Whacktivism and Whacky Ibises – The Newish World of Online Campaigning

This week has seen one of the bigger Auspol Twitter meltdowns of recent times.  It springs from the recent resignation of ABC tech writer Nick Ross and his story of ABC editorial “suppression” of his work whilst there. The issue is covered well, but still in a general form, in the Huffington Post.  It’s certainly an important story about possible editorial interference with the coverage of the National Broadband Network in the lead up to the 2013 election.

I remember seeing the original tweet from Ross, announcing his resignation and that he inferring that he would be allowed to write about the NBN again.  I then saw how a group of people immediately gathered around him and claimed him as their champion – a group that contained amongst its number, a group of hardcore, passionate NBN supporters who liked using the megaphoning technique.  That is, they have been claiming since 2012 – 13 that media outlets have deliberately played down / ignored / suppressed how bad the Coalition’s NBN plan was in comparison to Labor’s plan. I can understand to an extent where they came from – there’s many, especially in various regional and suburban areas, who believe the NBN could have been a great piece of infrastructure and it became their No. 1 political issue.  And here was Nick Ross confirming the suppression of “the truth of the NBN” for them. As a result, he was encouraged by them to spill the beans, to show the evidence.  Hence the creation of a Reddit, where Ross went into detail about his story.

Now, personally, I felt at the time that this was a mistake, because Reddit is more a forum for all sorts of uncontrollable discussions and responses, rather than a reliable news source, especially if the intent is to get the story disseminated further than Twitter, Reddit and and insular political internet.   It was at this point, however, that we had the Buzzfeed story by Alex Lee and Mark Di Stefano about the Reddit.  I can understand what tone was being struck in the piece – it was meaning to be lighthearted and mocking, like a number of Buzzfeed pieces are.  The problem was that in including the images and the published tweets that mocked those passionate about the NBN, Buzzfeed were possibly unconsciously feeding into a feeling of conspiracy and suppression that has existed for more than 3 years.  Hence the responses of those people to, it seemed, more Mark Di Stefano than to Alex Lee.  Therefore, people then saw this now notorious tweet, whose impact has possibly surpassed his more deliberate stirring efforts in regards Taylor Swift and the Hottest 100:

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The response has been 10 solid days of responses, reactions, blog posts, and images such as this:


The theme from many was that they had never seen this term used before, and I can understand why.  It wasn’t widely used.  I did see, however, “broken” being used by a group of Twitter users for 2 years or so to describe those I have previously described as megaphones – that is, people who either RT the same message, or constantly bombard the mentions of journalists and others with the same messages over and over.  In addition, the term is used for those who seem to be not actively listening to any responses provided by these journalists and others. It’s a shorthand term.  I can see in retrospect why Di Stefano would use it out of frustration at the level of abusive responses he would have been getting from the NBN supporters.  I believe, however, he was wrong for lashing out – mainly because he is widely respected and has a considerable audience. It’s also fed the conspiracies further about the media and being compliant with the Government.

In terms of the word broken, I had used it a couple of times some time in the past in conversations with others, though I still preferred “megaphone” or “megaphoning” throughout.  When this issue of “broken” came out into the open, however, I could see the many problems surrounding the use of the word.  As we discovered in the ensuing discussion over these almost two weeks, it is a word that is used to describe and negatively categorise the mentally ill, people from a variety of minorities and racial backgrounds. It acts to punch down at the powerless.  I could see that the word’s usage might not have been originally intended to have that meaning, but as we know, the power of words so often go beyond their intended meaning. The word “broken” clearly hurts people, and really, on reflection, people should stop using it due to those connotations.

The problem is that you can’t just stop using a word with no alternative. The phenomenon of abuse and repetition continues.  There needs to be a shorthand word for Twitter users who will go into an exchange with people and post abuse, or just attack people without wanting to engage in a meaningful manner. For those willing to do this:

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Or this kind of high horse riding:

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And using shots of children like this in order to compare themselves to victims of terrible and violent oppression, which is a strange and offensive style of martyrdom.


I am suggesting, therefore, that perhaps we could call such campaigning “Whacktivism” – a style of activism where people are wishing mainly to whack others with whom they don’t agree. The kind of discussion where people are ready to whack people they believe are part of a conspiracy of suppression and censorship.  It’s like the playing a grand game of whack-a-mole, where activists are seeking to have journalists and others submit to their truth via a forcefully and frequently placed mallet.


That way, if we adopt that word – or something like it, we don’t have people feeling rightfully offended at the use of a term that wasn’t meant for them. We can have a term for the adoption of a communication technique that uses one sided, one way repetition of messages. An approach that has at its heart the mistaken believe that people will agree and believe in a cause through the attrition of being whacked over the head several times.

In all of this, I am concerned about the future of the Nick Ross story. It is clear he feels vulnerable and hurt in the aftermath of his ABC days – as can be seen in tweets like these:


With all the talk of “brokens”, it has acted to bury the story that sparked this internecine, self regarding language argument. The difficulty with the story’s reportage is that it now has many moral layers wrapped up in the allegedly illegal recordings made by Ross that were reported in New Matilda and the problems for more risk averse media outlets wishing to pick up the story, if they wanted to.   There’s also something to be said for the view expressed on Media Watch that Ross had become more activist than journalist about the NBN, especially in the piece that was “suppressed”.  Having the line “This is misleading and wrong” at the start, for example, would not really help to show that the article is an ABC style dispassionate look at the facts.  The content and facts in the article as compelling and interesting, but could have been phrased and framed better, so those facts could better speak for themselves, loudly and clearly.

All in all, it’s going to be a long year in political twitter. Hopefully, the term “Whacktivism” can help delineate those who are passionately, but rationally interested in political discussion and those intent mainly on whacking others over the head with their views.


Or even better, as I have discovered today, my phone autocorrects “Whacktivist” to “Whacky Ibises”. So, Whacky Ibises it is. (With thanks to Matthew Beggs for the picture). They certainly can be seen as a bit of a garbage bin searching pest, so the name is fairly apt.


By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

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