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The problem of belonging: The Twitter mob is a threat to writers and journalists

October 2020, no. 425

The problem of belonging: The Twitter mob is a threat to writers and journalists

October 2020, no. 425

In early August, deep in the winter of Melbourne’s stage-four discontent, journalist Rachel Baxendale became the story. The Victorian political reporter for The Australian newspaper was attacked online for questioning Premier Daniel Andrews on his government’s hotel quarantine program, as an explosion of new coronavirus infections caused unprecedented economic shutdown and the curtailment of civil liberties. As thousands of people watched the premier’s live press briefings from their living rooms, Baxendale assiduously probed Andrews about the use of security guards instead of Australian Defence Force personnel to guard returned travellers.

It was an uncontroversial line of questioning; reporters, after all, are not responsible for telegraphing the government line, for emollient Dorothy Dixers, or for solicitous enquiry. But many on social media thought otherwise and for five days straight they flooded Baxendale’s Twitter account with invective. Some accused Baxendale of being a Murdoch shill, hell-bent on dismantling Andrews’s Labor government, while others berated her for failing to ask the premier ‘one single supportive question’. (Some of the more disturbing comments contained explicit death threats, which Victorian government health minister Jenny Mikakos alerted her to). As Baxendale told ABR: ‘While I am not actively attempting to undermine the government’s health message, my job is not to ask supportive questions. In fact, I will often ask questions that are not reflective of my own personal stance, but are part of my job as a journalist to hold all politicians to account.’

Comments (4)

  • Here is a necessary corrective to this commentary, "Journalism has a social media abuse problem (no, not that one)":
    Posted by William Wallace
    27 October 2020
  • Thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that not all journalists are of the same calibre, but, of course, we could say that of any profession. Let me be absolutely clear that my central argument was about the impact of the specific nature of Twitter on working writers and journalists. For the purposes of the argument, it was important to assume a certain level of professionalism in the broader industry sense. The questions of whether the lockdown has resulted in a positive outcome for Victoria (few would argue it hasn’t) or whether journalism has become routinely shoddy are, indeed, interesting ideas, but they belong in separate comment pieces.
    Surely, it is possible to disagree with what some reporters extract from press conferences and churn into commentary, but believe more broadly in the journalist’s right to do her work without death threats or trolling on Twitter.
    Posted by Johanna Leggatt
    21 October 2020
  • Yes, much of the twittering is the unpleasant expression of rage from all sides, especially when emotions are running as high as during the 'lockdown' in Melbourne. The shortcoming of Johanna Leggatt's excellent but needlessly defensive article is that she assumes "journalists" to be equally responsible and diligent professionals. They aren't. Much of the reporting on the lockdown has been lopsided opinion (rather than reporting) and self-indulgent searching for "gotcha" moments. If the Andrews government had followed the advice of most journalists, rather than that of epidemiologists, we would now be in a UK-style situation with soaring rates of infection.
    Posted by Peter McPhee
    19 October 2020
  • To my mind, the answer lies in relegating social media commentary to the status that corresponds with its nature: anonymous insults hurled into empty space. Why anyone would read them is beyond me.

    A good trick on most social media platforms is to set up a word filter containing commonplace pronouns and joining words, as well as typical abuse words. It shuts down most of the hogwash (although the poster of the invective continues under the delusion that they have done their worst).
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    30 September 2020

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