Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Danyl on social media and the attention economy

The journalist Auberon Waugh often wrote dismissively of “the chattering class”: the upper middle-class cliques of journalists, academics, artists, intellectuals and activists (Thomas Piketty refers to it as “The Brahmin Left”, reflecting its 21st century transformation into a priestly caste primarily concerned with moral transgressions). They form the leadership and core constituency of leftwing political parties, and they still attempt to play a gatekeeper role around political debate. But instead of policing the window of debate – pretending to impartial objectivity while excluding what it feels should or cannot be said – it amplifies messages it believes lie outside the bounds of acceptability. The ruthless logic of the Attention Economy rules progressive online and media spaces; everyone competes for attention by demonstrating their moral and intellectual superiority, so any and every public statement that breaches progressive taboos or activates this class’s (very acute) sense of threat can easily earn massive media coverage.

The incentive structure here is terrible. The worst ideas and most deceitful statements are often the most amplified and therefore the most successful. The sustained moral panic about “fake news” (but only on the right), incentivises the manufacture of fake news. We can see this mechanism at work in almost everything the National Party has done this year: their policy work on criminal justice was a rather dry discussion document on how the party’s “social investment” model can apply to this sector, but it was launched with the announcement that “Strike Force Raptor”, would crack down on gangs, which are currently expanding due to Australia’s criminal deportation policy. This prompted the expected response from progressive commentators: that gangs aren’t a criminal problem, but rather a deeply fascinating and complicated epiphenomenon of colonialism and capitalism, a suite of arguments that sound deranged to most of the population who aren’t fortunate enough to reside in the leafy university-proximate suburbs that enjoy the lowest crime rates in the country.

This week’s National Party transport policy announcement is also pretty dry stuff: integrated ticketing; fuel efficiency; urban transport authorities. But the headline announcement was a plan to fine cyclists – cycling being a sacred activity among progressive elites – and this provoked the absolutely predictable response and led the web pages of all the media outlets. National has also taken to producing highly dubious graphs with deliberate errors like disproportionate bar widths, that it releases on Twitter – the heartland of progressive moral panic and intellectual contempt – that its opponents then compete against each other to amplify. Naturally these graphs don’t feature in its policy documents or press releases.
I was expecting a lot of bicycle-twitter outrage about the piece, but there's no evidence of it as yet. Wonder if they've not noticed it, or have properly appreciated it.

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