I remember when we crossed the Simpson Desert back in 2014 how wonderful it was not to hear anything about politics for days at a time, and then turn on the TV news in Birdsville to have Tony Abbott talking to camera. He looked like a plastic man, and it was hard to re-establish that what he had to say may have consequences for our lives.
I think Tony Abbott has made a significant contribution to degrading the tone and content of political speech in Australia.
In the US people have spoken of the “Trump effect” – a shift in norms since Donald Trump entered politics. Now Rishab Nithyanand at Data & Society, a research institute in New York, and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts have undertaken a study to see whether discourse has actually worsened.
Their results are reported in the New Scientist Politics chat on Reddit reads like it was written by 6-year-olds (pay-walled), an earlier article in Vox by the authors As politicians become less civil, so does the internet and their published paper Online Political Discourse in the Trump Era.
The titles of the first two reflect some of the main findings.
The authors decided to use Reddit for several reasons. Firstly, there is a database that goes back to 2005, or 2007 in the case of the politics category. Secondly, unlike Twitter, it allows extended writing. Third, unlike Facebook, writers and commenters do not have to be identify themselves, so can say what the really think without fear of their reputations. Fourth, editing is democratised, so there is no Reddit house policy on what goes. Finally, it is much used, the whole database contains a total of 3.5 billion comments from 25.3 million authors made on 398 million posts. They analysed 30 million comments in 3 million posts in the political category.
To do this they developed an algorithm which they verified manually on a sample.
Probably they most stunning conclusion is that between 2007 and 2017 the linguistic complexity of the online writing fell from on average seventh grade (age 12) to around first grade (age six). For complexity they used the Flesch-Kincaid readability grade-level as a metric.
One of the reasons for this seems that new groups are now joining the fray. Fringe groups and extremists have now infiltrated mainstream political discourse in the real world. And some of the comments now come from bots.
They differentiated between Democratic, Libertarian, and Republican comments:
- We find several interesting long-term trends – until 2015 the comments on Democratic subreddits were on average 23% and 15% more likely to be offensive than comments on Republican and Libertarian subreddits, respectively. However, since 2015, comments on Republican subreddits were on average 46% and 7% more offensive than Democratic and Libertarian subreddits.
- We see a large spike in the incidence of offensive comments starting from Donald Trump’s candidacy announcement in June 2015 (5.1% of comments and 12% of authors) to Trump’s victory of the Republican nomination in May 2016 (12.8% of comments and 35% of authors). Further, in spite of a drop in incidence of offensiveness in comments to 11.6% after the elections, the fraction of offensive comment authors has continued to grow to 38% as of May 2017.
So the behaviour of political leaders does have an effect. However, commenting is an act of volition on the part of the commenter, so they have to take responsibility. Partisanship has increased and Americans are displaying how angry they are becoming.
I’m not aware of similar studies in the Australian context, but you don’t have to look far to find politicians who debase political discourse. It is usual on the ABC to blame “both sides”, but the difference was starkly on display on RN Drive on 6 December when Patricia Karvelas first interviewed Tony Burke, and then Barnaby Joyce.
Burke was calm, rational and logical. Joyce let fly with a mindless rant, marking his return to politics after being sent to the naughty corner for being a dual citizen.
If you want to see someone really mess it up, try Malcolm Turnbull on Q&A. In general he was condescending and patronising, but met his match when he locked horns with Teela Reid, I understand an Aboriginal lawyer who was part of the Uluru dialogue process. In the end she cut him off at the knees.
Part of the reason Ken Wyatt and Linda Burney cannot represent Aboriginal people generally is that they are members of political parties, as well as representing electorates.
There’s more about the whole episode by Charis Ghang at news.com.au.
I liked the tweet along the lines “Typical ABC, stacking the audience with intelligent people!”
In part Turnbull was the lawyer with a brief of defending the indefensible after, for example cabinet had summarily dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart without detailed consideration or discussion with its authors, presumably because Barnaby Joyce didn’t like it.
I think Tony Abbott did much to lower the tone of political discourse in a consistent and general sense, although there may be a structural cause in the two-party system, where all discourse tends to become related to winning politically. It will be interesting to see with Nick Xenophon presumably holding the balance of power in the South Australian election whether parliament there becomes a genuine deliberative chamber addressing issues on their merits.