Extreme polarisation of voters is one cause of the crisis in democracy gripping many Western nations, especially the United States and Britain and to a lesser extent the countries of western Europe.
So far, Australia seems not to have succumbed to the same extent. Leaders of the two main parties appear to be working constructively together on the pandemic. There is no evidence that they see each other as illegitimate, as has happened between Republicans and Democrats in the US.
Yet some important ingredients for polarisation are present: unconstrained social media and—as in the US and Britain—the dominating presence of the blatantly partisan Murdoch media.
A critical risk factor for polarisation is the way social media and the professional mass media interact. When extremist content appears in one, there is a tendency for it to be picked up and amplified by the other, and extremism by definition leads to an extreme degree of polarisation.
The coverage of Daniel Andrews’ performance as Premier of Victoria during the Covid-19 pandemic provides a case study in how this interaction can play out to the detriment of democracy.
Of all the measures taken by the Andrews Government to contain the second wave of the pandemic, four in particular have provoked hostility on social media and in the newspapers and on the Sky News channel of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
On August 21, the overnight curfew was announced. On September 2, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation enabling the state of emergency to be extended by six months. On September 6, Andrews announced that stage four restrictions would be extended for two weeks, and that even when restrictions were eased, face masks would remain mandatory in public.
A chorus of Murdoch’s Sky News night-time rabble-rousers took to calling Andrews ‘Chairman Dan’, consistent with The Australian’s run of cartoons depicting Andrews in a Mao suit, complete with red star on the cap. The Australian has also called the Victorian Government’s pandemic response ‘health fascism’.
The Murdoch tabloids—the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and Herald Sun in Melbourne—preferred ‘Dictator Dan’, which has an alliterative ring and found favour, rather surprisingly, with the Washington Post.
Dictator Dan is the name of a hashtag, along with another called #DanLiedPeopleDied. On social media, Andrews has also been depicted as Hitler, his head defaced with the characteristic haircut and moustache.
#DanLiedPeopleDied became the subject of a research project by Dr Timothy Graham, senior lecturer in digital media and communication at Queensland University of Technology.
He looked at more than 7000 tweets using that hashtag and found many of the accounts were dubious: they lacked real profile photos, showed no interest in any other topic, and in some cases tweeted every few minutes about the same topic for hours at a time.
He concluded that they were trolls that spammed the hashtag more than 200 times in seven hours.
To follow that up, Dr Graham investigated the hashtag #DictatorDan, which has been used about 71,000 times on Twitter this year, and he found similar patterns.
He described them as rabble-rousers, trolling the conversation, trying to make it even more emotionally charged than it already is. He said they were setting out to be divisive, using tropes like World War II imagery to try and drive a wedge in the community.
It is obvious that social media and the Murdoch media are feeding off each other, amplifying each other’s divisive content in a rising spiral of outrage.
However, this destructive interaction between social media and professional mass media was not confined to the Murdoch organisation. At Nine Entertainment, The Age was also guilty of enlisting social media in a different way to make its own headlines.
It recently used Twitter to conduct an opinion poll in which people were asked to answer yes or no to a question about whether they supported the roadmap out of lockdown proposed by Andrews. No sample control; a methodological catastrophe.
The result—which is seriously damaging to the newspaper’s reputation—was laid out on the ABC’s Media Watch program of September 14.
For almost all the time the poll was open, it was tracking about 70% ‘yes’ and 30% ‘no’—pretty much reflecting the level of support for Andrews’ handling of the pandemic as a professional poll by Roy Morgan Research in late August.
Then suddenly in the last hour or so, an automated burst of about 15,000 ‘no’ responses switched the result around so that it showed about 84% ‘no’.
One person who had tracked the poll online, but whose identity is unfortunately veiled by the pseudonym PRGuy17, produced computer screen shots showing 13,000 ‘no’ responses arriving in 16 seconds. Given the time pattern of responses up to that point—slow and low over many hours—this strongly suggested that the poll had been hijacked.
PRGuy17’s analysis was corroborated by that of another pseudonymous online analyst, PTUser.
The Age at least had the decency to take down its story about the poll, but the misinformation was already in the public domain, providing fuel for further controversy, confusion and divisiveness.
Then on Monday September 21, The Australian got a grip on reality. It reported prominently on its front page the result of a professional survey done by its pollster Newspoll. It showed support for Andrews running at nearly 2 to 1: 62% said they were satisfied with his handling of the crisis and 35% said they were dissatisfied. The rest were not sure.
Aside from the disservice biased and incompetent journalism does to a public that desperately needs reliable journalism in a crisis, there is a deeper concern about this coverage.
Dr Graham put his finger on it when he referred to the attempts by unseen online forces to drive a wedge into communities.
An American legal scholar, Professor Cass Sunstein of Harvard, laid out in his 2017 book #republic the damage to democracy done by social media echo chambers and by the polarisation exacerbated by extremist public discourse.
The report by Robert Mueller into Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election was a further wake-up call about how vulnerable democracies are to manipulation through social media.
When professional mass media—in particular when it is as dominant as News Corporation—engage in the same kind of extremism, they play into the hands of those who would divide the community.
By their process of mutual reinforcement, social media and professional mass media turbocharge a crudely divisive public discourse, one of the causes of the crisis in democracy demonstrated by Sunstein’s meta-analysis.
For that reason, News Corporation’s characterisation of Andrews as a dictator, its references to him as Chairman Dan presiding over ‘health fascism’, picking up and feeding into social media tropes, are dangerous to the Australian democracy.
It is the exact opposite of the role democracies need professional mass media to play. Journalism’s ethical obligations to accuracy, fairness and respect for persons, along with its gatekeeping capabilities, equip it to exert a civilising influence on public debate.
Regrettably the desire for clicks and eyeballs still has some elements of the media in its grip, and when extremist debate fits with a media organisation’s own ideological agenda, commitment to ethical norms evaporates.