the interview.

The same can’t be said about the rabid social media commentators who critiqued not Abbott’s performance, but that of the show’s presenter Leigh Sales. As interviews go it was somewhat pedestrian – no killer question or knockout punch.

“The rabid social media commentators”. Rabid?  There were critics of the interview – yes, we had the offensive and disgusting, but -many of them reasonable and constructive – but these are ignored so Johnson can use the sensationalist, amplified “rabid” word. It’s little wonder Bolt put it on his blog.

Yet because Abbott emerged from the 13-minute conversation unscathed, some threw the blame directly onto Sales. That’s probably to be expected and there is nothing wrong with an interviewer’s performance being discussed publicly.

No, that’s true. There is nothing wrong with such a discussion about a performance. Not that Johnson would know about how that is often conducted, considering that he does not use Twitter.

What was alarming about the Twitter debate following Abbott’s 7.30 appearance, however, was its ugly tenor. Elements of the political left thought it just fine to describe Sales in abusive and sexist terms because her grilling of Abbott did not meet their expectations.

It’s not OK, yet the debate rolled on for most of the week, sending mixed messages about what the left is up to.

Have they resorted to antics more often employed by the far right?

Sales was accused, in some instances with very vile language, of being too easy on Abbott and even biased towards him. How soon they forget and how quickly they turn.

“Elements of the political left”, “alarming”. This makes it sound like that there are groups of militant “lefties”, abusing people in sexist terms who don’t do what they want. There was, as far as I am aware, one tweet that was widely retweeted that was crude and sexist and a small number of abusive tweets directed at Sales’ performance.  There were also a number of reasonable people posting their concerns about the interview, as well as “lefties” expressing the opinion that Abbott’s performance and circular logic made it hard to get any answers of substance. In other words, a vibrant and diverse conversation, as Twitter can have. The abusive people were hardly elements and hardly a “tenor”.  Yes, the abusive tweets were wrong and yes, it is a concern, but isn’t particularly surprising to those who regularly use Twitter. 

What is a concern here is that Johnson is not putting this Twitter response into a wider context about Twitter usage. Members of the political “right” have hardly been pure in regards to sexist abuse hurled at a person with which they don’t agree. The variety of sexist memes created in relation to Julia Gillard have been manifold and dizzying.  Johnson does make a passing comment about the “far right”, but doesn’t elaborate. 

Last August Sales had Abbott not only on the ropes but flat out on the mat and wishing for an early end to that bout. During that interview, Sales got Abbott to admit he hadn’t actually read a BHP statement he wrongly claimed was blaming the carbon tax for the suspension of the Olympic Dam mining project.

It was all downhill from there for the Opposition Leader as Sales got stuck into him on a number of fronts.

Abbott haters were more than pleased with that exchange, leaving the right angry and feverishly circulating their own nasty claims of bias.

But now it’s the left that is furious. The commentary says more, however, about where the left is at psychologically in this stage of the electoral cycle. Facing the likelihood of a conservative government and a prime minister Abbott, parts of the left have taken to desperate gutter tactics.

This is where the article becomes ridiculous. A few abusive tweets doesn’t point to “the left” being furious nor does it point to where “the left” is at psychologically. This is one of the longest bows I have seen drawn by a member of the Fairfax press for a while (other than by Paul Sheehan, whose bows are so long he could shoot an arrow the size of a cricket bat).  

To say that these tweets point to anything “the left” are thinking would be akin to saying Larry Pickering and the #auspol Liberal shouters on Twitter speak for “the right” alone.  If Johnson did think that, then the entire “right” have been abusive and sexist for two and a half years. Yet he doesn’t address that idea here. The earlier passing reference to the “far right” does not adequately balance the conclusion he is making about “the left” on the basis of a few tweets.  Nor does he address the idea that Twitter has so many voices and opinions and approaches that it’s next to impossible to authentically identify anything like an approach or element. Truth is, there are a few in “the left” and on “the right” that are using gutter tactics.  People who know how Twitter works, however, generally slam them and then ignore them. 

Going by the reaction to the Sales interview last week, they seem to be now insisting that media interviewers push their cause and help them prevent a Coalition victory in September.

