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:
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.