There is a new series of small books that Hachette have been publishing called “On………..”. There’s a ripe line of suggestions that could be made for titles in that ongoing series, but this is not what I’m doing here. I am writing a set of posts about things that are noticeable if you use social media for your news source. This first one is about the reliability of sources and the crucial process of building a reliability filter. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made the process of building that filter more necessary. The phases of the coverage have fallen into the usual lines, but more hyped and hyper-divisive than before.
1. The Context Isn’t Important, Division is All
When the COVID-19 pandemic was started, the stories abounded of who wasn’t social distancing, and demanding why there could not be more done to have that happen. Rather than dig into reasons as to why society had difficulty with changing habits, the stories placed a spotlight on the divisions occurring between the Federal approach and that of the states. That was, inevitably turned into “What is the Government saying? What is the Opposition saying? What is the Labor Government in Victoria saying? What is the Liberal Government in NSW saying?” Hyping the divisions was the main focus. That division, however, isn’t a new thing, Australia has had that for as long as there has been a Federation. The states process the every day needs, issues, plans, police, schools, health procedures. The Feds have the overview and cash. It was clear the states – especially NSW and Victoria – had a more immediate concern over necessary measures. That wasn’t really taken into account or explained by media people just looking for The Angle. They just wanted to highlight divisions.
One such division was between the ways schools were being treated in discussion of a shutdown. It was done poorly, mostly due to a lack of education experts – or even journalists interested in education. Victoria was in a position to enact a shutdown more readily than every other state, due to a difference in school holidays in those other states. Why was that important? Because education systems are not all that flexible and able to communicate to their stakeholders in an easy fashion. NSW was not ready for mass online education – I know that from former colleagues – so it wasn’t that easy to just flick a switch, as it was in Victoria, which could call their holidays four days early. Right now, NSW and the other states are still effectively in term, with all of the Year 12 implications that brings.
What was reported and said on twitter? Most of the coverage centred on supporting the unusual position of the Chief Medical Officer suggesting that Australian students had to stay at school, like they were in Singapore and pretty much nowhere else. The natural question should have been – in what way can we draw a comparison between Australia’s and Singapore’s education system. We didn’t get any of those, unsurprisingly. One thing we did get was the Concerned Parent approach from Andrew Probyn – Why the experiment, which was pilloried by many. Forgotten in all of this – the teachers having to risk themselves by going to work.
2. Ermagherd, This Is So Confusing to Us
Once the “why aren’t there rules” phase was over, and rules and laws were brought into the equation, the pivot by media people was to outrage about those rules. The “Ermagherd, This is So Confusing” trope. This included highlighting confusing messaging coming from Scott Morrison originally, then to any edict or laws issued from states (NSW and Victoria mostly, because they are Australia, aren’t they?). It was inevitable that there would be confusion, because these are complex arrangements, being organised in a huge rush across a nation with different states and territories.
Where it has become very revealing of the background and position of journalists is what “confusions” have captured their imagination and stories. Hence, that middle class need for long and detailed haircuts; whether partners who don’t live with each other could visit. Things that could affect the journalists specifically. This latter, which came from a lack of clarity over what is considered a family “partnership”, was characterised as a “Bonk Ban”, with all of its Puritan overtones. It was easily clarified later by Victoria’s CMO, much to the mirth and happiness of twitter.
3. The Police State
Another trope that emerged is that the new rules and laws have turned our states into Police States. This has led to these lines of comment and coverage –
The Police will abuse these laws! They cannot be trusted on any level!
This line comes from politicians and media people whose brands have been built on highlighting cases of police brutality and malfeasance over the years. Yes, these cases are true, there has been problems with our police forces. Many of those problems have also occurred in regards their treatment of people from ethnic minorities. There is, however, also a case to be built for the police being reasonable in its use of laws. This latter case is near impossible to be built on twitter, however, because of the propensity for it to shut down discourse around areas of grey. In addition, these critics don’t seem to offer much of an alternative plan to stop the very things these same people were highlighting and discussing two weeks before.
Let’s Take Photos Of The Police Stopping People Like Us!
The next phase of this Police State confection is photos and video taken by journalists near where they live, of people Just Like Them in places like Coogee, being stopped or talked to. The Police! Talking to People! Proof of the Police State! Not that we hear what is being said, or whether fines have been issued in those circumstances. Just the images are enough to provoke comfortable middle class outrage, and twitter the ideal medium to spread it. Twitter has shown an unusual consensus between twitter leftist journalists, commercial outrage spinners and libertarians from the IPA in regards this issue of “Freedom From the Police / Nanny State!”, due to their shared place in society.
The irony is that these same leftist journalists won’t be taking photos of areas where people from a range of ethnic minorities live, such as the outer suburbs. Most like to talk about disadvantage, but aren’t in touch with actual disadvantage. They will therefore miss out on their particular trophy photos of the Police State In Action.
It is hard to trust the reliability of twitter for stories of what is happening in broader society, especially as the journalists in question become more even more isolated and cut off than usual. It is in this atmosphere where hope is replacing verifiable, accurate news about what is happening away from comfortable middle class areas. I hope that in those places, these new laws are not abused. I hope people can be allowed to connect with families and other people in a way that is safe. I hope that governments can continue to refine these laws and regulations in a way that takes public health and consideration of how people live their lives into account. That might be too optimistic from me, but we need to have that hope, because there’s not much out there that can hold these authorities to account in a time where decisive action has been necessary.
These are very sudden and rushed changes that have never been attempted in our current context. There will be things that cause outrage and anger – rightfully. There may be abuses of power – there probably will be. But the question remains – what alternatives are there? What stops Australians from ignoring social distancing requests other than laws? We have proof that draconian traffic laws and cameras cut down traffic infringements, we have proof that fare evasion is cut down through law enforcement. In addition, it will be important to discover and research just how police use these laws as they are intended to be used – as a deterrent, not a way to raise revenue, not just issue them without discussion. Those areas of grey will be vital for public trust of our police. Otherwise, the other pathway could lead towards greater, justified paranoia for those people who are isolated and threatened.
But the current noise on twitter, dominated by frivolous and sensationalist hyperbole about minor issues is not helpful. As ever. The trick? Mute, soft block and filter. Be critical and questioning of most journalists – no matter their political leaning and past. Consider their contextual positionality through reflecting on their experience, position in society and what they discuss with their journalist friends. Also be discerning about who are their welded on cheer squads. As ever, if you see me on twitter, you’ll continue to know that I don’t know any of these people in the political reporting game socially or personally and don’t intend to change that. In my life, I prefer people who share cat videos, talk Eurovision, classical music, sport, literature and all the things that make society bearable.
But, amongst the media dross of this last little bit, I did find this video hilarious.