Leigh Sales, Twitter and the Power of Mainstream Media

Leigh Sales’ attack on Twitter and its users is indicative of the mainstream media’s dissatisfaction with being challenged, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

ABC 7.30 Host Leigh Sales – a national prime-time news anchor with a Twitter platform of 436,000 people – this week called those who criticize her “sexist” and “bullies.”

As the usual caveat goes, of course I oppose sexism, bullying, and personal attacks in any forum – social media, mainstream media, or in person.

I am the victim of personal and abusive comments several times a day on social media and, like Sales, I have learned to block at the first sign of a problem. It’s unpleasant and intimidating. And that doesn’t just happen to women journalists.

Yet Leigh Sales didn’t use her platform to call out specific tweets or tweeters, but instead used her power to delegitimize social media users who dare to criticize her. The criticism Sales was undoubtedly referring to when she called people “imbalanced” – a way of suggesting that those who disagree with her can’t think clearly – is the anger response. that she received to an opinion that she shared via a Twitter feed on the effects of COVID-19 on children.

In this thread, Sales continued a story she promoted on her powerful TV platform to oppose health restrictions such as lockdowns and border closures.

This anti-health policy stance – which has been blatant throughout the pandemic – has seen its Twitter feed and news coverage focus almost entirely on the negative impacts of health restrictions on human freedom and the consequences. on business owners, with little coverage of the success of these health restrictions in saving thousands of lives.

In this position of anti-COVID restrictions, Sales has promoted a view that polls are shared by 20% of Australians who support:

“We have to accept some deaths to reopen our borders because the cost of staying closed is too high.”

This is opposed to the arguments of 45% which propose to us:

“… accept some deaths but must take all reasonable steps to minimize deaths, even if that means slowing our reopening.”

34% say we can’t:

“… accept any deaths that could be avoided by keeping our borders closed until it can be safely reopened”.

A balanced representation of health restrictions – an unbiased perspective – would represent those perspectives in proportion to the position of the public.

This is not what Sales served the public.

Given that Sales has chosen to take the minority “living with COVID” stance, it’s no surprise that many Twitter users have objected to her. Argumentation and debate are the whole point of engaging on Twitter.

Twitter is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas where you “sell” your ideas and people are free to disagree and argue.

Yet rather than engage with the mass of Twitter users who disagreed with her, Sales instead decided to use her media power to do what those in power usually do to anyone. challenge them – crush criticism by delegitimizing the public.

As journalist and journalism scholar Margaret Simons wrote, sales did, failing to “Distinguish between abuse and legitimate criticism”, which in this case meant not differentiating between those who troll in bad faith and those who have legitimate concerns about the dangers of living with COVID-19, such as the consequences for unvaccinated children.

If you browse the responses to Sales’ offending thread, you’ll see hundreds of reasonable and savvy Twitter users, including experts, expressing fears that their children are suffering from the mostly unknown effects of long-standing COVID and that children are at risk of serious illness and illness. to die.

Although Sales argues that bullying and abuse on Twitter is a “leftist” problem, there is little to no evidence in the mass of offensive responses to the thread that people have a particular political ideology. There is also no major evidence that people personally abuse Sales, call her by misogynistic names, or really comment on anything except the stance she has taken on children who get COVID.

People dared to argue with Sales, so she tried to run over them all.

Power comes in many forms – democratic, industrial, cultural, wealth and media power – and in each of these forms there is a structural imbalance of power. As long as there has been an imbalance of power, the powerful have mocked people who challenge their power.

This sneer serves two purposes: to delegitimize the challengers by characterizing them as villains and to make the powerful person untouchable as the hero and victim of these illegitimate villains.

The end goal, of course, is the maintenance and strengthening of power.

We often see this behavior in politics, especially when right-wing politicians are challenged by public protests. When 250,000 Australians marched to protest Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, Howard called the protesters a “crowd”, saying they were not representative of mainstream opinion.

When the young people went on strike for climate action, Morrison told them to go back to school.

And when Black Lives Matter’s international protests call for an end to racial discrimination, leaders like Peter Dutton have accused them of being part of the “cancellation culture.”

This week, former Attorney General Christian Porter channeled Leigh Sales into justifying his decision not to reveal the identity of the person (s) who funded his legal fees as it would subject them to “The social media crowd”.

Politicians have the power to fire hundreds of thousands of people with one word.

The same happens when unions and workers challenge the unilateral power of their employers to dictate their wages and terms. Ever since Australian unions have existed, employers have used their structural and cultural power to label unions as illegitimate thugs, accusing them of undermining peace and stability and of being responsible for economic damage.

Employers make workers the bad guys, so that they can powerfully co-opt the dual role of hero and victim of union violence.

This same delegitimization strategy is used by people and organizations with media power. For decades, the media audience has had no way to challenge the power of the media. Those who had the means of media production had complete control over the content produced.

News media are crucial for democracy, but those who live in these democracies had no way of criticizing what was served to them. Then came social media, which forever changed the power between media producers and their audiences. Boy, do media producers want it.

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It is important to note that the powerful monopoly that media owners have on news production remains intact in the post-Internet age. The mainstream media still sets the news agenda as it always has, always deciding what issues get public attention and how those issues will be presented to the public.

Indeed, a study of the relationship of social media with mainstream media shows:

“Twitter is very interested in mainstream media content: commenting, criticizing and referring to it [in] like up to 36.9% [of tweets]. ‘

Additionally, even when Twitter talks about issues that the mainstream media doesn’t address, those issues don’t tend to gain traction in the mainstream media. There are of course exceptions to these conclusions, but for the most part, the power to set the agenda rests with the powerful owners of mass media platforms, not the everyday users of social media.

Despite the disruption of social media leaving the power of mainstream media intact, it has changed the relationship between the public and media producers, especially journalists and news consumers.

Where the only recourse the public once had to challenge the power of journalists was to write a letter to the editor, social media has opened up the market for media ideas to allow anyone to criticize the work of journalists – to challenge their one-sided power to dictate how the world reflects on the general public.

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To say that journalists did not adapt well to this revolution is an understatement.

Just like when 250,000 people in “the crowd” protested Howard’s decision to go to war in Iraq, social media audiences are not afraid – en masse – to tell reporters they think they’ve taken a bad decision, distort reality or have taken a position with which the public does not agree.

This is the reality of the age of social media.

Journalists still have tremendous power to influence the ideas that are debated and discussed in the social media ideas market and their powerful platforms give them a lot of influence over how these issues are discussed.

When people don’t like their ideas, they tell them this is a deal.

If journalists, who use social media platforms to become commentators as well, dislike this criticism and find it difficult to justify their views after mass disagreement, the problem may be with their ideas and not of those who argue against them?

Dr Victoria Fielding is a freelance Australian columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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