(First published in The Dominion Post, August 5.)
EVERYONE agrees this has been the ugliest, most vicious election campaign period in memory.The previous benchmark was set in 1975, when the Citizens for Rowling campaign foolishly lit Robert Muldoon’s fuse. But the past few weeks have been even more ill-tempered than Muldoon at his most belligerent.
What’s different this time? Well, there’s Kim Dotcom, for starters. The big German’s motive for entering politics was wholly negative: he wants to get rid of John Key. It may be the first time in New Zealand history that a party has been founded on the basis of a personal grudge.Dotcom likes to play the amiable prankster, but the “F--- John Key” video was an attempt to legitimise mindless abuse as a political tactic – something not seen here before.
Then of course there was the cleverly timed launch of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics – a limpet mine attached to the hull of National’s supposedly unsinkable dreadnought.But underlying all this is a bigger incendiary influence: the role of social media.
Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere have played a large hand in dictating the tone of this election. Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil is just the tip of a large and dirty iceberg.Much of the political commentary in online forums, both on the Left and Right, is extraordinarily toxic and abusive.
Mercifully, much of it fails to penetrate the mainstream. And to their credit, most politicians try to stay above it.But among activists on both sides of politics, overheated online forums have created an atmosphere of rage and bigotry that has reshaped political dialogue. You can sense this baneful influence filtering through into media coverage, which is more intense and aggressive than ever before.
How could this happen in a country with a deserved reputation for being civilised, liberal and tolerant?A couple of factors come to mind. The first is that the Internet enables instantaneous comment. Someone feeling a rush of anger can be on Facebook or Twitter within seconds.
In a previous era, if you wanted to comment on politics, you wrote a letter to the paper. That allowed time for sober reflection – a cooling-down period.Then there’s the fact that in online forums, the person you’re attacking is unseen. You’ve probably never met. In such circumstances it’s all too easy to demonise your imagined enemies.
Online, you’re safely distanced from those you’re attacking and feel less compunction about putting the boot in. I’ve succumbed to this depersonalising effect myself and know how easily it can happen.And politics has become intensely tribal. Each political blog, whether it’s Whale Oil on the Right or The Daily Blog on the Left, has its own tribe. They are united in hatred against the other tribe. There are even factions within tribes that hate each other.
Any member of the Left-wing tribe foolhardy enough to stray into the Right-wing tribe’s territory, or vice-versa, will be eviscerated.How did we arrive at this point? At the risk of being ridiculed for romanticising the past, I believe it has come about partly as a result of the decline of the traditional news media.
The old-style newspaper was a “broad church”, presenting a wide range of information and comment from which readers were able to form their own conclusions. But the digital revolution has given politically minded people an alternative.They now tend to gravitate to the online forum that represents their tribe. They show no interest in hearing what the other side thinks, still less considering whether an opposing view might have some merit.
The newspaper was also the traditional forum for political debate via its correspondence columns. Good newspapers took the trouble to ensure a broad spectrum of opinion was published, and still do.Crucially, letters were subject to an editing process which filtered out abusive and defamatory comment. And just as important, anonymity was prohibited. The price of being able to comment publically was that you had to identify yourself. No such constraints apply online, where anonymity emboldens cowards.
Champions of the Internet applaud the fact that public comment is no longer controlled by gatekeepers in the mainstream media, and they’re right, up to a point. But the gatekeepers were a civilising influence whose absence from social media we may come to regret.