“I’m thick-skinned, and I’m not going to let a bunch of awful trolls who don’t know me get the better of me, but I’d be lying and letting others who’ve experienced similar down if I said that the kinds of messages I’ve received over the past couple of days don’t have an impact,” she tweeted.
“I temporarily deleted the Twitter app off my phone yesterday afternoon, because I simply didn’t have the time or the mental energy to do my job and absorb all the mentions, direct messages, emails, texts, calls, WhatsApps and Facebook messages coming in: good, bad or otherwise.
“I knew people were saying some bad stuff but was blissfully unaware that the unhinged messages had even reached the point of including death threats.”
The crowd had cowed a representative of one of the most feared media companies in the English-speaking world.
The politically engaged used to meet in person to share opinions and push barrows. Today they do it on Twitter, which doesn’t demand objectivity, precision or intellectual diversity. Twitter has favourites. Twitter takes sides, and is a brutal critic.
In Australia, Twitter’s 5.3 million accounts make it less popular than Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.
But the social media site – once dubbed the place where people who don’t read books argue with people who write them – is a cauldron of news, debate and argument, and frequently the primary place where journalists and other figures in the information business interact, for better or worse, with their consumers.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive, has expressed regret about the way the site has evolved into shallow communications. One possible mistake he recently cited is the prominence of each individual’s follower count, which has created a global popularity measure.
Under consideration, Dorsey said, is a function that checks if someone has read an article before they post it – an attempt to encourage more thoughtful discussion.
“Does this really have the right intentions versus informing people?” Dorsey recently told The New York Times. “I think that spread without substance can be necessarily dangerous.”
Influencing the news
The power of Twitter – and the power it gives the citizenry – isn’t fully understood. Through the pandemic, though, Twitter has defended politicians going all-out against the COVID-19 virus.
Journalists, used to privileged access, have found themselves held accountable for questioning the conduct of the health strategy, in some cases, the basis for it.
In Victoria, where most people are locked at home, Twitter amplifies the influence of Andrews’ media briefings, which are the daily focus of the news.
Most voters have never watched a press conference before, and may have found the sound of journalists’ aggressive questions confronting. Andrews’ supporters, often using the Twitter hashtag #IStandWithDan, have responded with abuse and trenchant criticism.
The feedback may have an effect on coverage, and explain in part why Andrews appears so politically resilient during a governance crisis that might have destroyed his credibility in normal times.
“When you see Twitter goes on the offensive, journalists run a mile,” says one federal minister who’s been a Twitter target.
Let off the hook
Over last weekend, Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos engaged in some post-midnight tweets comparing the crisis with a pandemic in Greece 2500 years ago. She complained about the “incorrect assumption” she knows what everyone involved in the government’s response is doing – a non-existent expectation.
Liberal MPs accused her of self-indulgence. A columnist who praised Mikakos for her “sincerity”, was herself lavished with Twitter praise. On Monday, when she appeared at Andrews’ briefing, Mikakos was subjected to mild questioning about the tweets. The story died.
“The truly depressing thing is that it doesn’t need organisation really,” says a long-time activist from Melbourne with close Labor links. “It’s not like there’s a lab of tweeters in an ACTU dungeon or anything like that. They don’t need one.”
In a way, the twitter pressure is a kind of democratisation of heavy-handed pressure on media that has long been conducted by governments, companies and other big institutions.
The Israeli lobby is known for criticising reporters it perceives are biased against the Jewish state, including now-ABC journalist John Lyons, who described his experiences in a memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem.
“In my 35 years in journalism I’ve never found so much pressure or heat when attempting to report about Israel,” Lyons said in 2017. “And that’s due largely to the power of the Israeli lobby in Australia.”
Powerful and wealthy individuals have long used defamation law to intimidate journalists. The Age, which has broken important stories about Melbourne’s quarantine failure, is in a long-running and expensive court case with Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith over coverage of his war record.
Baxendale suspects there is a double standard. Male reporters who asked similar questions didn’t receive the same response. ABC radio broadcaster Rafael Epstein, who is loved on Twitter, often asks Andrews tough questions.
“To some degree I don’t entirely understand it,” she says in an interview. “I don’t want to over-egg the gender angle but 65 to 70 per cent of people who attacked me were women. You want to think you are thick-skinned and tough but you would be lying if you said it doesn’t have an effect.”
Other female journalists have similar experiences. ABC television host Leigh Sales said she receives sexualised abuse whenever she interviews Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “Female politicians, journalists, public figures get this non-stop,” she said on Twitter.
In Baxendale’s case there is an added complication. Twitter mostly hates conservatives, and The Australian was founded by the most powerful conservative in Australian history, Rupert Murdoch.
His papers often stoke conflict to attract attention. On Friday, for example, The Australian misquoted US presidential candidate Joe Biden in a cartoon in a way that made him sound racist. Twitter allowed anger at the cartoon to be shared and disseminated.
Even though Baxendale says she has always been determined to be non-partisan, she acknowledges that some of the attacks are a reaction against her employer: “Part of it is probably that I work for a Murdoch publication.”
Baxendale says she will continue to use Twitter, which many journalists regard as essential to their job, but is wary about stepping back into the social media conversation.
“I will probably do even less interacting with people as a result of this, which is a pity,” she says.