Twitter won’t stop the filter or win the election

Over the past year I’ve been having an ongoing argument with quite a few people who can’t understand why the Rudd-Gillard government has persisted with its internet filtering proposal since “everyone knows it’s a bad idea”.

I can’t argue with the ‘bad idea’ part, but the ‘everyone’ part is simply delusional. Yet many quite sensible people I speak to are genuinely bewildered that the filter is almost completely ignored by the mainstream media and barely registers on the radar of political debate.

(To be fair, the mainstream media’s reporting of internet censorship has been woeful and a prime example of what Jay Rosen calls “he said, she said journalism“, where a reporter simply records the opinions of opposing sides of an issue without subjecting their claims to any analysis. Most recently, on last night’s Q&A, Tony Jones only gave Small Business Minister Craig Emerson enough time to claim the government should filter all pornography that children shouldn’t see before shutting down the topic, preventing any debate.)

This is the kind of conversation I’m talking about:

renailemay: So let me get this straight. No #1 election issue on Twitter is the filter. And yet no questions from the floor during #ausvotes debate

vealmince: @renailemay Do you really not understand? Twitter is NOT the Australian public. It’s a tiny fraction of mostly like-minded people. #ausvotes

renailemay: @vealmince do you really not understand? Twitter is the Australian public. We live in Australia and we vote. Stop telling me I’m a minority

vealmince: @renailemay You and your 1000 mates. Either it’s not enough people, or you’re not organised enough to make a political difference.

Late last year, I argued that filter opponents were failing to cut through because they spent too much time agreeing with each other, debating nomenclature and deploying logic and sarcasm, rather than actual political lobbying, to sway the discussion in their favour.

But I think another factor at work is the inability of many in the twittersphere to see outside their small and mostly like-minded online social circle. This groupthink has led many online news outlets to publish polls finding that 95% or more of their readers were against an internet filter, unaware of or deliberately ignoring the massive selection bias inherent in asking that question to that audience.

The harsh reality is, even if everyone on Twitter thought and voted the same way, it would make no difference.

There are 13.9 million registered voters in Australia. There are 1.2 million Twitter accounts, of which no more than half could be active users who are eligible to vote. That makes 600,000 or about 4% of registered voters. It’s not a huge number, but 4% could gain a Senate seat, depending on how preferences fell, or swing the whole election.

Nice try. But of course, not all Twitter users would change their votes.

If Twitter is a representative sample of the Australian population (there are reasons to argue why it’s not), according to the latest polls, its users are split 50:50 on the two-party preferred vote. That means even if you could persuade every active Twitter user in Australia to vote for one party, it would only deliver a 2% swing.

But of course, you couldn’t get them all to vote the same way. Even though the filter is bad, some might argue that on the balance of all its policies, Labor is the less worse choice. Some of them might not care about the filter or, believe it or not, actually support it. (OMG, nowai!)

Still, a swing of less than 2% could be an election winner if Twitter users were disproportionately located in marginal seats such as western Sydney and the Brisbane suburbs. Whereas if a large number of Twitter users lived in safe seats, such as those in inner-city Melbourne and Sydney, even a 4% swing would make no difference.

Which do you think is more likely?

The impotent rage many Twits feel about the political-media establishment’s nonchalant treatment of the censorship issue is palpable. But it’s merely a symptom of the increasing influence of numbers men, marketing wonks and political strategists who use business intelligence technology to slice-and-dice, drill-down focus on winning a dozen or so marginal seats. If the issue that arouses your passion is not one that boils the blood of the residents of those seats, you’re irrelevant to the political process.

Viva democracy.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Renai LeMay says:

    Sure — I’m happy to acknowledge that you’re right. Twittering won’t stop the filter or win the election.

    But that doesn’t mean that the Twittersphere is without influence — and that is why I am tired of arguing with you about this — because you seem to believe it is.

  2. Josh says:

    I don’t think the Twittersphere is without influence, but I think people – inside and out – greatly overestimate its importance.

    If the filter opponents used Twitter to coordinate broader, real-world lobbying, THAT would be something. They could be out there taking the fight to the streets of Gosford and Camden and Petrie and Caboolture. But I don’t see it.

    Instead, I see people (me too) tweeting and blogging at and polling each other and making online videos to constantly reaffirm their belief that everyone they know hates the filter. Even GetUp! and EFA have fallen into this trap.

    Here’s an idea: make up a leaflet that says ‘Labor wants to take away your porn’ and hand it out at the Tigers-Panthers match at Campbelltown on 15 August.

  3. Paul S says:

    As a part of the “media establishment” it is difficult to justify writing a story about the filter on any given day, when there is little new to add.

    If I go up to the editor in charge of the election coverage on the newsdesk and say we should run something about the filter, his first question will be, “why, what’s happened?”

    I’m afraid someone coming up with a zinger on Twitter or in the comments section on an SMH story doesn’t count as something new happening.

    Of course we could manufacture a story by doing some research about the effectiveness or otherwise of the filter and the concerns about free speech – but its all been written before.

    As Josh says if there was some tangible lobbying going on, or something planned that was likely to cause a murmur during the campaign then we’d be all ears and it would definitely get properly covered.

  4. Phil Collins says:

    You are correct and correct. Social media will stay with us for always but Twitter itself is a brand and a fad.
    As for filtering (agree with it or not), the only way the online press have perpetuated the ‘story’ has to become ‘opponents’ (not journalists), relying on questionable ‘facts’, their ignorance about political process and repeating the same flimsy arguments again and again.

  5. Josh says:

    Paul, you should take a look at how some of your colleagues manage to spin a complete non-story, say “Apple releases product”, into 5-10 non-stories:

    Apple announces local release date
    Apple won’t reveal local pricing
    Apple product launches overseas
    Overseas users report problems with Apple product
    Apple product still not here
    Manufacturer can’t keep up with demand for Apple product – may impact local release date
    Apple announces local pricing – mysteriously double US price
    Apple product almost here
    People queuing outside Apple store ahead of product release…

    Surely this model could apply to filter stories too.

  6. Paul S says:

    I won’t argue with you about the level of Apple coverage, we’re guilty as charged. But the fact of the matter is that even though I couldn’t give a toss when Apple’s phone is available, a lot of our readers do.

    The difference, I guess, is feeding people incremental updates about something we know they are already interested in, as opposed to beating up an angle on something I am interested in but the majority of our readers aren’t.

    We have run articles about the filter and concerns about it already, we just need a “thing” to happen to justify writing about it again.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s