Twitter: Shifting the Shape of Political Culture?

The following is an edited and expanded version of a piece I submitted to Mama Mia.

I am one of those strange people who really enjoys election campaigns. My first work experience was with a local newspaper, and although I ultimately headed through high school teaching and into academia instead, there’s a part of me that really just wants to be Annabel Crabb. Social media affords me an opportunity to occasionally publish political comment on a very small scale—tweeting during Q and A on a Monday night, recirculating things on Facebook and Twitter, engaging in polite debate with friends when I do. (I apologise to anyone who actually looks at our Twitter links on this page and expects to find tweets about, you know, shapeshifting. The election campaign has another 4 weeks to run).

And not necessarily like-minded friends, either. After all, if you are all in agreement, you can’t call it debate. Or democracy. If you read this blog, you’ll already know that I’ve done some analysis of the impact of social media controversies on popular culture—notably, how allegations of Stephen Moffat being misogynistic on Doctor Who played out across Twitter. I never really expected to be finding out about misogyny on Twitter firsthand, but this week, that seems to be what happened.

On Tuesday night, I came across the clip of Tony Abbott discussing the attributes of Liberal candidate Fiona Scott in Lindsay. The link to the clip came from @mamamia. For those who don’t know, Mama Mia.com is generally recognised as the go-to place for Australian women’s opinions on, well, just about everything, and has one of the largest Twitter followings in Australia. So kind of a big and influential audience.

I retweeted the link, adding my own comment to the beginning of the tweet: “Oh dear.” That was it.  A response came almost immediately:

@KMcMahonColeman @Mamamia now it is unfashionable to say someone has sex appeal

I replied that I thought it would be smarter politics to discuss competence, rather than looks, when recommending a candidate to locals. I actually believe that should apply to both genders and all jobs. Well, most jobs. I grant that looks might be relevant if you’re a model, for instance. But as an elected political representative? Not so much.  The sexism, in this instance, is implied, because I can’t for the life of me remember anyone ever suggesting we should vote for a male politician because he’s sexy. But I maintain that the standard of thinking about attributes, track records and policies should be applied across the board when deciding for whom to vote, regardless of gender.

But apparently my reply, measured though I thought it was, only incensed my correspondent. He got gender specific, and he got personal:

@KMcMahonColeman @Mamamia he made a throw away jibe and the bitter twisted feminist [sic] are upset how ugly you lot must be inside

OK, so at this point, I’m truly puzzled. It was a throwaway line, yes, and quite frankly, I think that’s pretty much how I responded to it. “Oh dear” is hardly savage or hard-hitting—I didn’t even use the full 140 characters Twitter allows.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that Mr Abbott made a “jibe”; I rather suspect that Mr Abbott meant the comment in a complimentary manner. But still, a minor gaffe, mildly humorous, not the crime of the century and unlikely to derail his election campaign.

I’d characterise the “bitter twisted feminist” thing as a jibe, though. As it happens, I am a feminist, although I did not declare myself to be one to this Tweep. I’m not quite sure why that must necessarily mean I’m bitter, though. Or why my insides might be uglier than anyone else’s.

But here’s the bit I really don’t get: what was this guy trying to achieve? A quick look at his Twitter account showed that he’s pro-Liberal and anti-Labor. A quick look at mine and you’d probably be able to quickly deduce that I’m left-leaning. OK, so we’re probably going to disagree on a number of issues. I’d prefer to do so politely, though. And the Liberal party has been trying for a long time to deal with what has become widely known in popular parlance as “Tony’s women problem.” There’s a well established belief that the Opposition Leader and likely next PM, Mr Abbott, is very conservative when it comes to gender politics, started, in part, by a number of public comments made some years ago. To be fair, a lot of conservative men of a certain age are; and the subset of men raised Catholic, I’d suggest, probably more so. I say this with some confidence, as the daughter of one.

Since the former PM, Julia Gillard, gave her famous misogyny speech in Parliament late last year, countless column inches have been devoted to arguing about the differences between sexism and misogyny. In a world where context is everything, this video went viral with the context excised. Mr Abbott had referred to a male MP as a misogynist after he sent what were evidently supposed to be flirty text messages to another guy likening female genitalia to mussels in brine. The tone of the texts was, in fact, misogynistic. And they were so explicit and demeaning that they could not be shown on the evening news, despite being the lead news story. Mr Abbott, in pointing this out, was not being misogynistic or even sexist. And yet he copped it, based on previous public comments he’d made. Don’t get me wrong, some of the public comments he’s made about women and their capacities absolutely floor me — but I fundamentally don’t “get” why this was the moment to address them.

For the record, the argument put forward by members of the Coalition that “Mr Abbott can’t hate women because he’s surrounded by them,” while completely twee, is probably accurate. It is perfectly plausible for men of older generations to be simultaneously proud and somewhat puzzled by the professional successes of their wives and daughters. A little bit of ingrained sexism because of how you were raised doesn’t necessarily equate to blanket hatred. But that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to point it out, either.

I also think it has to be acknowledged that Mr Abbott has been trying hard to address the issue of his “woman problem.” He’s been more measured in his comments about women since he became Opposition Leader. He’s talked about his wife’s work outside the home and how it contributed to society. But all of this will be for nought if he has supporters like my friend on Twitter, who hurl this kind of vitriol around the Internet. What he published, which essentialised all female dissonant voices as feminist, ugly and bitter, certainly seemed hateful and yes, misogynistic. By including @Mamamia in all of his replies, this keyboard warrior has published his nasty messages to a large, predominantly female, Australian readership on Twitter. Now, the way democracy works is, you need more than 50% of the vote in order to win. So hurling abuse at women who disagree with you is probably not the best strategy when you’re trying to get your guy elected.

At this point, I started to feel sorry for Mr Abbott. I’m sure he and his team would much prefer not to have this guy “helping” their cause in such a manner.  So I alerted him to the conversation:

@TonyAbbottMHR, how do you feel about your warrior [Twitter handle removed] hurling abuse at “bitter” and “ugly” voting feminists like me and @Mamamia? – 13 Aug

There was another instant response, thought not from Mr Abbott:

@KMcMahonColeman @TonyAbbottMHR @Mamamia Give us a break the only thing [sic] ugly are you lousy feminist [sic] screaming about nothing

OK, so apparently now we’re all shrill and vacuous as well.

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We’ve all wondered how political leaders will effectively manage election campaigns with the advent of the 24 hours news cycle and social media playing increasingly large roles. I think we’ve always assumed that it was a matter for the politicians themselves, managing their online personas and the increased vulnerability that comes with increased coverage and comment. But suddenly I find myself wondering instead what they will do about the challenge of managing rogue supporters who may be inadvertently doing their cause more harm than good.


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