The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, walked into the treasury theatre at Spring Street on Friday for the 91st day in a row to give the Victorian coronavirus update to an audience of a dozen journalists and tens of thousands of people watching at home.
In a world of streaming, the premier’s daily press conference is the only show we all watch together. And, as with many long-running serials, the fandom has turned toxic.
On Twitter, the pro-Andrews hashtag #IStandWithDan and anti-Andrews hashtags #DictatorDan and #DanLiedPeopleDied have been trending with regularity since 7 July, the day Melbourne was returned to lockdown.
But for the past few weeks, another word has been trending during the daily press conferences: Rachel.
Rachel Baxendale is the state political reporter for the Australian and has been at the bottom of a Twitter pile-on since June. (In the interests of transparency: our families used to be close, though we haven’t seen each other since primary school.)
“I don’t really want to dwell on the gory details, but there’ve been death threats and rape threats and photos of me circulated on the internet for weeks,” Baxendale says, in an email exchange. “There’s been some pretty violent, nasty stuff involving suffocation and strangling and gagging. There’s been sexual nonsense about who I ‘must be’ sleeping with. But there’s also just been relentless, low-level stupid stuff, about what I wear and how I look and what my voice sounds like. Ironically a lot of the latter has come from people who describe themselves in their social media profiles as feminists who believe in things like ‘kindness’, ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’.”
Some of Baxendale’s reporting has been criticised in this publication, namely a story that linked an outbreak in public housing towers to a Black Lives Matter protest.
Legitimate and fair criticism is always warranted and good journalists are those who listen. But the hatred directed toward Baxendale is no longer criticism. It is abuse issued in defence of a government that is able to defend itself. And she’s not the only one.
‘People apply their own lens’
The Melbourne writer Jill Stark tweeted last Saturday: “Dan Andrews really has perfected the art of fronting up each day to give the perception of transparency and accountability but then not actually saying anything.”
Over the next 48 hours it received more than 3,000 responses, including those calling her a “stupid girl” (Stark is 44), accusing her of being a rightwing hack (she left journalism four years ago) and asking why she was not instead criticising Scott Morrison (he wasn’t speaking, but she has been critical of the prime minister too).
“I thought what I was saying wasn’t particularly controversial,” Stark says. “I was watching the press conference – I watch it every day – and it was just something that had been slowly building in my mind. He just doesn’t actually answer those tough questions about hotel quarantine.”
Stark has supported the lockdown and her personal politics are progressive.
“People apply their own lens on what you are saying and pigeonhole you as being on their side or not,” she says. “Life is not as black and white as that.”
But social media is increasingly that black and white, says Dr Tim Graham, a senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Queensland. “There’s a sort of homophily effect that’s at play here, where like attracts like and it groups particular like-minded individuals together and brings the fringes into the mainstream,” he says.
Graham and his team have analysed six months of data, purchased from Twitter, on the #IStandWithDan, #DictatorDan and #DanLiedPeopleDied hashtags.
The biggest of the three is #IStandWithDan, with 275,000 tweets between 3 March and 25 September. The bulk of accounts using that hashtag appear to be authentic: they were created over the past 11 years, use unique profile pictures and engage in a variety of topics. Accounts tweeting about #DictatorDan (108,000 tweets) and #DanLiedPeopleDied (21,000 tweets) were mostly created this year or last year, were more likely to use profile pictures that were copied from the web, and are more likely to tweet at a rapid rate that suggests the use of a scheduling tool or another form of automation.
Graham is yet to run the data through a bot analysis, but says it appears that most accounts are controlled by real people. That won’t stop accounts being labelled as “bots” in a pejorative way by those who disagree, he says.
“I would say that the term bot is fast becoming the new fake news,” he says. “There’s no deliberative democratic debate happening, there’s not an exchange of ideas, it’s not civil in many cases, it’s just tit for tat, highly emotionally charged, and then eventually someone calls someone else a bot and that’s it.”
An approach that appears transparent
After 12 weeks of lockdown, the premier’s daily press conference has become something of a performance, with both reporters and Andrews acutely aware they are being watched and evaluated by an audience at home.
Andrews has always excelled at addressing the public. He has stayed for every question for three months, an approach that appears transparent even as he failed to respond to the most pressing questions around hotel quarantine.
