Beware the social media soundbite
If the volume of commentary is a useful guide, more Australians are interested in a tweet that federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming published on Monday night than what it was about. Dr Laming, a Queenslander who is the opposition's indigenous health spokesman, was referring to violent clashes that broke out between Aboriginal and Pacific Islander families in Logan, a city in Brisbane's southern hinterland. The MP, a relatively keen social-media user, wrote: ''Mobs tearing up Logan tonight. Did any of them do a day's work today, or was it business as usual and welfare on tap?''
The reaction he stirred is a sign of how social media is changing modern politics. Since the rioting began, both social media, such as Twitter, and traditional media have published far more comments and reports on Dr Laming's controversial tweet than on the clashes themselves.
The tweet did, of course, warrant attention - and Dr Laming no doubt wanted it to reach as many voters as possible. A fellow Queenslander, Labor Trade Minister Craig Emerson, described it as ''disgraceful and callous'', tweeting in reply: ''Inflaming a tense situation for political gain is appalling.'' Yet somewhat lost amid the ensuing debate were the riots themselves. What caused them? For how long have tensions gathered between these groups in what is one of Australia's most multicultural regions?
Social media bring clear benefits for voters, allowing them to communicate with politicians directly, and vice versa, without the filter of traditional news media. This can give those parts of the public who are interested much greater insight into the people who represent them. Yet this positive has its downside, too. Media such as Twitter and Facebook can magnify a single, incidental comment into an all-encompassing public debate. We can easily make the mistake of obsessing over fragments of discussion, rather than the policy ideas that created the discussion.
Press gallery journalism has suffered much the same criticism over the years, at times with good reason. Earlier this month, for example, federal Families Minister Jenny Macklin's off-the-cuff response to a journalist, in which she said she could live on the $35-a-day dole, became a bigger story than the government's changes to welfare payments. The recent US presidential election showed us the consequences of such a mindset. The candidates so feared making a gaffe that neither gave a ''no holds barred'' media conference until late in the campaign.
We do not wish for a world in which public figures can deny responsibility for their comments. Indeed, one of our crucial roles, as a newspaper, is to scrutinise what they say and hold them to account for their words. However, we all have a responsibility - media organisations and individual voters - to sift the grain from the chaff, and to pay attention to what matters: the ideas that shape our society, rather than throwaway lines, gaffes and dog whistles.