More conflating – “they”. There are some who seem to come across that way, but again, a small number.   Having said that, I am not surprised that journalists unaware of the way Twitter works are continuing to take tweets out of context and make poor analyses of them. It is partly suspicion of that occurring that led me to write my Megaphones piece in Ausvotes 2013 – commenting that repeated shouting and abuse doesn’t help the cause of the ALP, it could hinder it. Having articles like this appear in The Age does hinder rather than helps. On the other hand, maybe it was inevitable, no matter the caution of people tweeting support for the ALP, that some journalists would still conflate isolated tweets into representing some kind of “psychology”.

This is the article that keeps on providing evidence of the malaise in journalism – We then get more leadership nonsense from Johnson.

Meanwhile, Julia Gillard’s ability to win over the electorate remains far from where she and her party would like it to be, but Labor MPs have mostly now resolved they must fall in behind her.

As obvious a statement as that might be, it is only over this past week that most inside Labor have reached that conclusion. Just two weeks ago there were rumblings that despite her vanquishing yet another move to bring back Kevin Rudd, Gillard would be facing renewed leadership pressure before the election. The possibly honourable, but certainly kamikaze, move by Simon Crean last month in calling for a spill sent the member for Hotham to the backbench.

Rumblings? From where? 

But it also fuelled speculation that he would throw his own hat into the leadership ring. Even as Gillard’s newly promoted frontbenchers were moving into their plush ministerial offices, word was getting around to some of them that their reward for loyalty to the PM would not last long.

They were not referring to the likelihood of losing government in September, the message was that a post-budget leadership challenge was on the cards and the old frontbench would be back to reclaim some jobs.

And the leadership contender? None other than Simon Crean.

I thought the Crean, Get On Top movement ended a while ago. Yet Johnson is bringing it all back from the place of irrelevance in which it should belong.

That’s what the previous Rudd backers and some of the wider anti-Gillard forces in the ALP were mooting among themselves.

They considered Crean would be a ”safe pair of hands” following a budget they expect won’t go down too well with voters.

Crean helped fuel the fire with a recent Fairfax Media interview in which he talked of Gillard’s ”tin ear” for sound political strategy and her apparent wont to engage in ”class warfare”.

When a backbencher criticises his government, it’s a leadership challenge? Apparently so – and so is criticising Kevin Rudd for not contest for leadership. 

During the same interview he declared Rudd to be ”finished” because he refused to contest the leadership spill his backers had encouraged Crean to call for – implying he might put himself forward as a leadership choice.

But it seems cooler heads have prevailed, probably with the realisation that if Crean couldn’t mobilise numbers behind Rudd, he most likely wouldn’t be able to muster up a majority for himself either.

Again, this is old news. Nothing of Abbott’s avoidance of media questions about the GST, silly billboards and the Gillard win in gaining a Gonski agreement from the NSW Government.  Like the opening of this article, it’s hard to see this article as anything but partisan, desiring to make the ALP look divisive and their supporters as unhinged cyber bullies. 

At least voting Australians who can’t stomach either Gillard or Abbott now have another choice, thanks to Queensland’s billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, who declared on Friday he wanted to be Australia’s next PM.

But then he said he didn’t.

Chances are he won’t.

Personally, I can’t stomach journalism like this whilst good journalists are freelancing and desperate for a job. And Fairfax wonder why people don’t buy the paper as much as they once did.



Cultural Comment Politics

Less We Forget, More We Fret About

ANZAC Day this year had its predictabilities.  Much of it showing lacking an understanding of history and context. Catherine Deveny firing off her contrarian fireballs, tweeps getting fired up about people typing “Less We Forget” on their social media posts, declaring the death of education, football becoming the focus on more debate on whether football is grabbing the goodwill created by ANZAC Day and making it into some kind of commercial gain.  Debates like this lose a touch of context and we, as a population, seem to choose to invest all sorts of wider, deeper meaning into these things for fervent analysis on Twitter and in blogs, only to forget them all the next day – or worse still, hang onto the memory until it becomes more and more bitter.

Also predictable, symbolic and as ephemeral was the reaction to an interview conducted the night before by Leigh Sales of the aspirant Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Abbott seemed to be much better prepared with his asinine talking points and circular logic than previously, and being in a studio where he didn’t have to look Sales in the eye seemed to also help his ability to appear to deflect close scrutiny.  The interview made him look like a robot who was barely remembering his purpose and come out with the absurd line “I’m growing” – even though he has spent more than three years in his current role.  It was Abbott as his most Lathamesque – I’m talking the sanitised “no crudity” Latham. The Latham who seemed to have been force fed a diet of an electronic Beethoven’s 9th before he was put on stage.   The reaction was predictable in that the crowd of Labor megaphones crashed in on Sales for not eviscerating Abbott. One of the more dignified variations of this criticism came in the Labor leaning Australians For Honest Politics blog project, where Peter Clarke, after a fairly thorough deconstruction of every question Sales gave, concluded with questions such as these :

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

Has the constant drumbeat of partisan attack on the ABC generally and Sales personally ultimately had the “desired effect”?