“In my view, Andrews is also the best politician of his generation at spinning things to his advantage,” Baxendale says. “Sometimes that spin involves using a tone of voice and manner that’s aimed at discrediting the person who’s asked him a question he doesn’t particularly want to answer. And that’s fine. It’s part of his job. But it should be seen for what it is.”
Osman Faruqi, a journalist with the Saturday Paper, says broadcasting press conferences has both helped and hindered public understanding. Because while they are seeing one part of how the media operates, they are not seeing the whole: the weeks of emails and phone calls to government departments requesting a response to a simple question; the outright lies from government arguing that a story which is later proved right is wrong; the hours spent on phones to sources.
“[Journalists] are asking a series of questions that can sound frustrating and boring because that’s how the media works,” he says. “Getting answers out of government is frustrating and boring and sometimes you have to ask the same question five days in a row to get an answer that is still ultimately unsatisfying.”
He says televising the press conferences has also changed the way they are conducted, like a journalistic Schrödinger’s cat. Journalists may be more conscious of the way they do their job – which means more intense scrutiny, more questions, a more combative tone – and Andrews is increasingly playing to the back of the room. Dismissing a question does not go down well in a room full of journalists, but it does work for those watching at home.
Faruqi has attracted the ire of Andrews supporters for criticising several elements of the state’s coronavirus response, including its contact tracing system; the use of police to lock down the public housing towers; and the over-reliance on policing and fines to manage public health.
The attacks from Andrews super fans have been, for him at least, milder than previous pile-ons by rightwing accounts.
“At least they’re not threatening to kill me or hurling racist abuse,” Faruqi says.
He is slightly bemused by those that have suggested that in criticising the Victorian government, he is angling for a job at News Corp, an organisation that has run campaigns against him in the past.
“I have no interest in being in cahoots with those people,” he says. “If they are waging a vendetta against the government and I am doing reporting simultaneously that exposes problems happening in the government, that is not me being in cahoots, that’s just two different things happening at the same time.”
Stark thinks the stress and pressure of this year has created a heightened response on social media.
“The #IStandWithDan supporters probably do have some valid criticism in terms of the level of scrutiny being applied to the premier, compared to, say, the prime minister during this pandemic,” she says. “But it seems like it’s gone beyond the usual ideological or political tribalism and it has a much more emotional, almost anxious energy to it. Which I think is understandable given that in Melbourne we’ve been going through a collective trauma in the last few months.”
Andrews has been a steady presence throughout that period, a source of comfort and stability. For people who feel that way, she says, an attack on Andrews is “by proxy an attack on your own sense of security”.
Experts discouraged from speaking
It has created, says journalism professor Monica Attard, an interesting change. “Rather than wanting the media to closely question and pursue government, Twitter wants the media to back off and leave Dan alone.”
There is a group of people who see any criticism of Andrews as an attempt to undermine the public health message, says Baxendale.
“I see it as the opposite,” she says. “Parts of the bureaucracy and government have monumentally failed us, and the only way of fixing them is to work out what went wrong by asking the right questions and refusing to accept the spin.”
The threat of a social media pile-on has discouraged some experts from contributing to the public debate, says Deakin University’s professor of epidemiology, Catherine Bennett.
Bennett is one of the few independent public health experts who has kept talking. After each opinion piece or interview, she receives a flood of emails: 99% from other academics who praise her for speaking out even as they keep their silence; and 1% from members of the public who question her integrity, twist her arguments or issue threats.
“I know that other academics aren’t out here doing the same thing, working in the public space, because that 1% is shocking to us, that you could be questioned and challenged and used in people’s own political spheres,” she says. “So it is tough. You do have to have enough focus on what you’re doing to be able to put the blinkers on and ignore some of that as a sadly necessary negative part of being in this space.”
She says that valid questioning – such as requesting the inputs of the modelling released by the Victorian government this month, and asking to see the evidence behind various policy decisions – should be encouraged, not shut down.
“The message is just: stay the course, it’s working,” she says. “And that’s fine, OK, but could other things work?”
Traditional media is just as guilty of misinterpreting expert opinions: an interview Bennett gave this week about changes to the face-mask rules was reported as “expert slams the latest guidelines”.
“I actually supported them completely,” she says.
Bennett has abandoned social media, saying it serves no purpose as a measure of public sentiment when it’s occupied by extremes.
“All the middle conversation’s dropped out so there’s no point in trying to engage in it,” she says. “You know what the extreme views are and you don’t know what the balance is, because [the extreme views are] the loudest voices.”