By Benjamin Haslem
It should come as no surprise to those who know my professional history that my Twitter feed is full of tweets by journalists; particularly political journalists ensconced in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in Australia’s capital city, Canberra.
I spent a decade working as a reporter for The Australian, my homeland’s only daily national broadsheet newspaper. About a quarter of that time was spent covering national politics in Canberra.
I also covered politics in Melbourne (Australia’s second largest city) and to a much lesser degree, Sydney.
Journalists, particularly those in the Press Gallery, are often maligned for being out of touch with the rest of Australia (actually, it’s a criticism leveled at anyone who lives in Canberra – for the record I was born and raised there).
It’s not an unreasonable observation. Press Gallery journalists spend most of their days inside Parliament House and many live within a short distance, socialising in the nearby suburbs of Griffith and Kingston, home to many federal bureaucrats.
It’s not a reflection on the dedication or talents of the men and women who cover federal politics, more on the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne when Australia was federated in 1901, forcing the infant nation to build its capital from scratch on the banks of the Molonglo River.
Anyone working inside the Washington DC Beltway cops similar accusations of living in a fishbowl.
I recall arriving in Canberra on a January morning in 2003, having returned recently to The Australian’s Sydney bureau, to cover devastating bushfires that the afternoon before had razed more than 500 homes on the city’s western flank, injured 490 people and killed four.
Many Press Gallery reporters had no idea where the mysterious suburbs affected (Duffy, Holder, Rivett and Chapman) were in relation to the Parliamentary Triangle, let alone how to get there.
It’s against this background that I have pondered the influence of social media on political journalism and political debate more broadly.
Follow many political journalists’ tweets and one thing becomes apparent: they often respond to each other’s tweets. It’s literally a digital version of conversations I had in the pre-social media days with colleagues in the Press Gallery.
It’s hardly surprising. It’s been long-observed that we gravitate towards people who have similar interests and opinions to our own.
But what happens when our conversations are posted online for all to see (or at least those we have 'friended' and followed)?
What does it to political debate and opinion?
Are we more or less likely to say something we know is contrary to our friends or professional colleagues views?
And how does it affect what journalists write?
According to a recent report published by researchers at the Pew Research Centre and Rutgers University, social media may be having a chilling effect on political discourse.
We have known since well before the internet that people avoid speaking up on a political issue in public or among family, friends and work colleagues when they know or suspect their views are not shared by their audience.
The late German political scientist, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, labelled this behaviour the “spiral of silence”.
A more colloquial description would be people don’t want to “rock the boat”.
With the advent of social media there was hope that platforms like Facebook and Twitter would provide forums for people with minority views to feel more comfortable expressing a contrarian view.
This would have the positive effect of broadening public debate and seeding new perspectives to everyday discussion about politics.
The Pew study knocks that dream on its head.
The researchers asked 1,801 adults about their willingness to discuss Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records in various in-person and online settings, and their perceptions of the views of those around them in a variety of online and off-line contexts.
The findings are fascinating:
People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. 86 per cent of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42 per cent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.
Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14 per cent of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3 per cent were willing to post about it on social media.
In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them.
Previous ‘spiral of silence’ findings as to people’s willingness to speak up in various settings also apply to social media users. Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them.
Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view. For instance, the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion as other people.
That last finding raises the question whether journalists who frequent social media are less likely to share opinions face-to-face with colleagues?
What does that mean for the exploration of ideas on the newsroom floor?
How is it affecting how journalists assess information that they feel is contrary to what their social media friends have expressed?
Writing in the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller, observed that internet companies amplify the effects highlighted by the Pew research “by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us”.
One of the Pew authors, Keith N. Hampton, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told Miller: “People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation”.
“People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy,” Prof Hampton said.