In a highly competitive 24/7 news cycle, tapping public outrage has become a powerful tool for attracting readers. But has this made the media too easily manipulated by those in search of infamy?
In the early hours of 18 June, police discovered offensive graffiti scrawled across the ground near the public memorial for Eurydice Dixon, the 22-year-old comedian raped and murdered near the same location in Melbourne's Princes Park just days earlier. This initially appeared to be a straightforward case of senseless vandalism, but ten days later, when the perpetrator was arrested, the bizarre motivations supposedly behind the defacement quickly made headlines.
By the vandal's own admission (his name is deliberately omitted from this report), the offensive graffiti on Dixon's memorial was a way to gain a public platform for his private, rambling beliefs, which ranged from anti-vaxxing to anti-feminist conspiracies. And in the days following his arrest, the media attention was obligingly fever-pitched.
This transaction, between an infamy-seeking antagonist and the media, is not uncommon. A warped yet sophisticated PR-savvy is the key manipulation behind instances of violent social disruption, such as acts of terrorism or public shootings. But this particular case, at Eurydice Dixon's memorial - arguably more benign in its action but no less appalling in its intent - seemed to also draw inspiration from the tried and tested toolbox of right-wing commentary. In particular, the deliberate incitement of outrage to attain celebrity status.
As global politics has become increasingly extreme in its rhetoric, polarised public opinion at both ends of the political spectrum has repeatedly proven what an effective tool such outrage can be, especially when harnessed by those in search of notoriety. It could easily be argued that one begets the other. The same principles that have become the bedrock of the right-aligned press, providing a lucrative living for alt-right rabble-rousers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Katie Hopkins, or closer to home Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, have also inspired the attention-seeking theatrics of the likes of Pauline Hanson, David Leyonhjelm and Barry O'Sullivan. Proudly and publicly, at once the scourge of lefty snowflakes and the darlings of conservative hardliners, not only is it possible to be both pariah and champion simultaneously, this seems to be the strategic ideal.
And this poses a question that continues to resist any convenient resolution: how should the media engage with the actions of individuals whose motivation is to attract as much public scorn (and with it public visibility) as possible?
"You have two conflicting tenets in play, and it's really hard to know which side to come down on. But I think you always have to remember the importance of free speech, free ideas, reporting the truth at all times and acknowledging that the reader has the right to make up their own mind," says Cassidy Knowlton, the former Managing Editor of current affairs and political news site crikey.com.au. "It's risky to assume that if you introduce people to these types of situations, they will immediately become that horrific thing themselves. That's an extremely dim view of humanity and I kind of think you need to have more faith in people than that."
But beyond the ethical pros and cons of reporting on individuals who attempt to highjack the media for exposure, there is another quid pro quo at work, and it's an increasingly dominant force shaping current media trends. In a culture of churn-and-burn journalism, where driving online traffic is the highest commercial priority, so-called "click-hate" can be an easy means of attracting readers in their droves.
With a 24/7 news cycle that consistently leads with articles about volatile geopolitics, tamer clickbait and listicle formats no longer have the same magnetism they once held. As such, an invitation to engage has become replaced by a promise to enrage, with stories that play to the anxieties, suspicions, and oftentimes, the prejudices of the readership.
Telling the reader what they want to hear is not necessarily a controversial editorial policy, and certainly, this doesn't give the majority of reputable news outlets carte blanche to indiscriminately publish #FakeNews. But the low barrier to entry for setting up news sites online has seen an influx of new outlets unhindered by traditional editorial best practice.
This has sparked an explosion of misinformation and opinion dressed as news in the online space. This, in turn, has created a complex ecology of content, by turns provocative and reactive, as click-hate disseminated by websites seeking barnstorming numbers of readers are rebuked, debunked, re-asserted or embellished, increasing its reach even further.
It's perhaps this that media consumers should be most concerned about. A massive new study, released earlier this year, investigated the way misinformation spreads over social media, analysing every major contested news story in English across the entire duration of Twitter's existence - a whopping 126,000 stories, tweeted by more than 3 million users over more than a decade. The findings showed that reports based on hard facts and demonstrable truths had nowhere near the same viral potential as those citing rumour and hoax as news. This conclusion was concerning enough for a think-tank of 16 political scientists, publishing their conclusions in the journal Science, to call for a "redesign of our information ecosystem for the 21st-century… to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies it has revealed."
But other than totally dismantling the internet - and pretty much the very fabric of our digitally dependent society with it - what other strategies can be employed to protect the fidelity of news media and the public's access to reliable facts?
One option, as was employed by Fairfax Media during the Same Sex Marriage debate in 2017, is to offer both sides of politically charged arguments equal exposure. However, this is innately problematic as it suggests, or perhaps even insists moral equivalency, which in the case of the SSM Survey was at best impossible to quantify and at worst borderline offensive. Another potential solution is to declare political allegiances openly, as 500 major titles did with their endorsements of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 US Presidential election - in stark contrast to the mere 28 that barracked for Donald Trump. Unfortunately, as two chaotic years of Trump's brouhaha Presidency (so far) reminds us, partisan clarity does not necessarily equate meaningful influence.
One of the major hurdles is an innately problematic trait of modern media consumption: the power of social media to make stories viral, although Facebook has introduced certain measures in recent months to curtail the dissemination of certain types of content that could be perceived as damaging. But this is a very small gesture against a vast and globally reaching media maelstrom. For now at least, the current paradigm of outrage culture and click-hate sensationalism may be here to stay. However, as Knowlton observes, it may be the lesser of several evils.
"A good analogy is terrorism. It only exists if there's a medium, because the point of terrorism is to frighten people into a certain set of behaviours, and that only works if those people know about it. If you set off a bomb in a shopping mall and nobody knows that you did it, then no one knows your ideology either. The only way that terrorism works is in a culture of mass media, and figures like Milo [Yiannopoulos] operate in a similar way - if he's talking to his friends, to the people who already share his values, then what he says makes no difference, it won't change anyone's behaviour. This is why mass media is a perfect vehicle for him. Where I really struggle is when you try and imagine the antithesis of that, which essentially is mass censorship. And to be honest, that's probably not a world I want to live in."
First published 2 August 2018, for The Music.