If you want to know how the left in Australia thinks, then check out Twitter. It will also explain the slow degradation of Australian political reporting into gotcha exposes and personal slurs.
Twitter should be a great connector. Instead it is a great divider. It is also a great undoer of “progressive” politics.
Polling we did during the last election showed social media was a news source for the minority, but they were two to three times more likely to be Greens or Labor voters than Liberal ones.
The corollary is that Greens and Labor voters are far more numerous on Twitter, and that Twitter, as a collective, will be on the left of the political spectrum.
In 1999 Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein published a paper called “The Law of Group Polarization” showing that “deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments”.
This law applies equally to all, even including Supreme Court Judges.
Whatever our prejudices, status or abilities, when we mix with others with a similar prejudice, we become even more prejudiced.
Twitter magnifies this propensity, because it rewards Twits who are popular.
This encourages conformity, shifting the deliberation faster and farther to the extreme.
And while the Twitter users are a minority, a majority of journalists are Twitterati.
So it matters that Twitter is dominated by the “mean girls” of Australian politics, playing the person, not the ball, and conquering through social exclusion rather than logic and rational persuasion, because that is how the news is coming to be reported.
A slight prime ministerial slip of the tongue means that Canada is transmuted to #Canadia, and trends on Twitter, and jumps the barrier into mainstream broadcasts and commentary, freezing out real news, or colouring the news that is reported.
Twitter thinks global warming is a big issue (polls show otherwise), but that becomes the frame through which we are asked to view Abbott’s recent US trip.
More important issues such as trade and terrorism are ignored. They don’t “trend”.
Twitter also infects the modern Labor Party.
Labor’s moved a long way from the days when Gough Whitlam won an election on policies and the positive appeal of “It’s time”.
The personal attack has become a staple of Labor Party campaigning.
We’re asked to believe that Abbott is too stupid and inept to be our Prime Minister, despite successfully bringing down two PMs.
He’s ridiculed for even the small things, like his budgie smugglers which have been a large target. Or for being the first to a photo lineup and standing on his own for a couple of second he is labelled “Nigel No Friends”.
And Julia Gillard’s most celebrated social media moment was her “I will not be lectured by this man” speech, surely the greatest verbal of this century so far.
At a state level it is worse.
In the last Queensland election Labor targeted Campbell Newman for being corrupt. The campaign collapsed when they admitted they had no evidence. Likewise Ted Baillieu was similarly mauled in Victoria.
There is a downside for the left in Twitter addiction – by polarising opinion and creating a cool in-group it also produces a much larger nerdy out-group, and no matter how cool you are, you only get one vote.
Australia is the land where we take the Sunshine Harvester to tall poppies and poppy envy has been the fuel which has lifted Liberal leaders from Menzies to Abbott to landslide victories.
For Menzies the out-group were the “forgotten people”, and for Howard “Howard battlers”.
They mightn’t have a classification these days, and they don’t spend any time on Twitter, but they still vote.
They know what issues are important: they’re the ones that affect them directly like the cost of living, housing, employment, education, health and security in old age.
And while they might not have a uni degree, they’re not stupid, and they don’t like being told to what to do.
When the “too cool” kids push in one direction, they are likely to push back. With Australia in the middle of a welter of Twitter-fuelled push, there’s a good chance of an equal and opposite reaction at the next election, despite what the polls say.
The best advice to Australian politicians and journalists could be to spend less time behind the computer and more time out in the yard – that’s where reality happens.
Otherwise they might Twit themselves up.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Australian Financial Review.