Like a lot of what we are seeing as media scrutiny from the Labor leaning news sites, these loaded rhetorical questions and the conclusion of the piece featured more than a whiff of conspiracy theories about the downfall of the ABC as a bastion of truth, justice and the progressive way.  Who is “we”? How did Sales “let down” “we” with her questions. The “we”, I suspect, are those who wish Abbott to be taken down by the likes of Sales.  As for the concept of “partisan attack”, I am assuming Clarke is referring to the conservative attacks by the likes of Chris Kenny and Gerard Henderson. Reading Twitter, however, that concept of “partisan attack” is a two way street. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t.  As for “desired effect” – again, I assume Clarke is referring to a conservative desire.  It sounds more like conspiracy than based on known evidence of any kind of actual instructions issued to Sales.

This agonising examination of the ABC by progressive commentators is painful and self defeating – as is covered so well in this blog post. It misses a wider point – that obsessively analysing single interviews misses wider shifts and movements in the election.   Most people from the areas in which I have lived and worked – where this election is being fought – especially a lot of swinging voters, don’t watch the ABC very much. My Kitchen Rules would have been where a lot of them would be watching TV at the time of the Abbottbot interview. Or maybe, earlier on, they were The Project, if they were interested in politics. If they are to watch the ABC at all, it wouldn’t be this far out from an election.

These things pass. Less We Forget was more evidence of the fact we as a community don’t use the word “Lest” in everyday conversation and in our media – it usually only exists for most people in the phrase “Lest We Forget”. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that people have misheard the word and are getting it wrong – I dare say most of those people have now learnt their lesson or will do so soon enough. It doesn’t, however, show the downfall of civilisation, as much as misplaced apostrophes doesn’t show the incompetence of our education system.  Anyone expressing genuine outrage and judgmental attitudes towards “Less We Forget”, revealed quite a bit about the people getting outraged at something so trivial.

Catherine Deveny, too, exists as an outrage lightning rod – she’s not unique in having an outrageous opinion – but she does like to speak what is often unspoken and is uncompromising in asserting her right to express them.  Deveny’s tweets are to ANZAC Day what the Queen’s Message is to Christmas. People don’t have to watch. The chief difference is that people these days don’t put themselves through the act of watching the Queen, just to be outraged by what she says.

As for the idea of football on ANZAC Day, which Wednesday night’s Mad As Hell (it’s at the start of the episode) lampooned so beautifully, the ANZAC Day game was just an idea Kevin Sheedy had in his garden – thinking that an ANZAC Day match might be a nice way to commemorate soldiers who fought at war and Bruce Ruxton, the Collingwood loving RSL head, agreed.  A way for people to enjoy some football after the commemoration of war. It’s not a hijack of the ANZAC legend for a football game – though the awarding of the best on ground for “best exhibiting the ANZAC spirit” is fairly absurd. That is unless someone has shot some Turkish soldiers, been shot at, has contracted trench foot or has devised an ingenious retreat whilst playing the game.

Sometimes it’s good to just forget and move on from obsessions. I understand why the Labor megaphones both on Twitter and in blogs get frustrated. The ALP have not had a great run from various media outlets, especially News Ltd.  That’s why there’s been the need to establish “Independent” media outlets that act as anti- News Ltd. They are good pressure valves.  I understand the excitement that a 730 report appearance by Abbott instils in people. But they forget the long game and the hectoring, blatantly partisan nature of the tweets and blogs have the effect of turning off a number of people in the same way as The Australian has to non rusted on Liberal supporters.  It should be reassuring for them that there will be more TV appearances for Tony Abbott. More importantly, he will also have to appear on commercial TV, where he has been less than convincing at times.  Plus, if he wins the election, there will be three years of having to step around the landmines that Abbott perceives every time he appears on TV.

In the end, there will also be more occasions for daily, largely impotent outrage. We should be forgetting about the ephemeral and trivial nonsense arguments that are so easy to fall into on Twitter. The less we forget about what is truly important, however, is something we should consider.