Media Analysis

Leigh Sales, Twitter and the power of the mainstream media

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Leigh Sales in 2019 (image via YouTube)

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

THE ABC’s 7.30 host Leigh Sales – presenter of a national, prime time current affairs show, with a Twitter platform of 436,000 people – this week called those who criticise her "sexist" and "bullies".

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

I am victim to personal, abusive feedback numerous times a day on social media, and like Sales, have learned to block at the first sign of trouble. It’s unpleasant and intimidating. And it does not just happen to female journalists.

Yet, Leigh Sales did not use her platform to call out specific tweets or tweeters, but rather used her power to delegitimise social media users who dare to criticise her. The critique Sales was no doubt referring to when calling people "unhinged" – a way to imply those who disagree with her can’t think straight – is the angry response she received to an opinion she shared via a Twitter thread about the effects of COVID-19 on children.

In this thread, Sales continued a narrative she has been promoting on her powerful television platform to argue against health restrictions like lockdowns and border closures.

This anti-health-policy position – which has been blatant throughout the pandemic – has seen her Twitter feed and her current affairs coverage almost entirely focus on the negative impacts of health restrictions on people’s freedom and the consequences on business owners, with little coverage of the success of those health restrictions in saving thousands of lives.

In this anti-COVID restrictions position, Sales promoted a view which polling shows is held by 20% of Australians who argue:

‘We need to accept some deaths to reopen our borders as the cost of remaining closed is too high.’

This is opposed to the arguments of 45% who propose we:

‘... accept some deaths but must take every reasonable step to minimise deaths, even if it means slowing our reopening.'

34% say we cannot:

'... accept any deaths that could be prevented by keeping our borders closed until it’s safe to reopen them’.

A balanced representation of health restrictions – an unbiased perspective – would represent these perspectives in proportion to the public’s stance.

This is not what Sales has served to the audience.

Since Sales chose to take the minority "let’s live with COVID" position, it’s not surprising that many Twitter users argued against her. Argument and debate is the whole purpose of engaging on Twitter.

Twitter is meant to be a marketplace of ideas where you "sell" your ideas and people are free to disagree and discuss.

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 with power usually do to anyone who challenges them — squash criticism by delegitimising the audience.

Sales did this by, as journalist and journalism academic Margaret Simons wrote, failing ‘to draw a distinction between abuse and legitimate critique’, which in this case meant failing to differentiate 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 take a scroll through the replies to Sales’ offending thread, you will see hundreds of reasonable and well-versed Twitter users, including some experts, pointing out their fears about their children suffering from the mostly unknown effects of long-COVID, and of children being susceptible to serious illness and death.

Despite Sales arguing that Twitter bullying and abuse is a "left-leaning" problem, there is little to no evidence in the mass of replies to the offensive thread that people hold a particular political ideology. Nor is there any major evidence of people abusing Sales personally, calling her misogynistic names, or really commenting on anything except the position she took on children catching COVID.

People dared to argue with Sales and so she sought to squash them all.

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

This sneering serves two purposes: to delegitimise the challengers by characterising them as villains and to make the powerful person untouchable as the hero and the victim of those illegitimate villains.

The end goal, of course, is maintenance and reinforcement of power. 

We see this behaviour often in politics, particularly when right-wing politicians are challenged by public protest. When 250,000 Australians marched to protest Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War, Howard referred to protestors as "the mob", claiming they were not representative of mainstream opinion.

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

And when international Black Lives Matter protests call for an end to racial discrimination, leaders like Peter Dutton accused them of being part of "cancel culture". 

This week, former Attorney General Christian Porter channelled Leigh Sales by justifying his decision not to reveal the identities of the person/people who funded his legal fees because it would subject them to 'the social media mob'.

Politicians have the power to dismiss hundreds of thousands of people with no more than a sound bite.

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

Employers make workers the villain, so they can powerfully co-opt the dual role of hero and victim of union thuggery.

This same delegitimisation strategy is used by people and organisations with media power. For decades, the media audience had no avenue to challenge media power. Those who owned the means of media production had total control over the content produced.

News media is crucial for democracy, yet those who live in those democracies had no way to critique what they were served. Then, along came social media, which has forever disrupted the power between media producers and their audiences. Boy, do the media producers resent that.

It’s important to note that the powerful monopoly the owners of news outlets hold over news production remains intact in the post-internet era. The mainstream media still set the news agenda like they always have, still decide which issues receive public attention, and how those issues will be presented to audiences.

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

‘Twitter is extensively concerned with mainstream media content — commenting on, criticising, and referring to it [in] as many as 36.9% [of tweets].'

Furthermore, even when Twitter is talking about issues the mainstream media is not reporting on, these issues don’t tend to gain traction in mainstream media. There are of course exceptions to these findings, but for the most part, the power to set the agenda remains with the powerful owners of mass media platforms, and not with everyday social media users.

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

Where the only recourse the audience once had to challenge the power of journalists was to write a letter to the editor, social media has opened the media marketplace of ideas to allow anyone to critique journalists’ work — to challenge their unilateral power to dictate how the world is reflected to mass audiences.

To say journalists have not adapted kindly to this revolution is an understatement.

Just like when 250,000 people in "the mob" protested Howard’s decision to go to war in Iraq, the social media audience are not afraid – in mass numbers – to tell journalists when they think they’ve made a bad decision, misrepresented reality, or have taken a position the audience do not agree with.

That’s the reality of the social media age.

Journalists still have huge power to influence the ideas that are debated and discussed in the social media marketplace of ideas and their powerful platforms give them much influence over how those issues are discussed.

When people don’t like their ideas, they will tell them so: that’s what a market is.

If journalists, who use social media platforms to also become commentators, don’t like that criticism and find it difficult to justify their perspectives after mass disagreement, perhaps the problem is with their ideas and not those who debate against them? 

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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